For those of you who have read my previous articles you’ll know that I’m a One World flyer, usually flying with British Airways where possible, however sometimes that isn’t the best solution.
I have been booking a number of long haul trips for later this year and most of those are now not with BA because it was actually cheaper to fly with other One World airlines, more of that in later articles. This report is about a trip I did where there really wasn’t any good One World option available to me.
A day in Graz, Austria
My client’s request for me was to spend one day hosting a workshop in Graz Austria, which happened to be a Monday. I started looking at various options and of course I started with my One World options. The best of these seemed to be a British Airways flight to Vienna followed by a two-hour train ride. However, the timings would mean for a lot of time wasted on Sunday travelling and the same thing from the Tuesday to get back.
I always do a courtesy check of other airlines to see if there’s any options and a Lufthansa route came up flying from London to Graz via Frankfurt. This route was great for timings as it was leaving around 4:00 PM on the Sunday and getting in around 10:00 PM, then with a very early start on Tuesday getting me home at a very sensible time for a full day’s work on that day. And on top of that it was a very reasonable price. Not as cheap as flying too Vienna, but when you included the train fare and the amount of time lost with the bad timings of the flights, the Lufthansa option was a far better choice.
Lufthansa is a Star Alliance member, which is an airline alliance consisting of many major International Airlines including Air Canada, Air New Zealand, ANA, Eva air, SAS, Singapore Airlines, Thai, Turkish Airlines, and United, and that’s only about half the list.
I used to have Star Alliance membership with Turkish Airlines when I did a thing called status matching from my old BA gold status. Turkish airlines allowed me to have Star Alliance gold membership as long as I took one flight with them within three months, which I did. However, that was many years ago and that membership has long since lapsed. So, I needed to join Star Alliance again to collect points which meant I had to decide which airline I was going to join. As it was most likely that I’ll use Lufthansa for trips just like this, it made sense to join the Lufthansa programme which they called Miles and More. I signed up and went ahead with booking my flights to Graz.
Outbound from London Gatwick
I’d picked both the most time efficient route and price efficient option by opting to go from Gatwick to Frankfurt on my first outbound leg. I’ve not been to Gatwick for many years and I had a feeling this was going to be an interesting experience.
As it happens Gatwick is physically the closest airport where I live, however it’s rarely where I fly from as the routes I use don’t tend to operate from there. My partner dropped me at the airport and I specifically asked to be dropped at the South terminal so I could ride the little train to the north terminal. Something I’d done a lot as a kid as my dad was a pilot based at Gatwick and we visited that there a lot when I was young. I just wanted to see if it had changed at all. After being bombarded with adverts from EasyJet holidays on the transit I arrived at the north terminal Gatwick. This is very clearly the EasyJet terminal, with most flights being on orange airbuses interspersed with a few Tui flights and one loan international carrier Lufthansa with a flight to Frankfurt.
The cost of booking my flight in Business Class was not significantly more so I had decided to treat myself to sitting at the front of the plane on the way out and in simple Economy on the way home. My thinking was on the way out I would probably want to use the lounge and have a seat near the front so I could easily get out and move quickly when I got to Frankfurt. My return journey was going to be very early in the morning, so I’d mostly be sleepy and not worrying about things like lounges. Also I’d already spotted Graz airport was tiny and I would need very little time to get from my hotel to the plane on that morning.
At Gatwick airport they don’t call it fast track security they call it the “Premium Line”, as with EasyJet you can pay extra for premium security to go through and skip the queues. I wasn’t too clear whether my business class ticket would also let me through the same thing, but I went up and asked and indeed it did. Once through security I then arrived in the main shopping mall of Gatwick north terminal where there were literally hundreds upon hundreds of holidaymakers sat in every possible position you could find to sit on, from chairs to floors, to the little crash barriers that go around pillars. I couldn’t see anyone who looked like a business traveller anywhere in sight. So, I headed off to the lounge area to try and find a lounge to hide in.
At Gatwick North the lounges are all clustered together in a little corner tucked away on one of the routes to the gates. To my surprise I saw the EasyJet lounge first, hadn’t realised they had one of those, of course it is a paid for entry. Next that was the Number One lounge and there were lifts that took you down to other lounges such as Emirates and a thing called the club rooms. With the exception of Emirates generally these lounges are all paid for access lounges. There was no clear location for me to go to and somewhat confusingly the Star Alliance website and the Lufthansa website had different information on which lounge I should go to. I went to the Number One lounge and asked the lady there, she said I should go down to the club rooms. I took the lift down and peered through a locked door at a very nice looking lounge called the club room. I headed back up to the other lounge to find there’s now a long queue of people waiting to get in, and it turned out there’s a virtual queuing system where you had to scan a QR code to get your place in the queue to then get in, as the lounge was now full. Feeling slightly annoyed that I’ve been sent to a closed lounge I decided to ignore this and just nipped to the front of the queue and very politely asked her if she knew the lounge was closed downstairs. Fortunately, she was very nice and after a quick check on a radio the manager discovered that they were supposed to be taking Lufthansa customers into the lounge here and she let me straight in, much to the confusion of all the people waiting.
Once inside I was not greeted with the usual common tranquillity that you find in a normal airline lounge, but instead it was noisy busy, plenty of children and full of holiday makers. OK I know I’m starting to sound a bit snobby but the whole point of using a lounge for a frequent flyer is to try and avoid some of the stress and noise that you get before a flight and have somewhere to go to quietly work or relax before you fly. Luckily, I spotted an area that was segregated from the rest with a sign up saying nobody under 12, went through the doorway to find large armchairs, sofas and peace and quiet. I settled in here, popped out to the food area to find a very simple buffet offering of hot food, some fruit drinks and an afternoon tea option. For alcoholic drinks you had to queue up to go to the bar, presumably to stop the holidaymakers getting too drunk before they get on their flight. I discovered that if you wanted champagne it was chargeable, but Prosecco and everything else was. I tried the Prosecco and it was passable.
It was then that I started to notice that there was a delay in my flight, that was building up steadily, after a bit of research I found that there had been huge thunderstorms all across Europe and Frankfurt was experiencing massive delays. Eventually my flight did get in the air and started heading towards me, and eventually we were given a gate and I headed back out amongst the holidaymakers who all seemed generally confused about where to go.
Upon arriving at the gate, it was one of those gates where you have to show your boarding pass to go into the waiting area first, but they weren’t open yet so people were backing up down the corridor. After 15 minutes or so the two ladies at the gate informed us that had been a gate change and we should follow them across the airport to our new gate. We literally walked right through the centre of the main shopping area, through hundreds of people, with people queuing in all directions, like some kind of band of random followers chasing our leader to salvation. Eventually we arrived at possibly the gate on the furthest corner of the airport in a wing that they decided not to air condition on this particularly hot and muggy day. We then looked out the window to see our aircraft quite happily sitting queueing behind another aircraft. This second aircraft was an EasyJet flight that I think was trying to steal our gate as it was the only empty gate nearby, but it wasn’t moving. After about 20 minutes it eventually drove off and parked in a bus gate and our plane was allowed in. Of course, it then had to disembark all its passengers and get a bit of a clean before we were allowed on. Eventually we were allowed to board, and I was happily sat in my favourite seat 1A.
It turned out that I was one of many people on this flight who had connecting flights in Frankfurt, some were quite long haul compared to mine. The pilot informed us that he knew we were late, and he was going to do everything he could to get us to Frankfurt as quick as possible and we should all be hopeful, as all flights in Frankfurt were being delayed, there’s a very good chance at our connecting flight would also be delayed.
The flight itself was pleasant enough, Lufthansa Business Class offers you a fairly simple snack plate of light food items, there was no choice just do you want the plate or not. But there was a full bar allowing us a choice of drinks.
On approach into Frankfurt general concern for the connecting flights was increasing and people were asking questions, the pilot again once again came on and said that we should all simply head to our gates as planned, information will be on the screens or in our apps, unless we are contacted directly and told alternative arrangements. I was due to have a one hour and 40-minute connection in Frankfurt, which I was hoping would involve maybe half an hour relaxing in one of the nice Lufthansa lounges before I went to my next flight. This was not to be.
We landed on the runway 20 minutes before my next flight was due to depart. My hopes were not high. Luckily being at the front of the plane I was off fast I headed very quickly through the airport. Since I was flying from the UK, I had to go through passport control, luckily there was no queue, although the question, when asked, where my final destination was tonight was quite amusing as I said I’d like it to be Austria but it’s probably going to Frankfurt, which she found quite amusing knowing what was going on with the delays. I then started heading over to A gates where my flight was due to depart from, halfway there my phone lit up with a series of messages saying that I been cancelled off my flight this evening and rebooked for the next flight, which was the next day.
A night in Frankfurt
Now I had to go to find a Lufthansa service desk, and oddly these are not very well signposted and I spent quite a long time wandering around trying to find one. The airport felt like it was closing down for the night and the only thing I could see that was open was a Lufthansa check-in area, which had very long queues. I decided to keep wondering until I found something and eventually, I found an area that had two sets of counters one for First Class and the other for Economy. I thought it was odd that there was no Business Class set of cues, but it was the only thing I could find so I went to the Economy queue. After waiting for about 10 minutes a guy in a Lufthansa uniform came round the corner and said why don’t you people come with me, there’s no queues around the corner, so a few of us followed him to find the Business Class help area. To give you an idea there were approximately 5 people working in the Economy area and five people in the First Class area, in the Business Class area there were at least 10 desks are open and all of them were in use. There were only a few people in the queue here so it only took 10 minutes before I got to speak to someone.
Once he had checked my booking status, he decided to issue me my boarding pass for the next day and since my return flight was only 24 hours later from that he issued those boarding passes as well. Then he went to find me a hotel and he identified an airport hotel for me, then printed a voucher onto another boarding pass slip. Then he said the hotel was on the other side of the airport and the only way to get there sensibly was taxi, so he printed me two more vouchers for a taxi journey to and from the hotel, again on boarding pass slips.
I now had a wad of boarding pass shaped bits of paper and I headed out to it taxi rank. The taxi seemed very unhappy about the voucher, I’m guessing because corporate companies like Lufthansa that take time to pay up, but he took me to the hotel. Hotel was basic and the check-in desk spoke very bad English, and they seem to be very confused about the fact that ten people have just showed up with identical Lufthansa vouchers. After a lot of faffing with their computer they decided to give up write down all our voucher numbers on a piece of paper and give us room keys and off we went. The room was basic but comfortable and I managed to get a good six-hours of sleep before my alarm went off at 5:00 AM the next day for my return to Frankfurt Airport.
Finally heading to Graz
Fortunately, someone had heard the foresight to organise taxis to be waiting outside the hotel, and the taxi driver had with him a book where he was writing down the room numbers of everyone who’s being picked up, which he then passed to the next driver as he took me to the airport.
My new flight was actually on a different airline, Air Dolomiti, who are a subsidiary airline of Lufthansa, based in Italy, providing short haul services around the region. But my boarding class was still Business Class, so I went to the Lufthansa lounge for some breakfast. There I managed to find some eggs, bread and juice whilst I waited for my flight in a much more calm environment than yesterday’s lounge.
This flight was on Embraer E190, a smaller aircraft than the A320 had been on yesterday with a 2-2 seat configuration. When airlines do this, they tend to put Business Class customers with an empty seat, meaning you can choose aisle or window seat.
However, I believe this flight was not intended to have a Business Class on it, as I soon learned I was the only Business Class customer on board. Most amusing was the very, very tiny curtain that was just above my headrest. Just before take-off some ground crew arrived with a small package for the crew on board. It turned out this package was in fact my food option which was a very pleasant little snack pack to enjoy on my one-hour flight and I was offered unlimited drinks to go with that.
The flight was very pleasant and landed on time, into what I can only describe as being one of the smallest commercial airports I’ve ever seen. From the doors opening on the aircraft to me being a taxi pulling away from the airport was less than one minute. In the end I was only one hour late for my job and luckily a colleague had already arrived on an earlier flight and started things for me.
The return trip was a lost less eventful. Given the size of the airport I decided not to arrive too early as I didn’t want to be hanging around and I knew I wouldn’t be going to a lounge, as I was in Economy. I knew at that time of day a taxi would only take 15 minutes to get from the hotel to the airport. Also, I was flying hand luggage only, so it should be relatively quick to get through to airside. I booked the taxi for an hour and a half before the flight, I got up, took the taxi and arrived in the airport 15 minutes later. There was a small queue for security, no fast track here. Through security I headed round to the departure area which had a small café, a shop and essentially 10 doors that were the departure gates. Each door had a small podium next to it where they checked boarding buses. To my surprise my aircraft was not the only one leaving that morning, there was another plane there ready to go. After a short wait they called boarding I headed out towards my Lufthansa A320 to take me back to Frankfurt. Everything was on time, but this time I didn’t have much turn around time in Frankfurt, and they were already telling us to go to the gate when I landed. It turned out the reason for this was they wanted to check everyone’s passports on arrival at the gate and allow time for people to get through passport control.
I should mention that I had actually upgraded this flight to Business Class. Lufthansa use a system for allowing you to upgrade flights, they give you a fixed price for an upgrade and also a chance to bid for an upgrade by offering you the opportunity to choose how much you want to pay. If there are plenty of seats available, then there’s a chance you can get a very low cost upgrade. Of course, that depends on how much everyone else is bidding to upgrade, obviously the higher you bid the more chance you get getting the seat first. Alternatively, you can just pay the fixed price and guarantee the upgrade, which is what i did in this case as it wasn’t too expensive and I was hoping to get some more lounge time at Frankfurt. Additionally, I was hoping this would speed up my return when I got home. As it happened, I didn’t get any lounge time, I just got a long wait at the gate before they boarded a flight. This fight was pretty much identical to the outbound, with a simple snack and a few drinks offered, but nothing very exciting. We arrived at Heathrow on time and my partner was waiting for me to take me home.
When I used to have Star Alliance status, I flew with Lufthansa to Germany quite a lot and my status allowed me access to their First Class lounges, known as the senator lounge, which were quite nice. Honestly there was nothing remarkable about flying with Lufthansa, no significant difference to British Airways on short haul routes anyway. I’ve got another trip later this year which I’m going to use them for because again they are the better option for the route. And I will probably fly with a few other Star Alliance airlines later in the year when I’ve got enough BA Avios to get my gold status back. Long term I do have one bucket list item, I would like to fly in first class on a Boeing 747, and Lufthansa is one of the very few airlines still operating them, so one day I will try that out.