Impressions from Europe 2018

Europe 2018

Booked: Oktoberfest!

Impressions
View all: ReviewsTravel Talk

I travelled to Europe earlier this month to attend the Oktoberfest in Munich and spend some time in London the week after. In this post, I’ll bring you some of the highlights from the trip, including a few satisfying business class flight experiences and an unexpected side-trip to the Baltic region.


What Did My Return Trip Look Like?

I owe you guys an update to the initial “Booked” post on this trip, because I hadn’t even booked the return portion at the time. You see, Lufthansa First Class award seats only open up at most 15 days out from the day of departure, and so I was holding onto the hope of treating myself and Jessica to the luxurious trifecta of Swiss First Class Lounge + Lufthansa First Class Terminal + Lufthansa First Class.

Lufthansa can release First Class seats at exactly T-15, but they can also choose to release them even closer to the date of departure. It’s all dependent on the exact route being flown, the number of unsold seats, the day of the week, etc.

As it turns out, the airline didn’t release two seats on my desired flight until about THREE days out. It was especially frustrating because I saw one open award seat about a week before departure, but the second seat didn’t appear until a few days later.

Now, I had had my eye on LOT Polish Airlines business class as a backup option, and was worried that someone would book those seats up. And if that had happened and Lufthansa First Class didn’t pan out, then I’d probably be flying economy on the way home, since there was virtually no other business class availability for my desired date. 

So about five days beforehand, I decided to take action on the open LOT business class seats, and in doing so planned a 24-hour layover in Tallinn, Estonia. I had heard quite a few people mention Tallinn as a beautiful place that’s worth seeing, and I had never been to the Baltic states before, so I decided now was a great time to slot in a quick visit. 

I booked the following routing for 57,500 Aeroplan miles + $150 in taxes and fees per person. LOT has minimal fuel surcharges – about $70 on a one-way – but that’s a small price to pay for the convenience of flying direct into Toronto.

Then I booked a cheap economy fare from London Luton to Tallinn on Wizz Air, one of the major European low-cost carriers, for about £25 ($42). Annoyingly, the flight departed at 6:10am and Luton Airport is about 50 km north of Central London, so that turned out to be a gruelling early-morning trek.

When Lufthansa First Class seats eventually opened up three days before departure, then, I didn’t bother changing everything up since I had already planned a side-trip around the LOT alternative. 

Sometimes when you’re looking to redeem Miles & Points, everything runs like clockwork and your best-laid plans fall into place, as if by magic. Other times, things don’t quite work out as well and you turn towards your backup options, and this was one of those times – we’ll have to save the caviar and champagne for our next trip!


United Polaris Lounge + SAS Business Class: A Delightful Journey

I had a relatively long route to Munich, with three layovers along the way, mostly dictated by award availability patterns. Nevertheless, I’d like to think I made the most of the journey, starting with the excellent United Polaris Lounge Chicago.

United Polaris Lounge Chicago

United Polaris Lounge Chicago

I’m very excited to write the review for this place, because it’s quite the game changer when it comes to the North American lounge experience. United has really stepped it up a gear with their Polaris Lounges, offering private workstations, a stylish bar, and premium à la carte dining. 

I spent five hours in here, and could’ve spent more – in fact, I got dangerously close to spending too much time enjoying my gourmet burger that I almost missed my departing flight to Stockholm!

In the past, layovers in the US were often a necessary evil for those of us redeeming points from Canada to other continents. Nowadays, if you’re passing through Chicago, Newark, Houston, or San Francisco (or a host of other cities with Polaris Lounges opening soon), the Polaris Lounges might well be worth scheduling some extra layover time to properly savour. 

United Polaris Lounge Chicago

United Polaris Lounge Chicago

That was followed by a comfortable flight onboard SAS business class, which is my new favourite business class product for crossing the Atlantic. The VantageXL seats are stylish and ergonomic, the generous 24’’ width on the lie-flat bed makes for a soothing night of sleep, and the flight attendants couldn’t have been nicer. 

SAS business class

SAS business class

One of my favourite parts of the flight was the onboard dining – instead of simply handing you a bowl of salad or a cheese plate, several courses of the meal are customizable and are plated right in front of your eyes by the hard-working crew.

After that, intra-Europe business class is nothing to write home about, since it’s usually just an economy class seat with a blocked seat adjacent to you. I had two such hopper flights on Swiss, which brought me to Germany by way of the ever-enjoyable Swiss business lounges in Zurich.


The Best of Munich

My first day in Munich, I went on one of the free walking tours in order to absorb and understand some of the storied history behind Bavaria’s capital, including such points of interest as Marienplatz, the main square, and Viktualienmarkt, the 200-year old farmer’s market at the heart of the city…

New Town Hall, Munich

New Town Hall, Munich

…only to spend the very next day forgetting it all at Oktoberfest 😉

Oktoberfest, Munich

Oktoberfest, Munich

Seriously though, this was probably one of the most fun travel days I’ve had, although suffice to say my memory of it is rather hazy. While those who arrive early at the Theresienwiese (“Theresa’s Meadows”, the site of the festival) were faced with a long queue, my friend and I encountered virtually no lineup as we sauntered into the Hofbräuhaus tent (one of the largest local brewers) at around 11am.

If you’re planning to attend Oktoberfest, you can either reserve a table in advance or just show up and make friends with strangers to grab a few empty spots. That’s basically what we did, and once we took our seats, the steins of beer began flowing.

My favourite part about the whole thing was the musical band that was perched on a raised platform – every five minutes or so they’d start playing “Ein Prosit”, which is basically “Cheers!”, and everyone would get up on their seats, sway to the music, and toast. It was awesome. 

That night, we were off to the Allianz Arena to watch Bayern Munich play – tickets were quite affordable at €35 apiece. They lost 0–3, and I was basically spending the entire match desperately trying to sober up a bit, but nevertheless that was a major bucket list item checked off for my inner football fanatic.

In Munich I stayed at the Le Méridien Munich for its outstanding location, a 10-minute walk away from the Oktoberfest tents. The room itself turned out to be a little dated but still nice enough for the Le Méridien brand, and the hotel also served up a mean Bavarian breakfast, including pretzels, white sausage, and self-serve cuts of smoked meat. 

Le Méridien Munich

Le Méridien Munich

Breakfast at the Le Méridien Munich

Breakfast at the Le Méridien Munich


Getting to London

I had written about how difficult it was to book tickets from Munich to London on the last day of Oktoberfest. Cash prices were outrageous and virtually all award space had been taken from Munich and neighbouring cities, with the exception of Innsbruck, Austria.

Innsbruck, Austria

Innsbruck, Austria

And so I took an early-morning bus for €12 to Innsbruck before catching British Airways business class onwards to London. Walking around Innsbruck’s beautiful old town at dawn and sitting down for a coffee was a lovely experience, and I’ll probably return one day in order to take advantage of the excellent skiing around the region. 

I have to say, redeeming Avios for travel on British Airways within Europe can be a tremendous deal. Not only do flights start at merely 4,000 Avios for economy class, but the upgrade to business class – for only an additional 3,750 Avios in my case – can be extremely worthwhile, since you get an immigration fast-track card to help you breeze through Heathrow’s notorious queues if you’re a non-EU citizen.


The Best of London

Jessica joined me for our week in London, which we mostly spent walking around the iconic streets of Central London, hitting up one or two attractions a day and catching up with old friends at night. 

Back when I studied in London for my exchange program, we had done most of the major tourist things – London Eye, St. Paul’s Cathedral, British Museum, etc. – and so we spent this trip seeking out a few new things to do.

Somehow we had always missed out on Westminster Abbey the last times, so we spent a good afternoon immersed in the audio-guided tour of one of the most notable religious buildings around the world.

We also carried on my journeys from last year in East London, this time following the Regent’s Canal over to the eclectic Broadway Market, where we picked up a few new hand-drawn prints for the apartment and snacked on some delicious oysters, duck confit burgers, and Vietnamese coffee.

The magnificent St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London played host to us for our week-long stay. I had redeemed a seven-night certificate here and truly feel as though I got my money’s worth and then some. The hotel’s club lounge, the Chambers Club, has an extremely posh feel to it, and I thoroughly enjoyed taking a hearty English breakfast there to start my day, or enjoying a light afternoon tea as the sunlight poured through the windows.

Chambers Club, St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London

Chambers Club, St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London

The hotel has two types of rooms – the Barlow Wing, which is the modern new extension to the hotel, and the Chambers Wing, which is part of the old railway station building and whose guest rooms look fancy as hell. Unfortunately, despite my best attempts, the hotel wasn’t able to upgrade me to a Chambers Suite (I hear that these upgrades are exceedingly rare), so I’ll have to save that one for next time.

That’s a real shame, because the public area of the Chambers Wing is architecturally jaw-dropping, so I can only imagine what it would be like to stay in one of the rooms.

Chambers Wing, St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London

Chambers Wing, St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London

I was already very happy with my Barlow Wing upgraded room, though, which featured extraordinary high ceilings and views of the Eurostar trains as they pull into St. Pancras Railway Station.

Larger Barlow room, St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London

Larger Barlow room, St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London


24 Hours in Tallinn

Estonia’s capital is simply picturesque in its beauty. The old town in particular is straight out of a storybook, especially during the fall when the cobblestone streets are filled with fallen yellow leaves.

Most people who’ve visited Tallinn before had told me that it’s worth spending only about 1-2 days, and I’d tend to agree – you can gain a very good appreciation for this small city in a short time.

The Hotel Telegraaf, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, slots in seamlessly within the old town buildings. I was delighted to be upgraded to their junior suite, and we had a lovely overnight stay, capped with a delicious breakfast!

Hotel Telegraaf, Autograph Collection, Tallinn

Hotel Telegraaf, Autograph Collection, Tallinn

The second day in Tallinn, we took a walk out of the old town and towards the Baltic Sea. The Kalamaja district is undergoing something of a rejuvenation – as so many old port areas in cities around the world seem to do – with new condos popping up along the waterfront.

Tallinn waterfront

Tallinn waterfront

We enjoyed a sunny, breezy walk along the calm waters followed by a brief visit to Kalamaja Park, where the fall leaves had covered the grass in a sheet of golden foliage. It was a lovely end to the trip.

Kalamaja Park, Tallinn

Kalamaja Park, Tallinn


LOT Business Class: Surprisingly, Pretty Good

I wasn’t going into my business class flight on LOT Polish Airlines with very high expectations – I thought it’d be pretty run-of-the-mill flight with a lie-flat bed, a decent meal, and nothing more.

LOT Polish Airlines business class

LOT Polish Airlines business class

In the end, the flight mostly matched my expectations but also surprised me in a few small but significant ways. The service was a lot more friendly and attentive, and there seemed to be an excess of flight attendants who were working the business class cabin.

I was also delighted to see that LOT serves a pre-departure amuse bouche – something many leading airlines don’t offer – as well as cappuccinos, lattes, and Lindt hot chocolates in business class. And of course, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner always makes for a sweet ride.

The downsides to the product would be the seats themselves – they’re standard forward-facing seats that don’t have much privacy nor storage space. For that reason, there’s several other business class options I’d choose over LOT for hopping over the pond, but given how generous they are with their award availability to Toronto (and the minimal fuel surcharges they levy), I can certainly see myself flying with LOT again.


Conclusion

I’m so happy to have checked off a few major bucket list items on this trip while also getting to sample a few new Star Alliance business class products, staying at some very cool hotels, and visiting some new countries (say hello to my scratch map, Austria and Estonia!) Now that I’m back in Canada, it’s time to get back to work and stay put for a while – most likely until New Year’s!