Tag: Heathrow

The UK’s biggest airport and one of the world’s busiest. It’s also one of Ben’s favourites – especially since reaching BA Executive Club Silver status

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.

British Airways A380 MIA -> LHR

The British Airways A380 is a wondrous beast, even in economy. We watch in awe as the huge bird lumbers along the runway, straining all four engines to lift its enormous bulk into the night sky.

What’s good about the BA A380

The A380 has some great features:

  • The seat-side storage compartment is brilliant.
  • Seat 83J is actually comfortable and I do manage to nap for a while.
  • Despite being full, the economy World Traveller cabin does not run out of overhead locker space.

What’s wrong with BA’s A380

Despite being an engineering marvel, there are a few problems with BA’s A380 economy World Traveller offering:

  • The armrests in seats 83J and 83K cannot be raised. This is a massive issue for Linda who cannot edge sideways – especially once the seats in front have been reclined.
  • The headphone sockets in seats 83J and 83K have both been damaged, rendering the inflight entertainment (IFE) system borderline unusable.
  • There are no adjustable air vents on the plane, so you have one temperature for the whole cabin – unlucky if you’re stressed and sweaty when you board (me).
  • The food is pretty pants – particularly the cheese, ham and egg bagel we are served for breakfast.

In the middle of the night Linda and I have to trade seats because she cannot get back into 83J – there’s simply not enough room to move (and she hurt herself getting out in the first place). Other than that, the flight is pretty good – as is usually the case when we fly British Airways.

What the hell Heathrow?

Arriving at Heathrow and we’re straight back into airport hell. Rather than fight with the masses, we hold back until everyone has disembarked and then make our way to the door expecting to find Linda’s scooter waiting for us as promised in Miami. But it’s not there.

Instead, a porter collects Linda in a wheelchair and takes her down the ramp, desperately running behind in an attempt to not lose control. At the bottom he sends me back to collect her scooter. Which is not there.

After waiting a few minutes he’s had enough and loads us into a golf buggy-style vehicle. It’s very narrow and cramped as the porter steers us through various lifts and tunnels below the Heathrow Airport taxiways. We get to use a dedicated passport control lane which is nice – and much, much faster than the dreaded ePassport gates that never work properly.

Reaching the porters’ station, Linda is decanted into another wheelchair and a female helper wheels her to the luggage collection belts. We wait. And wait. And wait. And wait.

A full hour after we landed, suitcases finally begin to circulate along the conveyor belt. It takes an age before a luggage handler appears with Linda’s scooter. And another age for our bags to emerge between the plastic flaps that hide the inner workings of the airport. We are among the last to leave the carousel and one woman is still waiting for her scooter to reappear.

It feels like Heathrow is in a race to the bottom with Luton and Stansted.

Fortunately we have time to kill; our National Express coach doesn’t leave until 14:40. Luggage secured, we have to kill some more time sat in the Arrivals lobby of Heathrow Terminal 5.

5.5 hours of Express

At the appointed hour we spot our coach at the same time the driver spots us. By some miracle, National Express has delivered on their promise. They have actually informed him that a lady with a scooter will be boarding – and he’s ready and able to help load luggage. Then it’s off into central London to catch a second bus to our final destination and waiting lift – Braintree.

Again, both legs of the coach journey are pretty good and almost on time. Our route takes us through the centre of the City of London, so we get to see some more familiar sights, including Parliament, Whitehall and the Bank of England. We have interim stops at Stratford (where the driver is involved in a row with a random man who demands access without a valid ticket) and Stansted Airport (where he enters a heated discussion with a passenger about Hungarian President Viktor Orban’s policies).

The downside of the journey is that by the time we finally get home, we’ve been travelling for nearly 24 hours – and it feels like it too.

Final thoughts on the MIA-LHR journey

  • National Express coaches are a feasible transfer option for both cruise terminals and airports – just make sure to pay for extras in advance. Linda says she would definitely use National Express again.
  • The British Airways A380 is an amazing plane – but it has some serious design flaws for mobility-impaired passengers.
  • Airports have absolutely no idea what they are doing in terms of security or transport of mobility aids.

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