Europe

Trip Report: Amsterdam, Iceland and Munich

Trip Report: Amsterdam, Iceland and Munich
Review: Iberia A340-600 Business Class
Review: Kimpton DeWitt Amsterdam
A Brief Tour of Amsterdam
Review: Sheraton Amsterdam Airport Hotel and Conference Center
Review: Radisson Blu 1919, Reykjavik
Review: Center Hotel Plaza, Reykjavik
A Week in Iceland
Review: aloft Munich
Visiting Dachau
A Brief Tour of Munich
Review: Hilton Munich Airport

The genesis of this trip was a friend telling me about a group tour of Iceland that several friends were going on and asking if I wanted to go or not. Of course the tour wanted to sell us airfare and options using points and miles aren’t all that plentiful, especially if fixed dates are involved.

The group tour was only a week and since October is when we we usually take a two-week vacation anyway, my travel companion and I decided to use our miles to get to Europe, enjoy a few days there, then buy tickets to Iceland, do the tour and then fly to another city in Europe where our miles could get us back to the US in business class. Continue reading

Categories: Award Travel, Europe, Germany, Hilton, Hotel, Iberia, Iceland, Icelandair, IHG, Marriott, Netherlands, OneWorld, Radisson, Starwood | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Lounge Review: Lufthansa Lounge, Cologne-Bonn Airport

Introduction
Lodging Review: Novotel Torino Corso Giulio Cesare
Attraction Review: Museo Egizio
Lodging Review: Hilton Bonn
Lounge Review: Lufthansa Lounge, Cologne-Bonn Airport
United 777-200ER Old Style vs. Polaris Business Class

I had a very early start to the day for my return trip. My flight from Munich to Chicago departed at 11:25 AM so I wanted to be sure I had plenty of time to connect – and even to catch a backup flight should my original flight get canceled. So I was booked on a 6:20 AM flight from the Cologne/Bonn airport to Munich. I booked a ride with Suntransfers and my only complaint was that they were non-negotiable as to pickup time and that was at 3:55 AM. At that time of day, with no traffic and it’s a short drive anyway, I was at the airport around 4:30 AM and the Lufthansa ticket counter didn’t even open until 5 AM so I had to stand there for half an hour with my bags. Ah well, certainly better than being late.

CGN airport is quite small. In fact, on their website, the motto is: so simple. There are two terminals. Terminal 1 handles Lufthansa, Germanwings, Austrian and Star Alliance partners and Terminal 2 handles all other airlines. Each Terminal has a lounge. In T2 it’s a generic business lounge for all the airlines while in T1 it’s a Lufthansa-branded lounge.

As the airport is small, so is the lounge. However with Lufthansa being the dominant carrier I can see that it might get crowded with elite travelers gaining access even if they’re on an economy ticket. It opens at 5:30 AM so I had to wait a bit for entry.

The lounge is circular in shape and one side of the room has the comfortable lounging chairs while the other side has tables and chairs for dining.

Lufthansa Lounge CGN Casual Seating

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Lodging Review: Hilton Bonn

Introduction
Lodging Review: Novotel Torino Corso Giulio Cesare
Attraction Review: Museo Egizio
Lodging Review: Hilton Bonn
Lounge Review: Lufthansa Lounge, Cologne-Bonn Airport
United 777-200ER Old Style vs. Polaris Business Class

One of my co-workers and I took a taxi from the Cologne/Bonn airport to the Hilton Bonn. It’s a lovely yellow building located right on the Rhine River. The Viking River Cruise we took on the Rhine a few years ago would have sailed right by this hotel after we spent the day in Cologne, just a few miles away. It’s in an area very convenient to a pedestrian-only section of shops and even the train station is not a far walk away. I liked the hotel itself, with one GIANT caveat about my stay.

Hilton Bonn

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Attraction Review: Museo Egizio

Introduction
Lodging Review: Novotel Torino Corso Giulio Cesare
Attraction Review: Museo Egizio
Lodging Review: Hilton Bonn
Lounge Review: Lufthansa Lounge, Cologne-Bonn Airport
United 777-200ER Old Style vs. Polaris Business Class

Turin’s Egyptian Musem, Museo Egizio, contains over 30,000 Egyptian artifacts, and is said to have the largest collection of Egyptian items anywhere outside of Egypt. It receives well over 500K visitors per year and is definitely worth visiting if you have a few hours to spare.

The first item in the collection was an altar table in an imitation of Egyptian style that arrived in 1630. This piece inspired King Charles Emmanuel III commissioned Vitaliano Donati to travel to Egypt and acquire more ancient items in 1753. Donati returned with 300 pieces that became the basis of the collection.

In the 1800s the French Consul General had built a collection during his stay in Egypt and it was acquired by Italian King Charles Felix in 1824. Other collections have been added to the museum over time until it reached its present size.

Here are a few things I found interesting.

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Lodging Review: Novotel Torino Corso Giulio Cesare

Introduction
Lodging Review: Novotel Torino Corso Giulio Cesare
Attraction Review: Museo Egizio
Lodging Review: Hilton Bonn
Lounge Review: Lufthansa Lounge, Cologne-Bonn Airport
United 777-200ER Old Style vs. Polaris Business Class

I was disappointed that for the first few nights of this trip we would not be staying in a hotel where I had any status. Though I had never signed up for an account with Accor Hotels (the parent company of Novotel) I did have an account with Fairmont Hotels and they’d recently been acquired by Accor. I ended up having to call Accor to find out my account number but I did manage to get it attached to my reservation.

The car service (I used both Rideways and Sun Transfers on this trip and both were fine) dropped us off at the front door of the Novotel Torino. It’s in a rather industrial area and I don’t mean there are necessarily factories around but it was not an area I’d feel very safe walking around alone at night. Perhaps that’s just my perception but buildings around seemed to be a bit run down. There were no restaurants nearby, just the one in the hotel. It was, however, very convenient to the office where our meeting was held.

Just below the trees is a covered entrance which faces a side street.
(Image courtesy accorhotels.com)

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Categories: Accor Hotels, Europe, Hotel, Italy, Lodging Review, Novotel | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Trip Report: Turin, Italy and Bonn, Germany

Introduction
Lodging Review: Novotel Torino Corso Giulio Cesare
Attraction Review: Museo Egizio
Lodging Review: Hilton Bonn
Lounge Review: Lufthansa Lounge, Cologne-Bonn Airport
United 777-200ER Old Style vs. Polaris Business Class

Late last year I took a business trip that included stops in both Italy and Germany. The trip details were finalized while I was on my fall vacation to Amsterdam, Iceland and Munich so I only made my reservations about 10 days before I left. That actually worked to my advantage. Oftentimes our company gets better pricing on Delta. I know Delta has a great product and a lot of my co-workers love traveling on them and even have status with them. But for me their routing doesn’t often work. (For example, I really don’t like having to fly from Memphis to Atlanta and then west to go skiing. Yes, I could route via Minneapolis or Detroit and I know they handle the snow well, but it just doesn’t make sense to me when I could go via DFW or Houston or even straight to Denver.) And those of us who like to use airline miles for travel know that Delta doesn’t even have an award chart and can often charge ridiculous amounts for premium cabin flights.

But by booking so late, my co-workers had already used the allotment of cheaper business class fares so by booking on United I saved the company money and earned miles I’ll be able to use more easily. My solitary business trip in 2017 had earned me Silver status with United for 2018 so I earned 7x the base fare for my flights, enough to re-qualify me for Silver status for 2019. One downside of booking through our company’s travel department is that whenever possible our longhaul flights have to be on US-based carriers. So while I’d have loved to have flown on Lufthansa on the longhaul legs, I flew United to Munich and Lufthansa for the intra-Europe legs. While both flights between Chicago and Munich were in B777-200ERs, the one on the flight to Munich was the kind with 10-across seating in Business Class while the one on the return leg had been retrofitted with the new Polaris cabin in a 1-2-1 Business Class setup. That was my first time to fly Polaris and it’s just soooo much nicer than United’s older version it’s not even funny.

Outbound route in red: Memphis-Chicago-Munich-Turin, Domestic Europe Route in blue: Turin-Munich-Cologne/Bonn, Return route: Cologne/Bonn-Munich-Chicago-Memphis

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Categories: Accor Hotels, Europe, Germany, Hilton, Hotel, Italy, Novotel | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lodging Review: DoubleTree by Hilton London Heathrow Airport

My colleagues and I left Hinckley in the late afternoon and made our way back to London so we’d be near the airport for our return flights the next day. As I have Gold status with Hilton HHonors (thanks to simply having the Hilton Surpass card by American Express) I considered the Hilton attached to Terminal 3 but it was a good bit more expensive and I was leaving from Terminal 2 anyway so I booked the DoubleTree which is located between T2 & T3 as most of my colleagues were flying Delta out of T3 so it worked for them too.

DoubleTree by Hilton London Heathrow
(photo courtesy DoubleTree website)

DoubleTree by Hilton London Heathrow Airport Lobby

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Lodging Review: Sketchley Grange Hotel and Spa, Hinckley, UK

Sometimes a person’s view of a hotel is colored by their reason for being at a particular property. As I’ve thought about the time spent at the Sketchley Grange Hotel & Spa I’ve realized that some of the things that I have viewed as a negative are things I wouldn’t even have thought about if I were a leisure traveler.

The Sketchley is in a rather small town called Hinckley, in Leicestershire, about two hours north of London. There are two hotels in Hinckely and the other one (our company’s first choice) was booked so we were left with this one. (I later learned that there’s a DoubleTree in Coventry, only about 10 minutes further away, and in the future I’ll use that as the backup hotel.)

Main Entrance, older wings on the left

Modern Wing where our rooms were located

As the name suggests, it is both a hotel and spa and when we arrived on a warm summer weekend there was a tour group staying there as well as several groups of friends or families milling around. While the pool is indoors, there were lots of folks enjoying the warm weather sitting on the patio or even stretched out on blankets on the grass. There were also quite a few people enjoying the pool and hot tub inside.

Leisure Facilities

The hotel also has a pretty nice gym which closes at 8 PM on Sunday night but is open until 10 PM during the week. The bad part is that it does not open until 6:30 AM. This is one thing that wouldn’t bother me as a leisure traveler but as a business traveler I was disappointed because I’d have preferred to work out in the mornings since we went out for dinner after work and sometimes did not arrive back at the hotel until 8:30 or later and I just went straight to bed.

Sketchley Grange Gym

Sketchley Grange Gym

Sketchley Grange Gym

The spa, which is operated by an outside agency, only offers services until 6 PM, another item that’s probably not an issue for a leisure traveler but really disappointed me as I missed my massage at home and was looking forward to getting one while at the hotel.

Indoor Pool

Hot Tub

The hotel itself does have character. My room was in the wing on the complete opposite side of the hotel from the spa/gym/pool and it was an adventure getting there through the building. On a couple of occasions there would be 2-3 steps up and later 2-3 steps down or an unusual bend in the hallway as new wings had been added to the hotel. It was sort of fun walking through that way, though we later figured out it was faster to walk outside and around to the side of the building where the spa/pool/gym had its own entrance.

Sofa at a random wide spot in the hallway of one of the older wings

It seemed that locals could join the spa/gym directly as I encountered a few people walking directly into the area from the parking lot, just in time for one of the exercise classes.

Junior Executive Suite

I was assigned a room on the first floor -and was reminded that unlike in America, the first floor is the one above the Ground floor.  I left the front desk and walked through this seating area which is both near the elevator and the entrance to the bar.

Sofas outside the bar (yes, they were really *that* purple)

Getting off the elevator (or “lift”, since I was in England!) I turned right and walked just a short way down the hall to my room, which was on the left, facing the back of the property.

Modern Wing Hallway

Entrance to room 152

I had booked a Junior Executive Suite and was quite pleased with the size both of the room and the bathroom. As with many hotel rooms, upon entering there was a small hallway with the bathroom immediately to the left before passing the mini-bar and then into the main area of the room.

Junior Executive Suite Room Entry Hall

The room was plenty big for a king-sized bed, two side tables and a full-sized sofa without feeling crowded.

Junior Executive Suite Bed and Sofa

Against the opposite wall was a nice-sized desk – with outlets available above it (yay!) – and a narrow table. There was no pen or paper on the desk which normally I don’t care about but on this trip there was a point I needed to write a note but couldn’t.

Junior Executive Suite Desk

Beside the bed, against the back wall of the bathroom, was a built-in vanity (with chair) and a closet which had a few built-in shelves and the safe. Inside the closet were an iron & ironing board and the hair dryer. As usual in the UK, there was no outlet for the hair dryer in the bathroom so I had to use it at the vanity but at least the outlet was easily accessible.

Junior Executive Suite Vanity and Closet

The only drawer in the whole room was a long narrow one under the vanity. I would have preferred to use a chest of drawers for the clothes I didn’t hang up but I made-do with the shelves in the closet. The doors on the closet did not slide particularly easily either.

The bathroom had dark gray slate tile that I actually liked. The sink was high profile while the counter was lower. The large soaking tub was quite nice, one of my colleagues reported.

Junior Executive Suite Sink

Junior Executive Suite Bathtub

The shower stall was just large enough and I liked that the spray could be adjusted from brisk to gentle. I also liked that it could be hand-held or put into the adjustable holder to make it quite high or low. But the shower did leak and the bath mat was always half-soaked when I was finished. The clear caulking used against the wall seemed to either have been placed over mold or mold was growing within it, I’m not sure which. Either way, it was unappealing to look at. The lack of shelving in the shower was also an issue. There was no place to put the shampoo, shower gel and/or razor and shave gel. There was also no conditioner which is not a problem with some shampoos but would have really been welcome as I didn’t care for the shampoo that was provided and I no longer bother with bringing any with me.

Junior Executive Suite Shower

Junior Executive Suite Mulben & Fearne Toiletries

The mini-bar had tea and a pot to heat water but I’m not positive it even had instant coffee. And the cabinet built to hold the mini-fridge was empty.

Junior Executive Suite Tea Station

While all rooms had the slot (standard in many European countries) which required a room key to be placed in it for the air and lights to work, in reality only with some rooms did the slot actually have to be used. In my room both the air and lights worked without anything being in the card slot.

View from room 152

And, oh, the air conditioning. The first day we arrived it was quite warm, the warmest day of the year so far, I believe. My room cooled down enough and I was so tired from the trip over that I slept quite well. The second night, even though the day had been a little cooler, the room was extremely warm. I even noticed the thermostat was at a lower setting, as if even the cleaning staff thought my room was warm. On the third night, which was much cooler, I was able to open the windows and the temperature was quite nice. I know that I prefer a much cooler room than seems to be the norm for Europe but it sure would be nice to find a hotel that can accommodate those lower temps.

I didn’t hate the room and the bed was actually really comfortable. I was a bit surprised the sofa did not have a pull-out bed as it would seem to me this would be a great room for a family with a small child or two. I had a lovely view of the back patio and the green fields beyond.

The Garden Restaurant & Bar

We ate in the hotel after arriving from London. It was Father’s Day so we enjoyed a 2-course meal (could choose starter + main or main + dessert) for a set price and it was quite good.

Special Father’s Day Lunch: pork loin, potatoes, carrots, green beans, Yorkshire pudding

Seating in the Restaurant/Bar

Bar Seating

Bar area seating

Wine Rack

The breakfast buffet can be added to your reservation and that made it easy each morning where we just checked in and served ourselves. However, the buffet didn’t open until 7 AM. That’s another of the things that’s not an issue as a leisure traveler but was inconvenient as a business traveler who would have liked to have been at the office by 8 AM.

Service at both the restaurant and the breakfast area was always rushed. Each morning when I arrived just after opening staff were still in the process of getting the food out and generally rushing around. It seemed they needed another person or two to get everything done on time. Perhaps it’s my expectations that are different from local norms. One member of our group wanted a pot of hot water to make her own tea each morning and she’d often have to ask at least twice before getting it.

I thought the buffet was quite ample though one member of our group was disappointed. Several kinds of fruit and cold cuts were available as was a hot selection with sausages, eggs, potato cakes, etc., a cold section with a number of cereals, whole fruit, juices and water and a third station with four different types of sliced bread and a very quick toaster. I certainly found plenty to eat each day.

But here and there, not only in the restaurant, attention to detail would make a difference in the impression the hotel leaves on a guest. For example, the juices were in large, clear containers with a spigot. They weren’t emptied each night but just kept chilled, which is fine. But at least one morning it was clear that the juice had separated a good bit with the more watery part floating to the top and the concentrate at the bottom. It should have been stirred up before opening the buffet to customers.

Everyone was quite friendly, nice and well-intentioned. I hope I’m not being overly critical but a few small improvements could make a big difference in perception. There were no laudry facilities nor was laundry service offered, so one team member who stayed for 10+ days had to find a dry cleaner in town to get her laundry done. Again, wouldn’t have thought twice about it as a leisure traveler but it made a difference as a business traveler.

As I said earlier, my preference would be NOT to return here for business travel but to stay elsewhere, even if it’s a bit further away.

Categories: England, Lodging Review | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Danube Trip: Hilton Budapest (Castle District)

Danube Trip: Chicago to Brussels
Danube Trip: Brussels Adventures and Getting to Prague
Danube Trip: Marriott Courtyard Prague
Danube Trip: Prague, Czech Republic
Danube Trip: Boscolo, Autograph Collection
Danube Trip: Prague to Nuremberg
Danube Trip: Viking River Cruise Boats – the Njord and the Bestla
Danube Trip: Nuremberg, Germany
Danube Trip: Weltenburg Abbey and Danube Narrows
Danube Trip: Regensburg, Germany
Danube Trip: Passau, Germany
Danube Trip: Wachau Valley and Göttweig Abbey
Danube Trip: Vienna, Austria
Danube Trip: Budapest, Hungary
Danube Trip: Hilton Budapest (Castle District)
Danube Trip: Budapest to Chicago

We arrived at the Hilton Castle District by taxi in the late afternoon after having walked all over the Pest side of the city.  A bellman quickly assisted us with our bags and we found the bell staff was very helpful each time we needed them.  We’d arranged for the taxi driver who brought us up the hill to take us to the airport on Monday morning.  When he didn’t show, the bell staff jumped in and got us another taxi right away.

There are several sets of entrances into the lobby.  Upon entering, the front desk is at the right side.  The lobby’s stainless steel and dark wood look combined with the rather low ceiling should make the area feel smaller than it is but I never felt like the walls were closing in.

Hilton Castle District Lobby

Hilton Castle District Lobby

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Danube Trip: Budapest, Hungary

Danube Trip: Chicago to Brussels
Danube Trip: Brussels Adventures and Getting to Prague
Danube Trip: Marriott Courtyard Prague
Danube Trip: Prague, Czech Republic
Danube Trip: Boscolo, Autograph Collection
Danube Trip: Prague to Nuremberg
Danube Trip: Viking River Cruise Boats – the Njord and the Bestla
Danube Trip: Nuremberg, Germany
Danube Trip: Weltenburg Abbey and Danube Narrows
Danube Trip: Regensburg, Germany
Danube Trip: Passau, Germany
Danube Trip: Wachau Valley and Göttweig Abbey
Danube Trip: Vienna, Austria
Danube Trip: Budapest, Hungary
Danube Trip: Hilton Budapest (Castle District)
Danube Trip: Budapest to Chicago

We awoke the next day expecting to board motorcoaches that would take us into Budapest.  However when we look out from our cabin the fog was so thick we couldn’t see the riverbank!  Viking decided that it was pointless for us to wend our way along a beautiful drive if we couldn’t see anything, so they announced we’d be staying on board until we docked in Budapest around mid-day.  That also meant that our city tour was postponed until the afternoon and any optional tours we had scheduled for the afternoon were canceled – though of course the refunds wouldn’t be processed until after the cruise was complete.

bud-foggy-morning

The view from our cabin. The Danube is not THAT wide – where’s the riverbank?!

After busy days of touring it was actually kind of relaxing to have a morning to ourselves where we could linger over breakfast and catch up on emails (thanks to the free wi-fi).  Gradually the fog lifted and we had a sunny day, though it was a bit cool on deck. Continue reading

Categories: Cruises, Europe, Hungary, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Viking | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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