Tag: Airport

Posts that provide tips, tricks or insights relating to airports that Ben & Linda have visited.

Twas the night before Heathrow

Because we will not be returning by the way we departed, this trip is a little different to normal. We’re flying out to New York from Heathrow to pick up our ship, Sky Princess, then sailing back to Southampton via the Eastern Seaboard. This means that we can’t park at the airport like we would normally.

Instead, we catch the National Express coach from Marks Tey (via Stansted). The journey is relatively straightforward, but there are a few things to note:

  • Tickets are cheap. Like really cheap. Much cheaper than parking at Heathrow for a week.
  • The coach stop at Marks Tey is not marked as such. Check for the location on the National Express website first which has a handy, precise map display for every stop on their network.
  • The coach has free WiFi on board. It is rubbish.
  • Journey time is slightly longer than driving yourself, but the coach stops right at the terminals in Heathrow. For us, we thought that was a decent trade-off.
  • You can earn all-important Avios points by booking through the BA Executive shopping site.

When travelling from Heathrow on an early flight, we typically stay at a local hotel the night before. This makes choosing a hotel somewhat tricky because you have to park somewhere overnight, and then find a way to get to the terminal in the morning. We avoid taxis because they are ridiculously expensive for a 5 minute ride to the airport. 

So far we have found four ways to reach Heathrow, each with their own complications.

  1. Choose a hotel on Bath Road
    This involves catching the “Heathrow Hoppa” bus from the terminal to the hotel. Reverse the process next day. Problem? The Hoppa may not start early enough in the morning to get you to the airport on time.
  2. Book parking with Purple Parking
    The long stay Purple Parking carpark is within easy walking distance of some of the Bath Road hotels, most notably the Premier Inn. Park up the night before and walk to your hotel. In the morning, walk back to the carpark and catch the free shuttle bus to your terminal. Problem? It can take quite a while to get to and from the terminals.
  3. Book official parking
    Similar to above, park the previous day and catch the included shuttle bus to your terminal. Problem? Your choice of hotels is limited to those within easy walking distance of the actual terminals. This includes Yotel and Hilton Garden Inn (Terminal 2 and 3), Sofitel (Terminal 5) and Holiday Inn Express (Terminal 4) – all of which tend to be quite expensive because of their location. The runway view from the Hilton Garden Inn bar is amazing though, so…
  4. Stay at the Thistle Hotel
    Heathrow has an unusual driverless transport system that runs to one of their ‘business class’ carparks. The Thistle Hotel Terminal 5 is located behind said carpark and they have an agreement with Heathrow to allow their guests to use the pods to get there. Problem? You need a code to get through the gate between car park and hotel – which will cost you £6 per person each way.

We decided to try option 4 this time for three reasons. First, the pods look like fun. Second, we were able to pick up a room at the Thistle for just £54 on booking.com, allowing you to earn Avios on the stay using BA Executive Club. Third, this seems to be a really hassle-free ending to our journey.


Top tip: You can ride the pods at Heathrow for free – just press the button to return to the terminal when you reach the end of the line.


Once at Heathrow, we make our way to Level 2 and the Pod Parking station. These self-driving pods are quite good fun and take just five minutes to reach the car park. The gate into the Thistle Hotel is easy to find and we are buzzed through by reception. It’s a bit of a walk with our suitcases to the front desk, but once there we are checked in in a matter of minutes. As an added bonus we are not charged for the inbound journey on the Pod.


Top tip: The Pods are not an option for guests at other nearby hotels like the Premier Inn. This is an exclusive agreement with Heathrow so Thistle staff will not sell gate access to non-guests.


We’re assigned room 173 on the first floor which is a bit of a pain when travelling with three suitcases. It’s quite a walk from reception and involves a few flights of stairs (there is no lift in that part of the building). However, the room does have a runway view which is brilliant. We’ve stayed in a ground floor room at the back of the Thistle before and it was very tired. This room is a bit knocked about, but the bathroom is nicer this time.

Later we head into the restaurant to watch the planes, consume some beers and have some dinner. Beers are ~£7 a pint. Expect to spend approx £15 on a main course. Lin says her steak and ale pie is good and I enjoy my bangers and mash which makes the bill a little more palatable.

Afterwards we head across the road to McDonalds for dessert. It’s busy but very, very efficient. It’s also much cheaper (and just as enjoyable) as dessert at the hotel restaurant.

That’s pretty much it. Next stop, New York.

Slow Heathrow

We’re up at 5:30am to make the short trek back to Heathrow. Although the bathroom in the Thistle is quite well maintained, the shower is rubbish which is not the best start to the day.

At checkout I’m charged the full £12 for our Pod fare which is fair enough seeing as were got the inbound trip for free. The Pod station is deserted and we make it to the check-in desks less than 10 minutes after leaving the hotel. Nice.

Having reached Executive Club Silver status as frequent flyers with British Airways we get Fast Track security access. There is one man in front of us at the scanners and the process is astonishingly quick. 

Once through it’s on to the South Galleries Lounge to grab a snack and a drink. Another perk of Executive Club Silver status – we could get used to this. It also comes in handy when our flight is delayed. Our 9:35am departure has become an 11am departure. Definitely not cool.

Equally uncool is the boarding process. At the last minute the gate staff decide to abandon the boarding groups and allow an Easyjet-style free-for-all. Thankfully we are near the front and manage to avoid the worst of the elbowing behind us.

We’ve chosen seats 52 J and K which are located right at the back of the Boeing 777 we are flying on. Although it’s a long way to the back, we like this section because there are only two seats – which means there’s no Billy Nomates weirdo to fight for elbow space with. Some people do complain about being close to the toilets and the galley, but this wasn’t a problem for us. Being able to choose our own seats in advance at no additional charge is an important benefit of Executive Club Silver status.


Top Tip: Sitting at the back of the 777 ensures you won’t sit next to a stranger (unless you are travelling alone). However, there is a risk that the more popular food choices run out before the steward reaches you. 


The flight is uneventful – which is always a good thing. Lunch is chicken chausseur which could have been great – but it was ruined with mushrooms. Afternoon snack is a chicken or vegetable pastry. Unless you sit in the back row where they run out of chicken so you have to have the vegetable. Not having to fight with a stranger’s elbows beats chicken pastry for me though (it probably had mushrooms in it anyway).


Top tip: Linda wanted to use her AirPods Max on the plane to watch movies on the in flight entertainment (IFE) system. However, the lightning port on the headphones is incompatible with the dual audio jack setup on aeroplanes. The solution? A cheap Bluetooth adapter that plugs into the IFE socket and streams audio wirelessly to the headphones. Pairing the devices tales a bit of patience, but the device does work eventually.

Kingdom Bluetooth transmitter

Simply plug this unit into the headphone ports in your seat and enjoy wireless audio streaming to your Apple AirPod Max or AirPod Pro devices.
It can also be used with the newer, single port seats like those found on BA’s A380.


Once at JFK there is an hour-long queue to clear immigration (bloody Brexit) and then it’s on to the Airtrain heading towards Howard Beach. At the subway station we get in a faff trying to buy Metrocards, but finally we manage to get a ticket and reach the platform just after the Manhattan-bound subway leaves. We “enjoy” a 20 minute sit in the cold and damp waiting for the next one.

Eventually we get on the train and make it into the city, disembarking at Fulton Street. A very wet nine-minute walk gets us to our hotel for the night – the Wall Street Inn. The hotel is a little dated, but the location is perfect for our transfer to the ship tomorrow. 

We’re assigned a sizeable corner room on the sixth floor which has windows in two walls. This is great but… like most of New York, the hotel is surrounded by scaffolding – so there isn’t much of a view to enjoy. The bed is comfy and the bathroom is adequate however, so we’re both happy.


Top tip: I managed to book a corner room at The Wall Street Inn for ~£140 through booking.com. This is considerably cheaper than booking direct – and it may have been a mistake rate. It is worth checking and refreshing search results periodically as you may occasionally find a gem like this. And as always, you can earn Avios points by visiting booking.com or ebookers through the BA Executive Club shopping portal.


As the jet lag begins to kick in we head over to the World Trade Center district to try Chick-fil-A. It’s pretty good. Then back to the hotel for an early evening.

Tomorrow – we board the Sky Princess at the Red Hook Cruise Terminal.

Ponta Del-Nada

This morning we were awoken at 6:30am by an announcement over the cabin PA system. Due to a Portugal-wide strike by maritime harbour pilots we will not be stopping in Ponta Delgada today after all. Which is quite annoying because we are right outside the port, the city clearly visible just a few hundred metres away. But apparently it is illegal to dock without a local pilot on board, so…

Humiliatingly, a jet passes overhead coming in to land at Ponta Delgada, mocking us as we pull away from the island.

…so instead we have an unexpected sea day. Which we will spend doing absolutely nothing. This gives me an opportunity to comment on the most unlikely travel news story of the day.

Luton Airport is the Best UK Airport

According to a report out today, Condé Nast Traveller magazine readers have voted London Luton Airport as the UK’s best.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Surely this has to be a joke. In our experience, Luton has to be one of the worst airports in the world. It’s probably even worse than Stansted – and that’s saying something.

This raises two questions. First, what is wrong with Condé Nast readers? I thought this was a well-respected top-tier travel journal.

Second, have any of these readers actually been to Luton? The fact that London City, the UK’s fastest and most efficient airport, was voted into second place confirms that this poll must be some kind of prank.


Top tip: London Luton Airport is 35 miles – and 90 minutes drive – from central London. Which is even further out than Gatwick. Skip Luton if at all possible, it’s a dump.


Florida Everglades Tour

Part of our cruise deal included some onboard credit – so we traded it in for a Florida Everglades tour. $79 (each) buys an airboat tour and a visit to Flamingo Gardens. Equally important is that the Everglades tour ends at Miami Airport – from where we will be flying home tomorrow night.

Unfortunately this means getting up at 5:45am to ensure we can finish packing and have some breakfast before meeting our tour group at 8am in the Princess Theatre. Leaving Sky Princess is relatively smooth and the Port Everglades terminal works well – until we walk out the door.

Outside is chaos, with people trying to board buses, hail cabs, call an Uber or collect their own cars. Even the process of finding and boarding our tour bus is a complete disaster. It is no small relief when we finally take our seats on the air conditioned coach and pull away from the port.


Top tip: You can pick up a transfer bus from the Port Everglades cruise terminal to Ft Lauderdale Hollywood Airport for $11.50 per person or Miami International Airport for $25pp. You don’t need to book in advance, but the queues are extremely long and chaotic.


Juan, our tour guide, provides a running commentary about Florida, majoring on the invasive and non-native flora and fauna that can be found in the state. Meanwhile Herman, our driver, does multiple loops and double-backs which is a little bit weird. I think Juan was supposed to be telling us about various Fort Lauderdale sights as we drove past – but he was in his flow talking about Florida generalities.

Juan does tell us that the Everglades are not a swamp – they are a river.

Best airboat tour?

After driving around for a while, our coach pulls into the Everglades Holiday Park. Juan instructs us to hang around the shop/cafe/toilet building until our group is called. The area is swarming with cruise guests – unsurprising as I counted five ships in port today.

After a long wait we are ushered onto an airboat by an enthusiastic ‘Captain Dillon’ who insists that the quality of his Everglades tour is directly proportional to the enthusiasm of his guests. I hope for his sake the boat doesn’t contain too many Brits.

Captain Dillon also claims that driving boats on the Everglades is dangerous, so he needs a co-captain just in case something happens to him. For some reason I am nominated Captain Ben, allowing Captain Dillon to pepper his talk with jokes about his co-captain.

Two enormous Cadillac engines power a pair of large propellers mounted at the back of the boat, pushing it along the surface of the water at great speed. Captain Dillon delivers a running commentary about the wildlife of the Everglades and how the canals came to be built. He punctuates each of his points with a loud rev of the engine.

We do two ridiculously fast runs along the canals and several slow pirouettes in between, hoping to see some ‘gators’. In the end, all we see is a buzzard and a heron. The fresh, cool breeze as we speed along is pleasant though.

Was this the best airboat tour in Florida? We didn’t see any alligators, so that was hugely disappointing. At least Captain Dillon was amusing. ‘If you enjoyed the tour, remember me, Captain Dillon,’ he ends, ‘And if you didn’t my name is Captain Ben.

Back on dock, Juan hurries us back to the bus. Apparently we are running behind schedule and two of our fellow guests have to be at the airport by 2pm.

Where is the Florida bear?

A short drive takes us to Flamingo Gardens, a not-for-profit mini-zoo. we have less than an hour before we have to leave, but the park is quite small and we have enough time to look at all of the animals twice.

At least we do get to see two alligators.

There are also several huge iguanas wandering around the park which is pretty cool too.

Then there’s a giant African spurred tortoise who lets us stroke his head.

And some otters that want to show off in their glass-fronted tank.

And a peacock who wants to follow us around the park.

And a talking crow that yells ‘hello’ until you try to video him.

The only disappointment is the Brown Bear who is sulking in his house so we don’t get to see him.

As we re-board the coach, two ladies are handing out ice cream sandwiches which is a really nice touch.

Miami Airport Transfer and a Shoddy Sheraton

At the end of our Florida Everglades tour, Juan and Herman drop us at Miami International Airport, pointing us in the direction of the local hotel shuttles. After a short wait, we spot the Sheraton shuttle and clamber aboard. The driver collects a few more passengers from the other airport terminal and then drives us over to the Sheraton Miami Airport.


Top tip: Many of the local hotels provide free shuttle buses – just wait at the bus stop outside your terminal until you see one for your hotel. You will of course be expected to tip your driver.


At ~£160 GBP per night, this hotel is not cheap, particularly as breakfast is not included. It’s also not particularly good value – I would say the quality is somewhere between a Travelodge and a Premier Inn. The room is big, but quite basic, bar the provision of USB charging points everywhere. The furniture feels a little dated and tired and the double-glazed window unit has blown, so we don’t have a good view out the window which is a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing because the rolling green fields of the golf course at the rear of the property have been ripped up in the last few weeks so David Beckham can build a new stadium/hotel complex for Inter Miami FC. A curse because jumbo jets and A380s keep flying low above our room – and we can’t see them clearly.

There is one main reason I chose the Sheraton – it’s just across the road from the Miami Airport metro station. This means it should be easy to get into downtown Miami tomorrow when we go out to explore. We also have the option of catching the MIA Mover train to the airport tomorrow if there are any problems with the hotel shuttle.


Top tip: All public transport in central Miami is free of charge until December 31st 2023. Read more here.


Rather than try the Sheraton’s in-house restaurant, we take a gamble on GrubHub and order a KFC delivery. We end up with a sharing meal for two that includes four pieces of chicken, four dips, a pile of crispy fries, some chicken bits and four ‘biscuits’. Or as we Brits call them, scones. Despite my cynicism (chicken and scones?!) they are very tasty and I would definitely eat them again.

Tomorrow we will visit the local Hard Rock Café and probably try and find a Bath & Bodyworks while we’re at it.

Miami Bayside

There’s only really one item on our to do list – the Hard Rock Café at Miami Bayside. In fact, back when we first planned this trip, the only reason for staying an extra day in Miami was to visit the HRC.

This gives us the opportunity to waste the morning, watching Tottenham lose to Aston Villa on TV before we have to check out of the Sheraton at 11am. Down in reception, we leave our suitcases with the concierge, promising to collect them this evening.

Outside, the heat hits us like a wall. Thankfully it is only a short walk to the metro station, although we have to take a couple of elevators to get to the platform.


Top tip: Don’t forget – all public transport in Miami is free until December 31st 2023


When we arrive on the platform, there is a train already waiting, so Linda launches her scooter through the nearest door just in case it is about to leave. It isn’t. Shortly after the journey begins, our driver informs us that the trip will terminate at the next station. So we disembark at Earlington Heights and wait for a ‘Green’ line train to take us the rest of the way into the city.


Top tip: The gap between platform and Miami Metro train door looks large but Linda found in most cases it can be crossed on the scooter – with a decent run-up.


At Historic Overtown/Lyric Theatre we navigate another couple of lifts back to street level. Then it’s a half mile walk/scoot east towards the sea. The buildings here are tall and uninspiring. There is also quite a few roadworks and diversions to navigate on the way.

Crossing several roads and navigating the traffic jam caused by the five cruise ships docked in the Port of Miami, we finally make it to Miami Bayside. It is extremely touristy, packed with people trying to look like they are having a good time. There’s plenty of restaurants and bars, along with a few different stores (clothing, cosmetics, shoes, cigars, souvenirs etc). After messing around with lifts, we finally make it to the upper level and drop into the Bath & Bodyworks store. Linda succumbs to the hand soap again and buys five – at least our bathroom will smell good for a while.

We then trundle down to the Miami Hard Rock Café on the other side of Miami Bayside which involves more lifts, but eventually we are seated at a table. The service is fast and attentive, although I swear these are the smallest burgers we’ve had at any HRC in the world. What happened to the legend about super-sized portion sizes in the USA? Linda is quite excited to see the Electric Blue cocktail back on the menu – it seems to have disappeared from all the European restaurants. I enjoy my vanilla milkshake for dessert.

In the gift shop Linda gets the ubiquitous pin badge – and a Christmas tree decoration. For some reason everything in store is 20% off – just don’t forget to add tax to the ticket price when trying to figure out how much something really costs.


Top tip: At the time of writing, the sales tax rate in Florida is 7%. So don’t forget to add an additional 7% to any prices advertised on goods for sale at Miami Bayside.


We dither for a while, trying to find something else to do. We still have a few hours before we have to collect our luggage from the Sheraton and go to the airport. Finding nothing however, we meander slowly back to the metro and return to the hotel to sit in the air conditioned lobby for a while.

At this point, the first major snag of the day occurs – I have lost the ticket for luggage collection. It takes some negotiating (and a $5 bill) to convince the concierges that the specified suitcases are ours.


Top tip: Snap a pic of your luggage receipt on your phone – that way you have always have a copy, even if you lose the paper slip.


The hotel shuttle drops us right back where our Miami adventure began and I manhandle three suitcases into the terminal. At check-in we go through an extensive bureaucratic process to get Linda’s scooter on board. There’s questions about the battery type, its Watt/Hour rating, whether it can be removed, where it will be dropped off and collected etc etc. The check-in team are very friendly, but everything seems to take forever.

When we finally offload our cases, we’re directed to the American Airlines Flagship Lounge which Linda’s BA Executive Club Silver status grants us access to. But before that we must first navigate TSA security.

I have heard legends about how bad TSA is – and most seem to be true. The process is slow and inefficient, making Stansted look half capable. Here are my complaints:

  • The trays that pass through the x-ray scanner are too damn small – we needed five and that still didn’t fit all of our stuff
  • You have to take your shoes off and then do a full body scan
  • You can leave your liquids in your bag, but you have to remove your laptops and iPads
  • Even with my pockets emptied and belt removed, the TSA agent still felt the need to give me a quick grope

I guess my biggest complain is the arbitrary nature of these rules – they just don’t make any sense. This is especially true when you consider that they are not applied consistently across the world.


Top tip: You can leave your liquids in your bag when passing through Miami Airport security. Just make sure they still fit in your miniature plastic bag.


It’s a bit of a trek to the American Airlines lounge (find it opposite gate E30), but there are plenty of seats when we get there. The buffet choices are very limited though. Linda has a chocolate mousse of some kind while I have a little Temari & Honey Glazed Mahi with rice. It’s ok. On the plus side, they serve Piper Heidseck champagne which is a nice touch.

We leave the lounge in Zone D and trundle across to Gate 25 in Zone E where our British Airways A380 is waiting. There is even more confusion about mobility scooters and where they should be dropped, whether passengers should be pushed up the boarding ramp in wheelchairs or if they should walk, whether batteries have been disconnected blah blah blah. In the end, Linda rides her scooter to the door of the plane and we dump it for the ground crew to load into the hold.


Top tip: Leave plenty of time to make the trip between the AA lounge and the E gates (where BA flights depart from). There’s a bit of a walk and a train ride to get there.


We’re on the top deck of the plane, right at the back – similar to the seats we regularly choose on BA’s 777 fleet. This is our first time on an A380 and I’ve always wanted to fly one of these unfeasibly large beasts.

How to reduce airport stress (when travelling) – 3 top tips

How to reduce stress when travelling? It’s an important question. Travel should be fun, inspiring, exciting and, to some degree, relaxing.

But for many people, including Linda, the airport is an incredibly stressful place.

So it was quite interesting to see Condé Nast Traveller publish a top 10 list of ‘Least Stressful Airports in Europe’. More interesting still is what their choices tell us about choosing less stressful destinations. Here are three factors which could help to reduce airport stress and anxiety:

1. How to reduce stress – Choose your destination

The first observation is choice of destination. Eight out of ten airports listed could be considered ‘regional’; they do not serve a capital city. So if you want a less stressful airport experience, don’t visit a capital.

Unless…

2. Reducing travel stress – Choose a “small” country

The two capital cities which do make the ‘least stressful’ list are both situated in relatively small countries – Luxembourg and Lithuania. They boast small populations and geographical footprints – so think small for your next stress-free trip.

3. Stress-free airports – Choose unpopular

None of the ten airports listed serves more than 4.4 million passengers each year. Compare this to Luton Airport, London’s third, which had 13.3 million in 2022…

It seems that those airports which don’t have to handle tens of thousands of passengers every day tend to be more relaxed. Who would have thought it?


Are these three tips guaranteed to help reduce stress? Sadly not. We have visited plenty of smaller, unpopular, regional airports over the years with mixed results. Gdansk and Wrocław (Poland) and Karlsruhe-Baden (Germany) have all been excellent. Tuzla (Bosnia) was chaotic and quaint, queuing out onto the tarmac to go through immigration. Munich (Germany) is a total disaster and should be avoided by even the most laid back travellers.

And if you’re interested, the Top 10 Least Stressful Airports in Europe as identified by StressFreeCarRental.com and Condé Nast Traveller are:

  1. Billund Airport, Denmark
  2. Luxembourg Airport, Luxembourg
  3. Vilnius International Airport, Lithuania
  4. Menorca Airport, Spain
  5. Hannover Airport, Germany
  6. Newcastle Airport, UK
  7. Corfu International Airport, Greece
  8. Trondheim Airport, Norway
  9. Turin Airport, Italy
  10. Cagliari Elmas Airport, Italy

I should point out that we have visited none of these airports, so cannot personally verify whether they really are stress-free or not. It’s perhaps also worth noting that Ryanair fly to eight of the ten listed, so airline choice may have less to do with airport stress than people think.

What is the nearest airport for Sunny Beach?

Which is the nearest airport for Sunny Beach? It’s a common question asked by visitors to the Journey into Darkness blog.

TLDR; it’s Burgas.

Also known as Slynchev Bryag, Sunny Beach is a Magaluf-like resort on the Black Sea in Bulgaria. It is a popular destination for bargain hunters who want to enjoy nice, warm weather without the negative connotations of the Balearics or Costa Brava.

And because Bulgaria has retained the Lev, your holiday money goes a lot further than in other Eurozone destinations.


Top tip: You can read our multi-day review of Sunny Beach and surrounding areas here.


Most package holidays include transfers to Sunny Beach from the airport. But if you’re arranging a budget break, you may have to make your own arrangements. Here’s what you need to know:

Burgas is the closest airport to Sunny Beach

Just 17 miles away, the nearest airport to Sunny Beach is Burgas. A private transfer in a taxi takes about 30 minutes. A resort transfer bus takes a lot longer as it loops around the various hotels, dropping off other holidaymakers.

Airlines serving Burgas include: WizzAir, Jet2, Ryanair, EasyJet, Eurowings, LOT and Smartwings, usually according to seasonal schedules.

Varna is an alternative airport for Sunny Beach

Varna Airport is sometimes billed as an alternative for Sunny Beach but it is much further away (62 miles!). Expect to pay £50 – £120 for a transfer (taxi, minibus etc).

Having not tried Varna Airport, we cannot recommend it.

Airlines serving Varna include: WizzAir, Tui, Turkish and Austrian. Again, seasonal schedules may apply.

Istanbul is closer than Sofia (as the crow flies)

Tempted to fly to the Bulgarian capital and travel cross-country? It takes more than four hours to drive the 250+ miles to the coast. If you are willing to make that kind of journey, you could also consider flying to Istanbul in Turkey…

BONUS: Useless Sunny Beach airport trivia

Technically, Sunny Beach has its own airport, just seven miles outside the town. However, there are no international flights – because it is little more than a grass airstrip in a field.

If you hold a private pilot licence and fancy taking your chances, the ‘airport’ is located here. And if you can read Bulgarian, check out the SunnyBeachAirport.com website. Good luck finding a taxi though!

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