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Trip Report Four months and 17 airports. Around the World with Star Alliance

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We recently returned from a 4 month ‘Round the World’ trip on Star Alliance, and I thought I’d offer a few comments.

We are Canadians who have lived in France for the last 17 years, but still have family in Canada – and in Australia. So, rather than doing two return trips, we decided to start in Canada in late October, and then just keep going – along the way missing the winter, which even though it is much milder in the Dordogne than in Canada, is still worth missing.

We settled fairly quickly on Star Alliance, as we have points with Air Canada, and often fly Lufthansa, which has flights to Toronto and Cape Town, another favourite destination, from Frankfurt – an easy flight for us from Toulouse.

We used ‘Book and Fly’ on their website, which was pretty easy and straightforward http://www.staralliance.com/en/booking/book-and-fly/. Just click on the destinations that interest you, choose flights from the suggested list, and they quote a price. Since we wanted to be in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, principally, after some back and forth, we decided on
Toulouse – Frankfurt –Toronto: Lufthansa
Chicago – Hawaii: United
Hawaii – Auckland: Air New Zealand
(Auckland to Nelson on another Air New Zealand internal flight, not on the Around the World ticket)
Auckland-Sydney: Air New Zealand
Perth-Bangkok: Thai Airways
(More flights not included in the ticket, to Yangon and around Myanmar and back to Bangkok)
Bangkok-Frankfurt-Toulouse: Lufthansa

Also decided that we really wanted to go business class – we ended up with 17 flights, most of them on Star Alliance, some internal ones not included – and didn’t look forward to the really long ones. The whole process was quite easy and not as expensive as we thought – it certainly seemed much less than individually flights to all those places.

Got ourselves organised and decided that despite Business class extra baggage allowance we would go with carry-on only. With all those airports, we didn’t want to hang around waiting for bags all over the world. Plus, we were either staying with friends/family, or doing house exchanges, and so would usually have access to laundry facilities. I didn’t believe we could really do it, but do it we did.

TOULOUSE – FRANKFURT – TORONTO: 28 October. 2010. Lufthansa.
First problem: gearing up to leave on October 28, we ran afoul of French strikers objecting to pension reform. Although they weren’t striking every day, the week before we left they blocked the entrance to the airport at Toulouse. Then they announced that the day we were leaving was a strike day (they have to give prior notice in France, although the blockades were a way to get around this.) Before panic set in, we considered two options: get to the airport a day early or actually leave a day early.

A phone call to Star Alliance revealed one of the peculiarities of this fare – although you can change flight days with no penalty AFTER you leave, you can’t do this before you leave. So, to leave one day early would mean a complete recalculation of that fare, with surcharges, no discount for early booking, etc. It seemed to be heading toward 1,000 Euros for the two of us to leave a day early, and so I stopped before hearing the full extent of the damage.

Option 2; get to the airport a day early. Found an airport hotel within walking distance, just in case there was a blockade of the entrance. We ran around and got last minute details sorted out, established that our friends who were dropping us off on the way to Barcelona were quite happy to get there a day early, and set off. We arrived at noon, and within 5 minutes got a call to say that our next day’s flight was cancelled because of the strike – but that we would be on an earlier flight the same day.

Not a good start to a long journey – an afternoon wandering around the least interesting part of any city, the airport, dinner at our hotel, and up at 5.30 the next morning to walk our luggage over to the terminal. Already we were happy that we had decided on carry-on. Got the flight, waited in the plane at least an hour before takeoff, as the people who weren’t actually striking were going slow. Eventually got to Frankfurt, happy that we hadn’t taken the later flight, as we would have missed our connection.

At this point I should mention that we have once before flown Business Class with Lufthansa, and vowed never to do it again. On that occasion, virtually everything went wrong, from mix-ups with planes, being kicked out of the Business Lounge because it was closing (delayed flight) bad food, etc. It seemed that this trip would be a repeat when we discovered that the first Business Lounge we came to was actually closed for renovation – but we could have coffee outside the Lounge! Luckily we discovered we weren’t yet in the correct terminal, and eventually found the Lounge we were looking for, which was open, and quite comfortable. What was surprising - and the only place anywhere on our travels that we discovered this – was that they charge 8 Euros an hour for Internet access. Seems rather cheap when they are giving you free food and drink.

Got on the plane, Airbus A340, which was comfortable, had ‘Pod’ shaped seats, food good. No problems.

TORONTO-CHICAGO-HONOLULU: 7 November 2010. United
Leaving Toronto we took United to Chicago, and then to Honolulu. This was meant to be a highlight, as the Chicago-Honolulu flight had been upgraded to First Class. Big mistake. First of all, very long line-ups to clear Customs and Immigration in Toronto. Probably easier than doing it in Chicago, but still took a long time, even though we were travelling on our Canadian passports, which makes the process faster – but still not fast. Got through to Chicago and our first experience in a long while of a big American airport. Everyone seemed to be eating, presumably because they wouldn’t be fed on their flights. It wasn’t worth searching out the Lounge, as we didn’t have long between flights, but the 40 minutes or so we had was quite enough.

On to our long awaited First Class experience – and a great disappointment. The plane was a Boeing 777, which had seen better days. Comfortable seats, but not pods, acceptable food, but not special. I seem to remember a large slice of breaded chicken and a lot of mashed potatoes. Probably tastier than it sounds, but not up the other airlines we travelled on. The cabin crew were friendly, but again, not what I expected from Business/First Class. No individual entertainment system either. Basically they didn’t have a Business Class on this flight and the First Class was not up to business class on any other airline we used.

Similarly, on leaving Honolulu, we found the Business Class Lounge small and crowded – the least comfortable of any we tried. We did however have priority treatment going through security, and so got sent to the front of the line – not popular with everyone else waiting. Then I got my first experience of the more intensive pat-down. Probably no more fun for the person doing it than the person receiving it. Enough said.

HONOLULU-AUCKLAND (and then Nelson) 12 November 2010. Air New Zealand
And then we found Air New Zealand - if only they flew to more places. I would probably fly anywhere with them. As soon as we boarded the plane (Boeing 767) it was clear that the seats were special Seat expert says it’s one of the best Business Class seats in the world. (http://seatexpert.com/seatmap/29/Air_New_Zealand_Boeing_777-200ER_%28Suites%29/) Even the ‘Crazy about Rugby’ safety video with the All Blacks was funny, as well as doing the job. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDgWR6YrOCI&feature=relmfu. Plus people were professional, food was wonderful. Before arriving, the purser came around to advise us on how to get to our connecting flight – again something that hardly ever happens. Could happily have stayed on board longer.

Arriving in Auckland, we were connecting to a budget fare Air New Zealand internal flight to Nelson, with a long wait. Since it was a non refundable ticket, I left lots of time in case of delays. We weren’t sure that they would let us into the Business Class lounge in the Domestic Terminal, but decided to try. We were welcomed at the entrance to the Lounge (another first), explained we’d got off the Business Class flight from Honolulu, and were waiting for our flight to Nelson. ‘Let me show you around the Lounge – and you’d probably like a shower after such a long flight.’ She showed us around, we did indeed have showers, had coffee from the barista, along with breakfast, read a bit, checked the Internet, and then took the special back route back to the terminal. All in all a VERY satisfying experience. Far and away the best Business Lounge we were in.

AUCKLAND-SYDNEY: 11 December. Air New Zealand
Leaving Auckland, we spent some time in the Air New Zealand International Lounge, which was also excellent, but didn’t seem as outstanding as the earlier one. Or maybe we weren’t as tired as we’d been earlier. Anyway, took another Boeing 767 to Sydney, and again very happy with everything on board. This time priority service getting through the screening of luggage on arrival.

Other than two short internal flights in Australia (one more than expected, because flooding had closed off the roads) we had a rest from airports. We even took the train across Australia from Sydney to Perth, instead of flying. More expensive but more interesting.

PERTH-BANGKOK 11 February 2011. Thai Airways
Back on our Around the World ticket. Perth to Bangkok – Airbus A330. Everything acceptable, except that it was classed as ‘Non-stop with a technical stop in Phuket.’ I’ve never come across that before, and don’t understand how with a non-stop flight you have to get off, clear Immigration, and then wait in a crowded lounge to get back on. The only thing I remember about the food was something called ‘macaroni’ which was very weird pasta. Nothing memorable.

BANGKOK-FRANKFURT-TOULOUSE . 3 March 2011. Lufthansa
By now we were REALLY tired of airports, having been to Burma (Myanmar) as a side trip, which had entailed another 6 flights. Interesting internal flights, in very small airports, with no real signage – someone just comes in and holds up a sign for the next flight, you all get up and walk to the plane). Just really happy to get to the airport after a long time in Bangkok traffic. It took us longer to get out through Immigration, despite a Priority Line, than it had taken to get in. (Not as long as getting out of Myanmar, but that’s another story) Big, busy Business Class Lounge once we found it, which wasn’t terribly obvious. Then another comfortable flight on a Boeing 747 with lie-flat seats– the first time we’d been on a 747 in a long time. Found ourselves up in the nose of the plane, which was fine. Very good food, good service. And surprisingly even the short flight from Frankfurt to Toulouse had good, and memorable food. (On our previous, unhappy Lufthansa business class flight Toulouse to Frankfurt the flight attendant actually apologized for the food, which was inedible, as they’d had a last minute problem and decided to leave on time rather than wait for the ‘real’ food.)

Finally home again, and now dealing with jet lag and trying to process 4 months of memories. VERY happy we chose Business Class, and wondering how we will go back to the ‘back of the bus.’

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