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One of my many travel-related aspirations is to attend as many of the major cultural festivals around the world as possible, since these celebrations tend to be some of the most fun ways to get to know new cultures and peoples.
Growing up, I have fond memories of the extravagant Chinese New Year celebrations in Beijing. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of spending St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin. Next up on my bucket list are the Rio Carnival and Holi in India in the spring, San Fermín in the Spanish summer (famous for its bull-running spectacle), and of course – soon to be checked off the list – Oktoberfest in the heart of Bavaria during, well, October.
I’ve always wondered what it would be like to attend the world’s largest beer festival, and when a friend of mine recently moved to Munich, I figured there was no excuse not to pay him a visit and get my drink on for the weekend.
This year’s Oktoberfest celebration has actually been ongoing since late September, and I’ll be around for the final weekend. Everyone I’ve spoken to has basically said the same thing – that I’ll have one hell of a time, but probably won’t remember much of it!
I’ve visited the city of Munich before, but it was only on a day tour so I’m sure there’s plenty of new places for me to explore in-between Märzens and pretzels. And as many of you know, I’m a huge football fan and try to catch a game whenever I can on my travels, so I’ll also be hoping to score tickets to a Bayern Munich match while I’m in town for the weekend.
After Oktoberfest, I’ll be heading to London for the following week. I’ve written previously about why London is one of my favourite cities, and having spent a year studying there during my university days, I now find myself making trips back to London pretty much on an annual basis to catch up with old friends and continue the lifelong journey of exploring one of the world’s great cities.
Jessica will be joining me in London for the week as well, and we’ll probably do a side-trip to various parts of the rest of England that we didn’t get to see the last few times around.
When flying anywhere in the world, my usual instinct is to redeem Aeroplan miles for travel on Star Alliance partners, and this trip was no exception. I generally like to review new airlines that I haven’t flown before, and since I had already flown Brussels Airlines, Swiss, Air Canada, and Lufthansa, it was getting down to relatively slim pickings.
I eventually decided that I’d love to try SAS business class, which looks like a very comfortable way to cross the pond. Moreover, the Scandinavian airline serves quite a number of US cities on both coasts from their trio of hub airports in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Oslo without levying any fuel surcharges, making them a popular option when redeeming miles for transatlantic travel.
Back in early September, I had located SAS business class availability on my desired date of travel between Chicago and Copenhagen, but I sat on my feet for a bit and didn’t immediately call Aeroplan to book it. Before long, Aeroplan’s well-documented “IT issues” had taken hold within the reservation system, and a whole bunch of airlines (including SAS) were taken offline.
Much to my chagrin, the IT issues took forever to be resolved, and once SAS flights came back online, the business class space on the Copenhagen flight had disappeared. After a moment of panic, I was relieved to see that seats on the Chicago to Stockholm flight had actually opened up on the same day, and having learned my lesson from last time, I quickly phoned the Aeroplan call centre and made the one-way booking for 55,000 Aeroplan miles.
In addition to getting to try SAS business class, I’m also excited to visit the United Polaris Lounge in Chicago, which from what I hear is a fantastic lounge experience. I’ve scheduled myself a relatively long layover at O’Hare Airport for the express purpose of fully immersing myself in the lounge.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the journey, there were no direct flights from Stockholm to Munich available, so I “settled” for an additional stop in Zurich. The excellent Swiss Business Lounge should render that a very palatable layover.
Next, I needed a way to get between Munich and London. As you can imagine, the cash prices on this flight were astronomical on this Oktoberfest weekend – I’m talking $400+ for a flight of less than two hours – and so I knew I had to use miles.
When you think of using miles for short-haul flights, the first program that comes to mind ought to be British Airways Avios. Indeed, booking short intra-Europe trips to and from London on British Airways is one of the best uses of Avios (unlike long-haul flights, the taxes and fees on these redemptions are very reasonable).
The problem was that every flight between Munich and London on my desired date had no availability left (go figure). And so I started looking at neighbouring airports – cities around Munich where I could travel by bus or train, and then take a direct British Airways flight back to London.
Frankfurt? Nope, no space. Nuremberg? Nothing. Salzburg? Nein.
Innsbruck is the fifth-largest city in Austria and the capital of the Tyrol region. I truly lucked out here, because the flight to London is only operated thrice weekly, and it’s only 7,750 Avios in business class, which I figured was worth it given the very small premium compared to 4,000 Avios for economy.
The flight departs at 11am, so I figured I’d catch an early €12 FlixBus from Munich, wander around Innsbruck’s old town for a bit, and then head to the airport. It’s going to be quite a tiring journey, but it certainly beats the alternative of shelling out a small fortune for a quick European hopper.
My overall routing so far looks as follows, all in business class:
Toronto to Chicago on Air Canada, departing 3:40pm and arriving 4:22pm
Chicago to Stockholm on SAS, departing 9:05pm and arriving 12:30pm the next day
Stockholm to Zurich on Swiss, departing 3:15pm and arriving 5:40pm
Zurich to Munich on Swiss, departing 7:20pm and arriving 8:15pm
Innsbruck to London on British Airways, departing 11:20am and arriving 12:25pm
(Side note: I had mentioned Jessica will be joining me in London; I booked her on Aer Lingus business class from Toronto via Dublin for 54,000 Avios in total. While I can’t expect her to contribute a full flight review, I’ll make sure to get her impressions of the business class experience on the Irish flag carrier and share them with you.)
As for the return flight, who knows at this point?!
That’s right – with my return date pencilled in for less than two weeks from now, I haven’t actually booked anything yet. As you might’ve guessed, that’s because I’m holding out for Lufthansa First Class – my “day of decadence” last year via Zurich and Frankfurt was simply unforgettable, and I’d love to share the same experience with Jessica this time around.
However, award space on Lufthansa First Class seems to be much more stingy nowadays compared to last year, and it seems like the airline’s been doing a better job of filling the posh seats with paid customers. So even though the traditional T-14 mark has come and gone, there still isn’t much space showing up on my desired dates.
I’ve been monitoring one particular route, Munich to Mexico City, and the flight loads seem reasonable so far, with five First Class seats yet to be filled. Lufthansa has their own complex algorithm for whether or not to release open seats as award seats, taking into account a whole range of factors, so for now I’m going to wait and see if any seats open up in the coming few days.
If these five open seats get booked up any further, I’ll know it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to snag Lufthansa First this time around, and will probably book something simple like LOT Polish Airlines business class for the return journey. Until then, we wait…
As it turns out, my friend actually moved to a small city several hours outside of Munich rather than in Munich itself, so it was best for me to book a hotel room close to the Oktoberfest fairgrounds.
There were plenty of choices, such as the Four Points by Sheraton Munich or the Roomers Munich, part of the Autograph Collection. In the end, I decided on the Le Méridien Munich, which is a short walk away from the Oktoberfest venue. I redeemed 35,000 Marriott points per night for three nights in total, and since the cash rates had long since skyrocketed past the €500 range, I knew I was getting a great deal.
In London, I was even more spoilt for choice. Do I opt for the Wellesley Knightsbridge, which, in spite of its mediocre ratings, is the only Marriott hotel that’s going to become a Category 8 next year (and therefore represents a very good deal at this moment)?
Do I want to take up residence in the posh postcodes of Mayfair, at hotels such as the Grosvenor House or the Marriott Park Lane, and rub shoulders with the legion of wealthy oil barons who frequent these hotels?
Or do I splash the points on a stay at the London EDITION – an intriguing lifestyle luxury brand and one that I’ve never tried before – even though I wouldn’t receive any elite benefits like lounge access or breakfast?
In the end, the most sensible option was the most economical: I had a whole bunch of 7-night hotel certificates floating around from the Marriott Travel Packages saga, and had only recently converted them over to the new hotel categories.
Since my stay in London would be for exactly seven nights, I figured it made most sense to apply one of these certificates; moreover, since the highest-category certificate I held was for Category 6, I ended up choosing the best Category 6 property available, which was the St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel.
The hotel building is architecturally stunning and forms part of St. Pancras Railway Station, a key transport hub in Central London. I actually have a funny story about this hotel – many years ago, when I was backpacking through Europe, a friend and I were captivated by the building’s design and decided to sneak inside to wander among its interiors. Understandably, we were promptly booted out of there by hotel security about 10 minutes later.
This time around, I’ll get to stay at the hotel as an actual guest and admire its splendour at my own pace. Its guest rooms look very well-appointed indeed, and the Chambers Club, the hotel’s club lounge, looks to be one of the best you’ll find anywhere in Europe.
So far, my total out-of-pocket costs for this trip came to the below:
Aeroplan taxes and fees, YYZ–ORD–ARN–ZRH–MUC: $170
Avios taxes and fees, INN–LHR: $40
Avios taxes and fees, YYZ–DUB–LHR: $136
Total: $346 (average $173 per person)
That’s subject to an increase by some amount, depending on what I book for the return flight. If I go with a simple low-surcharge option like LOT business class, that’ll probably add about $150 per person to the total, whereas a Lufthansa First Class adventure would run me an extra $450 per person or so.
A Quick Word on Trip Reports…
I’ve run into a bit of a dilemma here on Prince of Travel recently, and that’s the reality that I’ve been travelling far more frequently than what my writing schedule can keep up with. Here I am about to head off on another trip, and yet I’ve still got my travels from Russia, East Asia, and Portland to tell you about before I’ll get to this one.
I have entertained the idea of putting out reviews at a faster pace, but to be honest I’m not very inclined to do so since I’ve always maintained “quality over quantity” as a mantra for this website.
Therefore, my solution to this problem (which I’m aware is eminently first-world in nature) is simply to continue with my usual “Impressions from…” posts whenever I complete a major trip, providing you with a healthy dose of first impressions and pictures, with the detailed stuff to be published at a later date whenever that may be.
I’m thrilled to be embarking on another trip to Western Europe, since it’s been a while since I’ve spent any meaningful time in that part of the world. This one will be full of adventures both old and new, both in terms of the flights and hotels I’ll get to sample as well as the activities and festivities on the ground. I’m sure you’ll excuse me if I’m a little slow at replying to your messages this weekend! 😉