The travel adviser: A visit with the Redcoats

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February 28, 2016 01:52
Tower Bridge and the River Thame, London

Tower Bridge and the River Thames, London. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Let’s begin at the end.

My last memory of my recent British Airways flight was a man fondly caressing my calf. I had boarded the red-eye flight from Heathrow back to Tel Aviv after rising at the crack of dawn.

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The day had been spent traversing the streets of Oxford, mollifying my daughter after having burned her jacket with a iron that was far too hot. Then she broke a high heel moments before entering her nerve-wracking interview at an institution claiming to be over a thousand years old.

Duty and pleasure brought me to the UK for a long weekend, as father and daughter were taking their inaugural joint trip abroad. In near-freezing weather, but with the sun favoring us with intermittent bouts of warmth, the prodigal daughter spent her day cavorting on the grounds of the Oxford Business School while I darted around the city center. Reunited in the late afternoon, we availed ourselves of the hop-onhop- off double-decker bus to explore – in 90 minutes of relative comfort – much of what the city has to offer. Visions of Harry Potter and Hogwarts were dancing through my mind.

The afternoon light was fading into darkness as I boarded a bus from the Oxford station directly to Heathrow Airport. For £27, I had a bus with strong Internet the entire journey, and the 80-minute ride was uneventful.

One perk of my profession is that sometimes, if I haven’t annoyed the airlines with my caustic musings, they indulge my desire to enjoy business class. Knowing that BA had my favorite plane, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, used exclusively on night flights out of London, I was cognizant that no matter how little sleep I had the previous night, the chance to stretch out on the nearly five-hour flight from London to Tel Aviv would soon be mine.

London had been a pure joy, and electing to stay the first two nights near Covent Garden enabled us to eschew the Underground and for three days walk everywhere we desired. The hotel we chose was also a pleasant surprise. My wife’s stern instructions for the journey were to keep our daughter calm and collected before her interview. Having been to London in the past, one of my daughter’s fondest memories was that of the potato stand in Covent Garden. Based on that, coupled with my desire to see some theater, the physical location was chosen. Eschewing the normal booking procedures of www.hotels.com or www.booking.

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com, both excellent sites in choosing a hotel, as well as bypassing the wholesale companies used by Israeli travel agents, I chose to take a risk and go to www.

priceline.com where the option exists to “Name Your Own Price.”

Having reviewed judiciously on www.tripadvisor.com what the rates for hotels were in the area, I chose on the Priceline site, the geographical area, then the level of hotel, and the price I was willing to pay. My bid was 30% lower than the rates that were being advertised.

My credit card information was provided and lo and behold, it was accepted. Kingsway Hall Hotel was our place of abode. Reviews showed it to be an excellent hotel in a good location, and while breakfast was not included, free Internet was.

For our solo night in Oxford, my choice was less cavalier; I simply opted for a clean hotel near the Oxford Train Station. Flying to London on BA in economy class was a pleasant enough undertaking. Having done check-in online and utilizing the stands at Ben Gurion Airport to print our boarding passes, sans any checked bags, we meandered over to the fast track station at Ben Gurion Airport, had our carry-on bags inspected and wandered for a half hour in the duty-free airport mall, marveling at the huge variety of goods and services being sold.

Boarding the plane, one could feel the British atmosphere permeating the entire aircraft. The female flight staff had small hats on their heads and hearing the clipped British accents only added to our enthusiasm for the upcoming trip. Our seats were fine, the food quite edible and the entertainment system, with its touch screen options, was easy to manage. In fact, one would state it was exactly what one wants when flying: an uneventful, smooth flight with no turbulence in or outside the aircraft.

Upon arrival at Heathrow airport, we elected not to take the Heathrow Express, which for £22 would have taken us to Paddington Station in 15 minutes. Far easier for us to part with £6 and take the Underground directly to the closest tube station to our hotel. While the travel time was nearly an hour with dozens of stops along the way, the ability to get out and walk a mere two minutes to our hotel was the deciding factor.

London was simply a delight. The weather, while cold, was made bearable by being not windy. While the prices of London theater and musicals had escalated far beyond what I had remembered, the performances were outstanding and, best of all, thoroughly enjoyed by the prospective graduate student. Covent Garden and the huge baked potato were very much appreciated, and joining tens of thousands in Trafalgar Square to kick off the Chinese Year of the Monkey was an added bonus.

Knowing we needed to be in Oxford early the next morning we had to decide how to transport ourselves.

The train would have cost £26 pounds each, the bus almost the same, with both modes of transportation requiring us to get to those sites. Deciding to Uber it, I checked out what it would cost and then asked the hotel concierge to compare taxi rates. He warned me not to use Uber, stating the drivers often get lost and are not trustworthy. But when the two taxi companies he called wanted over £120, I told him I would consider it. With Uber wanting only £71, the decision was easy – treat my daughter to a bit of comfort and a chance for me to see the English countryside. Our Pakistani driver was ideal and his GPS worked perfectly as he motored us down to Oxford.

The hotel was a five-minute walk from the center of Oxford and the night air was quite nippy with below-freezing temperatures. Scurrying back to the hotel, I was asked to iron my daughter’s jacket and soon realized that ironing delicate materials was a task I knew nothing about. Yes, dear readers, even with the iron on low, my ignorance in placing it dead center on the back of her jacket resulted in a lovely scorch mark followed almost instantly by a screech that echoed through the paper-thin hotel walls. Quickly concluding that perhaps putting a towel as a buffer between the iron and her jacket might make more sense, I completed the task as my daughter’s sobs filled the room. Fortunately, her hair would cover the scorch mark, and I instructed her to retreat backwards from the room as she exited the interview, looking up at the surroundings and marveling at them.

Our joint time in the United Kingdom was coming to an end, as I was flying back to Israel while she elected to spend two days decompressing in the streets of London while staying at a youth hostel. So while I bused back to the airport, she was taking a bus directly into the city of London.

Entering the cavernous Terminal 5 of BA at Heathrow airport, I printed out my boarding pass, quickly went through security and made my way into the Galleries Club lounge. Open to business-class flyers as well as to several tiers of the BA frequent flyer program, it is a huge lounge with more than 800 seats. Visitors can help themselves to the bar’s selection of drinks and fine wines and a wide array of food items. I indulged myself at the salad bar, heaping prodigious amounts of vegetables, and drinking glasses of tomato juice, an item that for some inane reason I only imbibe when I fly. Determined to satiate myself with dinner in the lounge I refilled my salad bowl twice more.

Finally, 40 minutes before embarking, I sauntered out of the lounge into airport terminal, and walked for a lengthy distance until reaching the boarding gate. It was a full plane that night, and like all civilized airlines, boarding was done by seat rows and thus I was able to board rather quickly. Their plane, the Boeing 787-800 is a dual-aisle, twin-engine jet. Windows are more than 30 percent larger than those on similarly sized airplanes.

Instead of pulling shades up and down, passengers can adjust the brightness of the windows with a button. The noise level inside these planes is 60% less than in other similar-sized aircrafts. Boeing claims, and clients agree, that the increased cabin space with larger windows, higher humidity and lower pressurization results in less jet lag.

British Airways business class on this aircraft has wide, comfortable seats with a ‘z’ bed position. While still enabling one to lie completely flat, it is designed to give greater privacy, and the deep angle of recline is perfect for sleeping or watching in-flight entertainment.

Window seats face backwards, though, and prospective clients should know that when selecting their seats. Personally it doesn’t bother me, and I wanted the window seat to further isolate myself from other passengers.

Boarding the plane, I took my backward-facing seat, removed my shoes, and told the steward I would not be eating dinner. As we taxied down the runway, I put on my eye shades, popped in my ear plugs and after a short few minutes, turned my near-private cocoon into a sleeping chamber and rolled over for a very deep sleep.

It seemed to be only a few minutes later when that caressing of my calf began. To be fair, the only part of me visible to the rest of the plane was my legs. So when a low mumbling finally became loud enough and I turned over to hear the flight attendant state, “Mr. Feldman, Mr. Feldman, please wake up, we’re beginning our descent into Tel Aviv,” I was in near ecstasy. I had managed to sleep nearly four hours.

For me this is an ideal night flight. I’m sure the entertainment with 20 channels and hundreds of movies and TV shows is excellent. I have no doubt that the cuisine in business class – a gourmet menu served on real china – is mouthwatering. I am positive I would have been offered not only the finest wines, but also brandies and port. I probably missed out on Cadbury chocolates as well.

Would I hazard a guess to say that flying BA to London in their aircraft is more enjoyable than El Al? Probably.

Is it better than Easy Jet? Of course.

There are several reasons one chooses a specific flight. Leaving aside price, the time of departures has a huge role in the decision-making process. For both tourists and businesspeople, the ability to work or play all day in London and then take a 10:30 p.m. flight back to Israel means choosing between El Al or BA, as they are the only two airlines that fly nonstop on that route at that hour. As long as BA is using a Dreamliner and the price is nearly identical and disregarding frequent flier preferences, BA has the advantage.

In that most typical British manner, having a stiff upper lip gives them the edge.

The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at mark.feldman@ziontours.co.il

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