I tried once before, in April 2019, but the iPhone XR I bought then was stolen from the table in a pub (right under my nose) just a couple of weeks later and within a week of moving to Manchester in early May, and the S7 had to be dragged back out of retirement until I’d finished paying off the 12 month loan on the iDevice.
Since that happened, I’ve been keeping an eye on the new phone announcements. OnePlus 8, OnePlus 8 Pro, OnePlus 8T, Pixel 5, Samsungs, and of course the Apple devices.
Do I stick with Android, or do I switch to iOS? Again. I’d pondered this once before and wanted to keep a foot in both camps, and I was still undecided. Meanwhile my first generation AirPods that I was switching between my laptop and my S7 could barely hold a charge for an hour, the wired earphones on the same phone were losing audio on the right hand side, and Apple launched a set of £50 wireless earphones.
So, with some trepidation, I placed orders for a set of Beats Flex and an iPhone 12 Pro. This time with insurance. The earphones were due to arrive on Thursday 22nd October and the phone on release date, the 23rd.
Through the wonders of the Royal Mail, the earphones actually arrived a day early on the 21st, so there was no reason not to try them with the Samsung on my daily exercise in these times lacking social interaction.
The earphones arrived in a black box (I’d ordered the black earphones, I don’t know if the box matches the colour of the earphones) with a little tear-to-open strip on the rear.
I downloaded the Beats app for Android which promises easy pairing and it lived up to its name, a couple of clicks and a press on the power button on the earphones and they were paired and showing the battery level within the app.
That is all the app offered though. Even with a bit of poking around I could see no options for changing any equalisation settings or … anything else. Maybe it handles firmware updates, but otherwise I don’t see a lot of point for the app.
Pairing done, and the right size of plugs fitted, it was time to head out.
My usual lunchtime listen is The World at One on BBC Radio 4. As soon as it started I was disappointed. The sound was more like the cheap AM transistor radios of my youth. I’ve never owned a pair of Beats phones before, but from reputation I was expecting them to be bass-heavy, and therefore suiting voice quite well, but instead it was fairly thin and raspy, and well below the quality of the AirPods or even the included wired earphones.
Music was exactly the same, and whilst some small part of me relished the nostalgia of that 80s AM sound, it is not what I was expecting from a pair of Bluetooth headphones released in 2020.
The iPhone is still scheduled to arrive on the 23rd, and I am keen to see if the Beats (by Apple) works better with the iPhone than it does with Android 8. Or maybe if the drivers will open up after a few hours of listening. I’ll provide an update if they do, but at the moment, this is not one of my better purchases.
The complaint today is that you can’t acknowledge a test from the NHS or Public Health England (pillar 1 tests), only from the private (‘Nightingale’) testing centres — the pillar 2 tests.
In contrast, on Wednesday people were expecting it to be very easy to enter a false positive test into the app and cause a barrage of unneeded messages to isolate.
To avoid the latter, you need some way to authenticate a test result.
Now, I don’t know what has gone on behind the scenes, but I can easily see why it might be easier to set up a regime at the private labs working under contract than it is for the “on demand” tests being performed in the NHS.
The pillar 2 tests that can be entered into the app account for two-thirds of the testing capacity, so whilst it is essential to get a way of entering the pillar 1 tests into the app (and even the pillar 4 statistical tests), this does not make the app useless.
I’d love to hear what the plans are for getting the pillar 1 and 4 tests into the app, but I can see how we got here, and I’d tend to think it is more likely to be because it hasn’t been possible to get the logistics co-ordinated in time rather than the commercial conspiracy theories that are doing the rounds.
Update (ironically from the correspondent mentioned above):
I’ve spent a bit of time today listening to people that have concerns with the app. All of these boil down to “we don’t trust the government.” Trust has been so eroded by the actions of Cummings et al, that people are justifiably distrustful of an NHS/government app.
That’s fine, I don’t trust the government either, but let me try to explain why in this case it doesn’t matter.
It uses the Apple/Google Exposure Notification API, which means that the app must abide by certain rules before it is allowed on the App Stores, and that includes not being able to track your location. If it doesn’t obey those rules, it doesn’t get put on the App Store.
One of the key points to stress is that all the hard work is done on your phone, and not uploaded to NHS servers. The QR codes you scan to ‘check in’ to a venue are only stored on your phone — and mean you don’t have to hand your personal details over to the venue instead.
Concerns have been raised about the requirement for a relatively new smartphone. This is true, it requires iOS 13.5 or newer, or Android 6 or newer. An iPhone 6 will not support it, even though they were being sold up until September 2018, but the iPhone 6s (which was launched one year later, but discontinued at the same time as the 6) will support it. My Samsung Galaxy S7 released in 2016 (running Android 8) does support it.
The reason for this is not the NHS, it’s the operating systems that support the Exposure Notification API, and the privacy strength of the app comes from using that instead of the original plan for an app developed entirely in-house.
It is perfect? I doubt it. For a start, you need to be in proximity to someone for 15 minutes who later tests positive for it to count as a ‘high risk encounter.’ Is it better than writing your contact details in a book? I think so.
It is being branded as ‘extending duty free to the EU’, but that’s only partially true.
We will indeed be able to bring duty-free alcohol and tobacco back into the UK, subject to the following limits (the article fails to mention we can bring back what we want as members of the EU or during the transition period).
42 litres of beer
18 litres of still wine
4 litres of spirits OR 9 litres of sparkling wine, fortified wine or any alcoholic beverage less than 22% ABV
200 cigarettes OR
100 cigarillos OR
50 cigars OR
250g tobacco OR
200 sticks of tobacco for heating
or any proportional combination of the above
However, it also says:
We are also ending tax-free sales in airports of goods such as electronics and clothing for passengers travelling to non-EU countries, following concerns that the tax-concession is not always passed on to consumers in the airport. In some instances these tax-free goods are brought back into the country by UK residents, putting high street retailers at a disadvantage.
Either they are passing the discount on to the passengers, which puts the high street retailers at a disadvantage, or they are not, surely? It can’t be both.
I have found the odd discount with duty free electronic shopping, but they’re rarely large, and will that stop people buying duty-free electronics, or will they just do it at the other end on the way back?
Today the government announced the ‘new’ test and trace (I must not call it track and trace) app will be available on the 24th September.
They also announced that hospitality venues (or, I presume, anywhere where people gather) can download QR codes to ‘check in’ to locations when they arrive.
This latter bit rang alarm bells with me. The new app is using the Apple and Google ‘Exposure Notification’ API, which does not track location, it just tracks random IDs generated by other phones, and when one person gets a positive test, it sends notifications back to those you’ve crossed paths with.
‘Hmm,’ I thought, ‘is checking in with QR codes a way to get around the privacy protections of the Exposure Notification system?’
3.3 A Contact Tracing App may not use location-based APIs, may not use Bluetooth functionality (excluding Bluetooth functionality included in the Exposure Notification APIs) and may not collect any device information to identify the precise location of users. In addition, Contact Tracing Apps are prohibited from using frameworks or APIs in the Apple Software that enable access to personally identifiable information (e.g., Photos, Contacts), unless otherwise agreed by Apple.
Checking into places (and probably reporting that back to gov.uk’s servers), which was my initial suspicion, would surely breach that agreement.
It does, but I was very happy to see that the app doesn’t report those check-ins back. They are only stored on your phone, and can be recalled if you do test positive and call the Test and Trace hotline.
The App has been designed to use as little personal data and information as possible. All the data that could directly identify you is held on your phone and not shared anywhere else.
Fair enough as a high-level aim, but specifically on the venue check-in, it says:
When you set up the App, it will ask you for permission to use the camera on your device in order to check in to venues using QR codes. If you check in to a venue, the information will be stored on your phone for 21 days. It will not be shared with anyone else. The choice of 21 days takes into account the 14-day incubation period, and 7-day infectious period of the virus.
You will be able to see the list of venues where you have checked in on your phone. You can delete the whole list at any time. In future versions of the App you will be able to choose to delete single items from the list. No one else will know where you have checked in unless you choose to tell them, and the data will not be shared by the App.
At the same URL there is also an illustration of the various ‘user journeys’ through the app, which is very helpful. Even better, the app and the server back-end code is available on the NHS GitHub site.
This is so much better than I was expecting, and reassures me I can safely install the app when it is released. It’s also several orders of magnitude better than the original attempt at a home-grown app that had few, if any, of the protections of the Apple/Google Exposure Notification API and wanted to always run in the background.
I haven’t played much in the way of computer games for twenty years or more, and needless to say things have come along in leaps and bounds since that time, but it has also been an interesting experience getting to grips with Steam, the performance limitations of virtual machines, and graphics processors, something that has taken a sharper focus with the launch of Microsoft Flight Simulator.
The computer I’ve been doing this on is my work laptop (lets hope they don’t read this), a 2016 MacBook Pro with Core i7 processor and Radeon Pro 455 graphics.
I started off with Train Sim World, which is only available under Windows, and so the first attempt at running that was in Windows 10 under Parallels (virtualisation) on macOS.
Not having much of a gaming background in recent years, I dialled the graphics settings back to “low” and was still impressed. At a guess it was only running at a handful of frames a second and still stuttered when going through the stations which had a lot of close-up buildings to render. Nonetheless, I played a fair few hours this way, mainly on a bit of track I’ve travelled many times in my lifetime, the Great Western line out of London Paddington — it was great to see it from the cab!
I did, however, start wondering what delay parallels was adding into this, so I fired up Bootcamp and created a native Windows partition to boot into and ran some Cinebench benchmarks.
Cinebench r20 results
Native macOS was the fastest, but in Windows it’s pretty close, and whilst they’re both significantly faster than running under Parallels, I didn’t think that was too bad for running in a virtualisation technology. I’m marginally surprised that using AMD’s drivers under Windows didn’t match the macOS performance, so I’m curious if you know why that is.
I then spent a bit more time playing Train Sim World in Windows, with the graphics settings still dialled down quite low, but with far less stuttering, even if it sounded more like a flight simulator as the fans on the MacBook spooled up after a couple of minutes of game play.
At some point I then came across American Truck Simulator and Euro Truck Simulator 2. These are available under Windows and macOS (and Linux!), and buying them under one O/S in Steam allows access to the games under other O/Ss, plus state is synchronised in “Steam Cloud.”
Now, Train Sim World is easily playable with just the keyboard and mouse, but the truck simulators less so. I started watching a few YouTube videos and was confronted with a lot of new kit — I mean, TrackIR to keep note of where you’re looking? Definitely looks useful, but I’m not sure my gaming requirements are quite at that level. How about a steering wheel and pedals? That would make the truck sims much more realistic, but again, that’s another good chunk of money to lay down for gaming, and I could see Lucy’s face when I told her what the package was that had just dropped through the door.
So, no TrackIR and no steering wheel, but what about a joystick? I’d not owned a joystick since a QuickShot II attached to my ZX Spectrum, but I managed to persuade myself (and Lucy) that was an acceptable halfway house, so I got a ThrustMaster T.1600M FCS. Even the terminology on joysticks has changed immensely since my days of gaming and it took a while to decide whether to get that or a LogiTech or something else…
It’s better than a mouse, no doubt about that, but it’s still a fiddly way to drive a truck, and I can see why people get the full setup.
Researching the kit then dragged me a little into YouTube videos of people playing the truck simulators, particularly Squirrel and Jeff Favignano.
That’s when something else started popping up in my YouTube recommendations — mentions of a beta of Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS).
What? I think. I had a flight simulator on my ZX81, another on my ZX Spectrum, and a (much) earlier version of MSFS on my Pentium 133 back whenever that was a reasonable machine. I thought it had long ago been abandoned, and so I started watching the videos of the beta versions of MSFS and my jaw dropped.
I am under no delusions about how that will run on a MacBook Pro with Radeon Pro 455 graphics, so I started looking at sizing up a gaming machine, mainly via PC Specialist. I’ve yet to persuade Lucy that I can justify the step-up from a £60 joystick to a £1,700 gaming computer as we’ve other things to save for (and whilst I won’t be paying for an Nvidia Ampere graphics card, their imminent release suggests it’s not the right time to buy a graphics card), but should I ever manage to do that, I know what I’ll be doing soon after I’ve got a grip of the flight controls — a tour of the small landing strips on Borneo.
Unsurprisingly, it has been a little quiet on here of late. Like most of you, I’ve not been travelling all that much since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In fact, I’d hazard that as I don’t have a car and I am able to work from home, I’ve travelled far less than most, the furthest afield being about an hour’s walk away from home to get a rare bit of exercise.
Until this past weekend.
For family reasons I had to head down to Swansea for a few days, which meant finding somewhere to stay, and I ended up at the Holiday Inn Express, Swansea East, located just off junction 43 of the M4 motorway. I have stayed here once before with Lucy, a couple of months before we got married (I think it was when we were sorting out her hair and make-up trial for the wedding), and knew what to expect normally, but not what to expect during the pandemic.
The first thing to note as I drove down was the difference in policy on face coverings between England and Wales. England requires face coverings in public indoor spaces, but Wales does not. However, on the front door of the HI, there was a prominent sign to say that face coverings are required in public spaces in the hotel.
I donned my mask and entered to check-in.
As I checked in, the changes to service were explained to me. Firstly, there is no housekeeping except by request the day before it is required. Secondly, there was no sit-down breakfast, but a ‘grab and go’ to take back up to the room to eat (or take away).
I made my way up to the room which was the same as pretty much every other Holiday Inn Express room I’ve seen, but with one exception. There was no chair at the desk. I assumed this was also due to COVID-cleaning, but in retrospect I should have checked as it meant any writing, work on my laptop, or eating would have to be done either standing up or on the bed, and who likes crumbs in the bed?
The enhanced cleaning hadn’t extended to the thick layer of dust behind the support for the LED lamp over the bed, but a wipe soon sorted that out.
The grab and go breakfast was just an average breakfast buffet. There were croissants, yoghurt, fruit, cereal and either bacon or sausage baps (one or the other each day, not both) as the only hot option. There was no vegetarian hot option. Not a problem for me, but if I’d been travelling with Lucy there would have been comments.
In the evening the restaurant area was open with a limited menu and was participating in the “Eat Out to Help Out” programme, which provides 50% off food and soft drinks up to a limit of £10 on Mondays to Wednesdays in August. Last time Lucy and I stayed here we had eaten in the restaurant, and I did the same again with a pizza.
That’s pretty much it. I was there for three nights so I managed without housekeeping, but bought a tin of coffee from a supermarket as the instant coffee in the room didn’t last long. It was an uneventful stay and I slept well in the bed (there is no air conditioning in the rooms, so I had to leave the window open overnight as it was rather humid in mid-August). Though I am left wondering how much “enhanced cleaning” the rooms actually get (and I’m sceptical of that at most places that claim they are doing it).
At the tail end of Storm Chiara, I was due to fly to Rome for a meeting. A lot of the work for the meeting had already been done beforehand via videoconferences and email, but nothing beats some face-to-face time to work over the niggles and start planning some of the next work.
If all went well, I had about 75 minutes between the flight from Manchester arriving in Amsterdam, and the flight leaving Amsterdam for Rome. My first flight was due to leave at 10:40am, but I wasn’t all that worried when it was delayed almost 30 minutes to 11:08am.
Keeping an eye on the KLM app whilst I was waiting, they offered an upgrade to business for £63.30 on the AMS-FCO sector. I was curious what the KLM business offering was like, and I also figured that if I was late I might still have some room in the overhead bins, so I went for it and ended up in seat 1A. Win!
As I headed to the gate, I was slightly more concerned when the flight before mine, KL1072, originally scheduled for 9:05am, had an estimated time of departure two minutes after ours — 11:10, I sniggered with self-satisfaction at not having chosen the earlier flight and having had a bit more time in bed in the morning instead.
Pride, of course, comes before a fall.
We all boarded and the pre-flight announcement came from the flight deck. Apparently Storm Chiara had reached Amsterdam and Schiphol was down to single-runway operations. As a result, we would be sitting on the tarmac for another hour before we were allowed to push back.
30 minutes delay plus 60 minutes on the tarmac. Even with some schedule padding, that means my 75 minute connection was ‘tight.’ Shortly after the announcement, from the window I could see KL1072, on the stand next to us, pushing back.
I held out hope that KLM would rebook me on one of the later flights from Amsterdam to Fiumicino, and a new boarding pass would pop up in the app when I got to Schiphol. Attempts to reach KLM via WhatsApp naturally had a response of ‘all our operators are busy.’ No further reply came.
Thumbs were twiddled for a while, elbow wars were had over the armrest, and we eventually landed (landed, not reached the gate) in Amsterdam at about 14:10. I wondered whether the Rome flight, due to leave at 14:15, was also delayed, which might offer me a glimmer of hope, but no, it had left promptly — perhaps one of the only flights that afternoon. The KLM app helpfully offered that I had a “0h -7m transfer at Schiphol.”
I headed for one of the KLM self-service machines near the arrival gate and it offered me a number of choices, all of which appeared to be the following day — although that wasn’t clear, as whilst the time of the flights was prominently displayed, the day was not. The best option at that time appeared to be the same flight 24 hours later, entirely unsuitable as it would mean missing half of the meeting I was heading out for, but hoping I could sort it out later I picked that from the screen and a few passes were spat out by the machine — one for the new flight, one for food at the airport, and another for a hotel.
I hadn’t given up hope of still getting to Rome the same day, so using Expertflyer I checked availability on the two other KLM flights that day. Unfortunately they were all showing no seats in economy, but one of them had a seat in business. I wondered if that last-minute upgrade at Manchester might save my bacon^WParma…
I went looking for manned desks to see if they could help, but the signs said there was a “75-90 minute” wait, and looking at the queues backed that up.
I tried the machines again, but they no longer offered an option to rebook — or even to cancel and head home, which was an increasingly attractive option.
There followed an extremely frustrating 36 minute phone call with a call centre where I tried to get myself rebooked. If it was a simple “no” at the start, I might have accepted that and moved on, but the agent kept putting me on hold whilst she tried to do something, or spoke to the back office. Armed with the information from Expertflyer, I pointed out there was still availability in business on the last flight of the day. She went to the back office and came up with a sum of £480 to move to that flight, saying that the ‘upgrade’ I’d done that morning was just a seat assignment and didn’t change the booking class, so I couldn’t get a seat in business otherwise. To rub salt into the wound, she offered that they’ve waived the change penalty to provide that fare. That was the cue to finish the call.
That is where I started to accept I’d be staying in Amsterdam overnight. I looked at the hotel voucher, which was for an NH hotel. That’s not too bad, and I’ve got some friends in Amsterdam, so let’s make some lemonade from these lemons. It wasn’t a hotel I’d heard of before, so I looked it up. Leeuwenhorst … where’s that?
Oh. It’s actually further away from the airport than Amsterdam itself, and public transport from the hotel to the centre of Amsterdam takes over an hour and a half.
Thanks, but no thanks. I looked to book a hotel in the centre of Amsterdam and opted for the Toren, I’ll write up a review of that later, but I wanted to make sure KLM cancelled the other hotel so that it wasn’t wasted. I wasn’t going to wait an hour and a half just to do that, so I approached one of the staff managing the queues. They couldn’t/wouldn’t take the voucher and pass it to someone to cancel, but promised that the queues would be shorter in the baggage hall.
They were, but not by enough that I was willing to spend more time in the airport.
By this point I felt I’d spent enough time dealing with KLM for the day, so I sent them another message on WhatsApp about the hotel (which also didn’t get a response) and headed into Amsterdam.
~~~ Time Passes ~~~
The following day, I braced myself and headed back to Schiphol as the meeting I was heading to had already started in Rome.
This time things were smoother, though when I reached the far end of the airport (Gate D86) I thought I’d ask what had happened to the upgrade I’d paid for the day previously. All three gate staff spent a bit of time with me, going through the computer and their tablet (refreshingly not an iPad), which didn’t allow them to make any changes — one of the staff commented that even some of the options that were normally available to them weren’t present. I felt rather guilty at the amount of time they spent on it, repeatedly telling them not to worry, but they persevered to no avail, and I reached the Eternal City 24 hours after I should have.
I am currently waiting for the refund of £63.30 through a claim via klm.com/refund, which has been approved but not yet paid.
All in all, there was probably little that KLM could do given the disruption, though it was a slightly frustrating experience. I had little confidence that the call centre had looked at other options (e.g. via Paris with Air France, or something with Alitalia), and the reliance on self-service machines with defined workflows left me feeling that there might have been options that hadn’t been explored.
As I hinted at in my previous post, flying from Manchester where many destinations are one change away whoever you fly with, it’s often as easy to fly with KLM and change in Amsterdam as it is to fly with British Airways and change in Heathrow. My 2020 travel kicked off with a meeting in Amsterdam followed quickly by a meeting at CERN in Geneva. The best option for this turned out to be flying with KLM to Amsterdam, spending a couple of nights there for the first meeting, flying down to Geneva and spending a couple more nights there for the second meeting, before retracing my steps at the end of the week to head home.
Perhaps it was a quirk of the multi-city booking, but even though the flights were cheap and I was in economy, I ended up with a booking class that gave me a choice of seats before check-in (I’ve looked at future bookings, but I’ve not been so lucky with them, it’s £9 to reserve a standard seat and £13 to reserve a seat with extra legroom). As a result, for three of the four sectors I was able to choose a window seat somewhere between rows 7 and 9 (for the final sector I was in row 22), and when I checked in on the app, I ended up with a boarding pass that said “Sky Priority” and boarding zone 2.
KLM leaves from the same terminal at Manchester as British Airways, terminal 3, and security there needs no further discussion. Naturally, no fast-track access, but a lunchtime departure meant the queues were short. I’ve managed to avoid a bag being sent to secondary screening for most of my recent trips, and managed to do it again this time, although there is always that moment when the bag pauses at the junction of the belts and you’re thinking it has been there a couple of seconds too long and is about to be sent behind the barrier.
No KLM status, so therefore I had no lounge access, but at least being an off-peak time there were spare seats in the departure area to settle down and do a bit of work.
Priority boarding worked well and there didn’t appear to be that many passengers that had it. It turned out to be useful as I had a carry-on bag and space in the overhead lockers ended up quite tight. It may be my imagination, but the seats in the 737-700, -800 and -900 of the trip felt a bit narrower than the Airbus 319/320/321 on BA, and on three out of the four legs there was someone in the middle seat whose elbows were well over the armrest, making for very uncomfortable flights as I tried to contort myself around a stranger’s left arm. The other flight was a dream in comparison as a colleague was booked into the B seat, but C ended up as a no-show, so we had the row of three to ourselves. Small things and all that.
For a small charge there is the option of “Economy Comfort” seats — I hadn’t chosen them, but SeatGuru suggests they have a couple of extra inches of leg-room.
Something that KLM still provides is a complimentary drink and a snack. On the various flights I’ve had a cheese sandwich, a wrap, and a slice of cake as the snack; a small cup of water with a foil lid (there’s probably something that can be done there to reduce the use of plastic); plus coffee, tea, or juice for the drink.
Despite Schiphol being their home airport, KLM isn’t exempt from being sent to the Polderbaan for landing, with the ensuing quarter-of-an-hour taxi to the terminal building. On the return journey I had nearly three hours between flights. Fortunately Schiphol is such a vast airport that you can largely wander freely about, it’s possible to find a quiet corner when you need to make a couple of phone calls without disturbing anyone. I’m not sure the same can be said of Heathrow Terminal 5, even with access to a lounge!
One thing that both Geneva and Schiphol have over Manchester Airport is the use of 3D scanners to check your carry-on luggage. With these everything stays inside your bag, and I mean everything — laptops, iPads, bags of liquids, just plonk it in a tray and wait for it to emerge at the other end. The speed of the operators seems to vary quite a bit, but the whole process is so much easier, especially if you’re not used to travelling and forget to pull something out of your bag and place it on a separate tray for scanning. Roll-on the introduction of them to Manchester Airport, please!
The final flight home was the one where I was in row 22. The airport decided to disembark from both the front and the rear doors, but it took some time to get the steps up to the rear doors. Do you want to guess which of the 33 rows was the last one out of the plane?
A lot of the air travel I write about has used British Airways so far, but looking at my flights over the next eight weeks, I’m starting to realise that the flag carrier doesn’t provide the best connections from the regions.
The flights MAN-LHR-ZAG will take me to exactly 600 tier points (I’m currently at 585), the number required to renew Silver, and are four days before my collection year ends. Coming back with BA would require an overnight stay in Heathrow, or heading into central London and getting the train up (if I made the train, which would be by no means certain).
Now that I’m living in Manchester, has the time come to start seeing if I can get SkyTeam status instead of BA?
Early in 2019 (I appear to have booked the tickets on 24th January) British Airways celebrated its 100th birthday by offering some long-haul tickets for £100 each way, including taxes. You had to be online at mid-day to grab them, and there were only a few destinations available each day. Instead of trying and failing to get to some of the more popular far-flung destinations, Lucy and I managed to grab a couple of seats for a long weekend in Philadelphia later in the year (September).
When the promotion was on, we were still living in Twickenham, well within the range of catching bus number 490 to Heathrow Terminal 5. However, by the time the trip came up, we’d been living in Manchester for four months, so we had to book a couple of flights to connect us to the Philly flights. As these would be on separate bookings, we also had to make sure that there was enough buffer such that disruption on the flight from Manchester wouldn’t cause us to miss the flight to the US.
For £100 each way transatlantic, the seats were naturally in economy. Almost all of my flying is done in the back of the bus, so this wasn’t a problem. We were scheduled for a 747, and as I could select seats for free, I’d opted for two seats towards the back of the plane where the configuration changes from 3-4-3 to 2-4-2. It does mean being some of the last to be served, and the last to get off, but on the other hand it is just the two of us, without someone else either in the aisle or window seat.
The days of amenity packs with earplugs, an eyemask, a pen and over-the-ear headphones are long gone. These days what you get is a plastic wrapper with a set of earphones and a Flying Start envelope.
However, it was a refurbished plane with a fairly large in-flight entertainment screen. As a minor niggle with BA’s moving map on the new IFE, I’d prefer the image of the plane itself to be smaller so I can see more of the ground beneath it, especially when zooming in (this was better with the old moving map), but that’s not much of a complaint. During the flight I could (and did) easily watch Rocketman on the screen.
As economy meals go, I couldn’t really complain about this. Quinoa salad, chicken curry and rice, a dessert, bread roll, crackers and cheese, and a can of Brewdog’s ‘Speedbird 100’ IPA. Sitting down the back of the back of the plane there is a risk that you can’t get your first choice of meal, but you do have the option to pre-book on the outbound flight from Heathrow, and I had no such problem here.
One thing British Airways still haven’t quite got the hang of is couples where one person has a special meal booked (Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian — or VLML — in Lucy’s case). The special meals are all brought out at the start of service, and her food had been served a good 20 minutes before the trolley reaches me with mine. Perhaps one reason to pre-order a meal, which at least might work for the outbound flight.
There’s not much else to report about the flight. There was the half-way mini Magnum that BA have recently introduced and we made good time to Philadelphia. Immigration wasn’t too bad (I have Global Entry, but didn’t use it). We were lucky with timing and took the train to downtown Philadelphia.
A couple of days before heading back to London, the usual POUG (Promotional Online UpGrade offer) appeared for an upgrade to Premium Economy (World Traveller Plus in BA parlance). They’d been popping up ever since I made the booking, but not at a very competitive price, but this time it had dropped substantially. As it was an overnight flight and we then had a short layover in Heathrow before finally getting back to Manchester I booked it.
I started getting slightly concerned when I went to select our seats.
OK, not a whole lot of options there, but something will appear with online check-in, right?
I’m past the days of stressing over this sort of occurrence, and figured that they’d be able to sort it out at the airport. The worst case would be that we’d end up back in economy (actually, the worst case might be that we’d be bumped to a different flight and miss the connection to Manchester, but let’s not dwell on that).
We got to the airport, checked in and dropped our bags off, and we are told they still do not have seats for us, but we are issued boarding passes to get us through security, though they have no seat assignment on them.
We made our way to the lounge and helped ourselves to snacks, and perhaps a beverage, whilst I kept on refreshing the app. Some time goes past and eventually 35E and 35F pop up in the app as our seats. OK, middle seats, but bulkhead, I can live with that.
A bit more time passes and an announcement comes over the tannoy asking us to go to the front desk. We get the new boarding passes and is it 35EF? Nope, it’s 21F and 21G. Yes, we’ve scored an upgrade!
I’ve rarely travelled in BA Club World before this, and Lucy never had, so this was a bit of an experience for us. We had the limited edition #BA100 amenity kits and tucked into a very nice meal.
Breakfast was a bit confused. We’d clearly marked our preferences on the cards they distributed before take-off, but when it came time (after just an hour’s sleep), mine was delivered but not Lucy’s. When we asked the cabin crew, they said they’d been laughing about it in the galley as it said she were vegetarian, but had asked for the full breakfast.
Firstly, the card most definitely did not say that, I’d looked at it myself, and secondly, the crew saying they’d been mocking a passenger’s actions, even if there had been a mistake, is not really what I’d call a premium experience. Breakfast was soon on the way, but this was the one exception to an otherwise excellent experience of being upgraded!
As an aside, this started a run of three consecutive upgrades from World Traveller Plus to Club World for me on BA. After this flight there was Heathrow to New Orleans, and Dallas to Heathrow. I think I’ve exhausted my upgrade karma for the next decade, but one suggestion BA, can you put a better pen in the amenity kit? On two of the three kits the pen was useless — one the ball had been pushed back into the nib, and the other just didn’t click.
As part of a weekend trip to Philadelphia in September, using flights booked during the #BA100 sale, Lucy and I stayed in The Independent Hotel. Whilst we were planning the trip, it had reasonable reviews and wasn’t badly priced.
We had taken the train from the airport, and walked down to the hotel from City Hall Station. In retrospect, not the best choice given we each had a suitcase, but it wasn’t too bad.
The entrance to the hotel is no more than that — a doorway that leads into a lobby about 6ft square with a lift (elevator) that takes you to reception, which is one floor above. There are no obvious stairs (as someone that prefers to take the stairs for a floor or two).
Reception is a large wooden desk, and it took a little while to find someone to check us in, but as we were being checked in it was explained to us that there was cheese and wine in reception every evening, and that breakfast was delivered to the rooms in baskets every morning, we just had to fill in the card the night before.
The first impression of the room was favourable. It was reasonably large and had a high ceiling, even if the floors were a bit worn.
There was a small selection of books to read from, though the title of the top one was curious!
The bathroom was slightly odd, being an ‘L’ shape with the sink at one end of the L, close to the door, and the shower at the far end of the L, in what I guess might originally have been a different building given what appears to be a keystone in the lintel. As you can see from the photo above, the ceiling was a little uneven.
There was also the usual in-room coffee machine (which leaked whilst in operation). When we arrived there were two ‘normal’ coffee capsules and two decaffeinated. However, even though I was leaving out a tip for housekeeping, it obviously wasn’t enough, as one day when we arrived back (for a second time, when we got back at 4pm the room hadn’t yet been serviced), this is what was waiting:
We only had the in-room breakfast once, and it was a bit of a disaster. This is what we ordered (for two people):
A bagel and two hard-boiled eggs each, plus some juice and milk. This is what was delivered:
A croissant and a snack bar, with butter and jam each. There were also two small bottles of orange juice, not pictured. No bagels, and no eggs. Looking at other reviews, this doesn’t seem to be an uncommon occurrence, and as we had plans for the day, we didn’t bother asking them to rectify it, we just nibbled on the croissants, put the snack bars in our bags and headed out.
The less said about the cheese and wine reception the better. The cheese was cubes of American-style cheddar, accompanied by some rather bland plonk. We only partook once.
The rooms are single-glazed, and being towards the bottom of the busy bits of 13th Street let in quite a bit of noise at night. However, perhaps that’s a sign that we should just have been staying out later.
All in all, I was mildly disappointed with the hotel. We had paid over £800 (including tax) for four nights, but the room we had was nothing like the bright, airy rooms portrayed on the website. The power sockets were almost hanging out of the wall, and the breakfast experience was poor.
December 15th saw the twice-yearly reshuffle of the rail timetables. Among the changes, Northern Railway promised more frequent and longer trains. This was welcome, as most of the trains on the Hope Valley line through Reddish North are two or four carriage long Pacers from the 1980s, some of which are still complete with the original repurposed bus seats.
It was a bit of a joke with a colleague in the office that the 08:46 was due into Piccadilly at 08:58, but never arrived before 09:00am. In the new timetable the train is rescheduled to 08:47 with a 09:02 arrival, which is probably a better reflection of reality.
Now it’s difficult to know how long the trains are scheduled to be for each service, but given the trains during peak hours were largely four carriages before the timetable change, I was naively hoping that at least the same would be true afterwards.
Come Monday morning, I headed down to the station with Lucy for the 08:11. We were there a few minutes early and the delayed 08:04 pulled in. Two carriages, and when the doors opened there wasn’t enough room to get on. We waited for the train we’d been planning to get, which was four carriages and we even had a seat.
Heading home was a different matter. The Northern Railway Journeycheck showed no problems, but my own scripts that query the Network Rail ‘Live Departure Board’ service showed that most of the peak hour services were two carriages. We put it down to teething troubles, had a drink, and caught the 18:49, which was two carriages, but not unexpectedly so. Out of curiosity, I asked @northernassist what was going on, and their reply was:
This was a slightly confusing answer, and my interpretation of it was that a peak hour train can be two carriages and not be “short formed” as long as that was the plan when the diagrams were created that morning.
Tuesday the pattern repeated. Lucy caught the four carriage 08:11, after a crammed two-carriage 08:04 left the station, and I went for my more usual train, the 08:47. The departure board (both my script and the display at the station) claimed this was a four carriage train, but when it turned up, we had to shuffle to the centre of the platform to squeeze onto a two carriage Sprinter.
The evening was a repeat performance, all the peak hour (17:00 to 19:00) trains from Piccadilly to Reddish North were listed as two carriages, and the sample of Lucy (17:19) and myself (17:49) suggested that was accurate. Again I asked @northernassist, and the answer was identical.
I tried to clarify whether “all available” meant there was a shortage of carriages, or that the ‘increase’ in service had redirected them from the Hope Valley Line to somewhere else, but there was no further reply.
Wednesday has been an exact repeat in the morning. Delayed, overcrowded, 08:04 leaving people on the platform. Delayed 08:11 eventually leaving at 08:19, and a two carriage 08:47. The evening was a bit of a farce. Prior to leaving the office I looked at Journeycheck which claimed that 16:49 was short-formed, but the rest was as normal.
My script to query the Network Rail departure boards claimed the opposite. A four-coach 16:49, and two coaches everywhere else.
Lucy travelled on the 17:19, which was indeed two coaches. I aimed for the 17:49, boarded, and waited. It was soon crowded and 17:49 came and went. There was a driver in the cab, but no guard, and no announcements. I could overhear platform staff saying there was no guard, and eventually going to the driver and asking him to make an announcement.
More time passed. About a quarter of the people on the train got tired of being crammed on and headed off to see what else they could get. Eventually the platform staff (not the driver) announced that the train would be going fast to New Mills Central, and we should cross over the platform for the 18:19 for earlier stops.
The 18:19 ended up just as crowded, but there was a bit of friendly banter on board and departed fairly close to time. (For info, I lived in London and commuted on both the Central Line and South West Trains / South Western Railway for nigh on 30 years, so I do know what crowded trains are!)
After three days of the new timetable, I’m wondering what’s going to happen between now and next May when the timetable changes again. Are we stuck with the current formations, or will the delivery of new trains on other lines (I don’t think we’re getting any on the Hope Valley Line, but I’d be happy to learn otherwise) free up Sprinters and Super Sprinters for us?
I have no idea whether taking the franchise from Arriva would change the service, but the sentiment on the train this evening was “anything would be better.” I’d just like a better idea about how long this (presumably) short-term pain is going to last, and what the plans are for longer trains on the Hope Valley Line — not only over the coming days, but over the next few weeks, months and years.
I have just checked my IHG status. To get to “Gold Elite” (the first non-basic level, despite how fancy it might sound) requires 10,000 points.
This year I have 9,940.
If I was a serious traveller I’d be trying to find a way to get that final 60, but to be honest, even though I’m pretty sure that any one-night stay in any of the IHG brands would net that, I’m not sure the ‘benefits’ are worth another night away from home. Ah, well, I shall have to settle myself with being 99.4% of the way to status.
I wasn’t going to review the ibis Budget Whitechapel as I was only there for a night, but the check-out experience tipped my hand, and here we are.
My brief stay here followed a night in the rather more upmarket Park Plaza London Riverbank, but I was prepared for what it was supposed to be — a budget hotel (even though the night I was there was costing £120).
On walking in, the reception is on the first floor (for our American friends, that’s the floor above ground level), and I was momentarily confused as there’s a table tennis table to your left, and a surprisingly similar table to the right, but with a couple of screens and no net. It may not surprise you to learn that this is the check-in desk.
The staff were friendly and check-in was swift, and I was soon on my way to my room.
As I was expecting from a budget hotel, the room was basic. A double bed with a single bunk above it. A small desk, no separate bathroom, but a student-digs style shower and a loo. No toiletries other than a couple of bars of ibis Budget soap. The view was nothing to speak of, but I’m not sure what else to expect.
I settled down to do a bit of work, then headed out to meet up with some friends. I noticed the battery on my laptop hadn’t charged whilst I’d been working, but I know there’s a dodgy connector unless it’s plugged firmly in, so I put it down to that.
Later that evening, I got back and put all the things on charge — except they wouldn’t. All the sockets in the room were dead, as was the TV and the air-conditioning (which has a note on the wall that it isn’t air conditioning, it’s just a fan). I had a look around the room for circuit breakers, but it was late by this point, and I had my travel battery, so I didn’t bother telling reception, I just planned to mention it on the way out.
In the morning the shower did its job, though washing your hair with a bar of soap is less than ideal, and at this point I noticed that even if I’d had power, there was no kettle, tea, or coffee.
On checkout I mentioned about the lack of power and was told “you should have told us!” I politely replied that I was telling them now, and they insisted that I should have told them last night. I didn’t want to get into a long conversation about time, etc, all I’d been hoping for was “sorry about that, thanks for letting us know, we’ll get it fixed,” so I bade the hotel farewell.
There have probably been a thousand blog posts and LinkedIn posts already about Labour’s proposal for “free broadband for all,” but I’m going to add my tuppence-worth. Given (one of) my Twitter handle(s) is @internetplumber, I feel it’s almost a duty. Whilst these are my personal opinions, they’re written as someone that works in a service provider that is already largely publicly funded.
First a bit of background. BT used to be a monolithic company that owned and operated both the physical infrastructure (fibre and copper in the ground) plus the services on top of it (phone, Internet). To encourage competition in the services, which require access to the infrastructure, the latter was split into a company called Openreach, which is regulated, and must offer access to the infrastructure equitably to all – whether that’s BT (who also own Plusnet), TalkTalk, Virgin, Sky, or any number of other service providers (including Jisc for the Janet network, and the ISP I use at home – Andrews and Arnold).
Labour’s suggestion that they’ll provide free broadband for all using “full fibre” via a nationalised provider encroaches both on the physical infrastructure (Openreach), and the services (BT et al).
Building Fibre to the Home is expensive. We do it for Higher and Further education, using a combination of dark fibre provided by commercial companies and products from Openreach, but this is on the scale for resilient connections to about 1,000 customers.
There are about 25,000,000 homes in the UK. A lot of those are in metropolitan areas where small fibre distances can reach many customers, but digging in cities is time-consuming and expensive. Other homes are out in the country which, whilst perhaps easier to dig, requires a long stretch of fibre to get back to the nearest Exchange. At £1,000 per house, that’s already £25bn. This is an expensive investment which would benefit from public money, otherwise it may not happen, or at least it may only happen sporadically.
The Internet access on top of that infrastructure is already a very competitive market, which benefits the consumer in terms of being able to choose the right service provider for them. For example, whilst my wife would like me to use BT so that I could get access to BT Sport to watch the rugby, I have used Andrews and Arnold for a long time because they rolled out IPv6 access before just about any other domestic service provider in the UK. All Internet access is not the same.
Governments are frequently talking about regulating the Internet in one form or another. Are you happy with only being able to visit government-sanctioned websites? Or only using government-approved communications methods which they can, presumably, snoop on? Our gas, electricity and water do not come for free – even before deregulation there were electricity bills, gas bills and water rates, is broadband more essential than those other utilities?
Don’t mistake me, I think universal, fast, Internet access is something we all deserve and increasingly require, but are we making the right utility free, and what is the cost of making it free?
There’s a saying in the Internet industry – “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” Where will the information collected by British Broadband be held? What will it be used for?
Twenty years ago today, on 6th November 1999, I stepped on a plane for the very first time to leave the UK for the very first time. Was this a long-awaited family holiday? Nope, they never really stretched further than Swansea or — once — Tenby. It was for IETF46 in Washington D.C..
The BA 777 that I flew on that day is still in service.
Now, the sum total scheduled duration of flights I’ve been on (or plan to be on) during 2019 is one minute shy of five days and 18 hours. I wonder what little me, reading Look and Learn with talk of supersonic planes (in addition to Concorde) and even ballistic travel would have thought?
Travel is disruptive, a lot of it is at weekends and evenings (and if you add a couple of hours at airports for each flight, that’s another four days on top of the 5d18h). I know there are a reasonable number of people reading this for whom that amount of travel would be considered a sabbatical, but I still consider myself lucky to be able to do this interaction with other NRENs, service providers and global Internet governance groups as part of my job, and still enjoy travelling for pleasure, even more so now that after travelling on my own for so long I can get to do it with a wonderful companion (my wife, of course).
It’s very easy to creep into isolationism, which can happen on so many levels, whether it’s the Network Operations part of a very large company, Jisc as opposed to other NRENs, NRENs in general compared to the wider commercial Internet, or even countries thinking they can ’take back control’ and go it alone. However, it’s something we need to constantly fight against. The Internet, like everything else, can only work as a collective effort.
Of course, this rally against isolationism doesn’t detract from “me time.” 🙂
Whilst we were still living in South-West London I booked a return for my wife and myself to Philadelphia as part of BA’s 100th anniversary sale. These were tickets that cost £100 each way in economy, including taxes. Since then we’ve moved to Manchester, and so to avoid problems with missed connections for the 12:40pm BA67 to Philadelphia, we flew down the evening before and stayed at the relatively new Hilton Garden Inn at Terminal 2.
Why a hotel at Terminal 2 when the Manchester flight arrived into T5 and the Philadelphia flight would leave from the same terminal? Well, predominantly cost. The Sofitel at T5 was substantially more expensive than the HGI, I didn’t want the hassle of buses or taxis from outside the airport, and it’s not too difficult to get from T5 to T2.
Previously living close to the airport, I’d never taken the Heathrow Express to travel between terminals, so after pausing to wonder if I needed a free transfer ticket at T5, I decided to pick one up to be on the safe side — just as well, as I’d have had to make my excuses at the T2 ticket barrier without it.
The next step was finding the hotel itself. T2 is a reasonable walk from the train station along several moving walkways, and then you need to find the right level to get to the hotel. For reference, you want to walk to the hotel across the car-park, and then a walk-way, from the arrivals level (level 1) of T2. Whilst you can see it clearly from the departures level, there is no obvious way to get there from across the drop-off zone, as we found out whilst hauling our cases!
There are four check-in desks, and no queues when we arrived. I was somewhat disconcerted when the young lad said he paused because I looked like his best friend’s Dad, but at some point I have to realise I’m getting older. At least it wasn’t his friend’s grandfather, and a suggestion that my wife reminded him of his friend’s mother might have gone down even worse.
Using the Hilton app on my phone, I’d already booked a room on the 11th floor (out of 13) with a runway view — try and claim you’re surprised by that. The runway-facing rooms look south-west onto 27L/9R, which was on easterly take-offs whilst I was there. The soundproofing is good, so it allowed a view of the runway without airplane noise being noticeable.
The bed was fairly standard, with a large screen TV and a desk. The bathroom was spotless, although the waterfall shower was relatively weak, with Crabtree & Evelyn toiletries.
Having some time to kill, we went downstairs to the bar, one floor down from the lobby. I had a beer, my wife had a white wine, and we shared a (small) bowl of chips (“hot chips” or “fries” for those that use a different variant of English). This came to £20, so we made our way back to the terminal, and to The Flying Chariot, the Wetherspoons on the departure level of T2 for a couple more drinks. It’s not a bargain compared to other Spoons, but it was cheaper than the Hilton, and had a wider selection of drinks — plus you can still get the drinks delivered to your table using the Wetherspoons app.
It was quite an enjoyable couple of hours people-watching at the airport as passengers arrived to fly off somewhere, some more prepared than others. There were a few groups obviously heading off to Japan on JAL for the Rugby World Cup.
Instead of eating there, we picked up some sandwiches from the Marks and Spencer on the arrivals level and headed back to the hotel room.
After a sound sleep, blissfully unaware of the planes taking off not far from our eardrums, the following morning check-out was easy enough, again with no queue, and from there it was just the walk to T2, then the walk to the Heathrow Express and onwards to Terminal 5 for the flight to Philly.
This was the first time I’d spent about 24 hours within an airport perimeter, as most other times I’ve stayed at an airport hotel, I’ve either been arriving late, departing early, or the hotel itself has been just outside the airport. I’d happily stay in the Hilton Garden Inn T2 again, even if my flights were based in T5.
I’d flown into Belfast City airport (BHD) and caught bus 600 into the city centre, which dropped me off at the Europa Bus Centre, a journey costing the total of £2.60 (though I felt sorry for the driver who had to arrange a lot of large suitcases from students starting to arrive for the start of the new University year at Queen’s University), and handily on the same block as the Hampton and indeed the massive Europa Hotel itself.
The reception desks are straight in front of the door, and lead onto the bar and breakfast area.
Check-in was easy, and the pre-payment arranged by the travel agent was on file, which doesn’t always happen. I had a room on the fifth floor out of eight. As an aside, why does the sign in the lift (elevator) correctly refer to ‘G’ for ground floor, but the button is marked ‘0’?
When I got to the room it was almost entirely made of bed. For some reason they appear to have been expecting me to arrive en-masse and the sofa-bed was also made up. I momentarily worried that a colleague from work had been booked into the same room too. I could, and perhaps should, have called reception to ask them to stow the bed, but I wanted to get a couple of things done before heading out for dinner, so I didn’t bother (and so no fault lies with Hampton, though I was surprised to still see it there when I got back on the second day, but by that point it was too late to say anything — he said, Britishly).
There was a large TV in the room which I could see well whilst lying on the bed, but as it was mounted on a narrow shelf could only be swivelled a small amount and so didn’t have a great angle to see from the desk. It was the usual (for the UK) Freeview channels. There were double sockets with a USB outlet either side of the bed, which is good news.
As a minor issue, there was some tape that was flaking in one corner of the room.
The same door covers the bathroom and wardrobe in an interesting space-saving arrangement — if the door is closed to the bathroom then the wardrobe is open, and vice versa. The shower is easy to operate, not something you can always say, especially in cases when hot water takes a little while to reach the shower head. Toiletries are large pump-bottles mounted on the wall, but there was shampoo, shower gel and conditioner, plus a hand-wash next to the sink, all of which were full, and all of the pumps were working!
I slept well overnight, and headed down to the buffet breakfast in the morning. There is the choice of a cooked breakfast (bacon, sausage, scrambled egg, baked beans, small potato bites, etc), toast, pastries, cereals, and a new one on me, DIY waffles, along with tea, coffee and fruit juices. It was a reasonable way to set me up for the day, and after that I checked out and headed on home.
I’d be perfectly happy to stay there again, plus it means earning HHonors points if that’s your thing.
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