I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

To Brussels. And beyond?

I'm kinda tired. It's been a long day. A long week in fact. In order to best carry that impression onto the page, I'm going to write - at length, so much length - about what happened. Twitter is your best bet if you want a tl;dr version.

Last Thursday I left my flat with a backpack and a suitcase, headed down the hill, up the steps, over the bridge of Surbiton station, down the steps on the other side... and stopped. Swore. Did the journey in reverse. I'd left my mp3 player at home, as well as my notepad. The latter wasn't so bad, I could always buy new paper, but there's no way I was going to survive a week without music, especially as I'd only just taken delivery of 4 Prince albums. So I headed back, stuffed the missing items into my rucksack, and started again. This was inauspicious, and I could really have done with some auspicion. But in its absence, what I needed most was a bus. Then another bus. Then a tube. And then a plane.

Just the one plane. That's all I knew for sure.

I'd been anxious for a while, kinda inexplicably. On a lot of my solo jaunts, in fact on pretty much all of them, I'm pretty carefree. So long as I've got a passport and a credit card or two then, if push comes to shove, there's really not going to be that much of a problem. So I'm not really sure what I was so worried about, but worried I was. I had a BA flight from Heathrow to Brussels booked for sure, and then, well, hrm. I either had zero, one, or two tickets to Zanzibar. That's not normal. One is normal. Zero and two are not.

If you read the post prior to this, you'll see my plan. The dates had changed but the itinerary hadn't. I had spent the last* of my BMI miles on two one-way redemptions: Brussels to Zanzibar via Addis Ababa (and two fuel stops), with Ethiopian Airlines; and Zanzibar to London via Addis Ababa, Frankfurt, and two fuel stops, with Ethiopian and Lufthansa. I'd booked it weeks ago, paid, and heard of no alterations. Yet 4 days before I was leaving, I headed over to checkmytrip.com and, er, neither reservation showed up. On flybmi.com they showed as being on the original dates, and on ba.com they showed as being PAPER TICKETS ONLY.

Wait. What? Paper tickets? No-one gives out paper tickets these days, and I certainly didn't have any. And why was I looking at ba.com anyway? Well, BA bought BMI, and their IT systems were merging. Badly. I got a bit of solace from flyertalk.com users who pointed me to a "classic" version of checkmytrip.com - "classic" being code for "works properly" - and lo and behold, there was my booking. Dates correct, flights correct, no seat assignments (despite me having done those back in April), and an e-ticket number. Good.

And another e-ticket number.


There's a way to check your booking via ticket numbers, directly with Amadeus (the backend system some airlines use). I did that. Both numbers showed up, only one had my name next to it, and an attempt to get the full details just threw errors.

I had tried to checkin online with Ethiopian Airlines. It recognised my booking, had my name and the correct flights, invited me to click ... and then threw an error. Specifically an error saying something non-specific(!) had changed to do with my flights or reservation or ticket, and that I really should call Ethiopian Airlines. In Ethiopia.

I thought about calling (not just Ethiopian, but maybe BMI? or even BA?) to see what the hell was going on, but since I hate phone calls I didn't bother. No, I'd take my separate flight to Brussels, wait, for checkin to open, and see what happened. All part of the adventure, right?

I'd checked in on my phone for the BA flight, so as soon as I got off the tube I went to a bag drop desk and, um, paused. The BA app wouldn't show the boarding pass, because it just kept crashing. Way to go, Android. Turns out it throws a fatal error if it can't get a data signal, something it was struggling to do. Eventually it worked and I resolved to just keep the damn thing on screen as much as possible.

At security I ended up in a queue behind what appeared to be Tetsuo. Or maybe Barry Sheen. That metal detector sure did love him.

It had been a long time since I'd been in a BA lounge. Because of my BMI/Star Alliance allegiance I'd hardly flown BA for years, and when I did I had no means of getting into a lounge. I'm not forking out silly money for business class intra-Europe, and I don't have any shiny cards. Except I do! Hurrah! Thanks to my Amex Platinum - taken out purely to get a bunch of miles, of course - I've got a Cathay Pacific gold card despite not flying them since 2006. Gold with them is equivalent of Silver with BA, and otherwise known as Sapphire across the whole oneworld alliance. Yeah. Uh. Whatever. Basically this means I can get into the business class lounges when I fly BA, so that's what I did.

"Hello! Here's my boarding pass , and, er, I've got this card"
"OK Mr Foreman, you're fly...ing....econ...omy...let's...see... this card isn't on the booking?"
"No, it's not. I want to collect miles with BA. But this card lets me in, right?"
"Right, yes, yes it does. I'm going to add 'oneworld sapphire' to your booking. Welcome!"

They may or may not have pronounced the correct typography. But, y'know, yay! [Like]

I'd decided to start using foursquare.com while heading to Heathrow. Essentially because I wanted to do location stuff on twitter, not Facebook, which I've mostly given up using. So when I got into BA lounge I did my very first checkin.

Oh dear. It auto-tweeted some horrifying thing about being a certified newbie. I was so ashamed. But, as usual, the first flush of free alcohol helped to nullify the shame. As is customary, I started with a London Pride. Mmm. London Pride. From a, er, tin. Bleh. But, free.

BA lounge food has got a lot better in the last couple of years. Self-service chicken korma was very decent, and I washed it down with a second Pride and a Malarone anti-malarial tablet. Being the reading type (and the writing type) and the somewhat nervous about health type, I read the leaflet about side-effects. The nurse at my surgery had warned me to take paracetamol because I was likely to feel ropey. The leaflet listed symptoms that over 1 in 10 people get. That's a huge proportion! And then the symptoms which "up to" 1 in 10 people get, and then the ones where they just don't know the frequency, OK? STOP ASKING.

One of the symptoms is "crying". Like Rob said: these were, potentially, emo tablets. Was giving them to a melodrama queen like me such a good idea? I s'pose avoiding malaria is kinda worth it...

I didn't have any paracetamol. I had no idea what gate my flight was at (and it could have been at the satellite terminal, which adds a good 20 minutes to the walk). And I didn't want to drink too much, in case I had to be properly with it in Brussels. So I upped, 2 drinks in, and headed out to Boots.

By which I mean WH Smith. I walked all over T5 and could not bloody find Boots, apart from a big "coming soon: Boots!" sign. Even after following the "Pharmacy --->" sign I failed. I did see a lot of duty free shops, which reminded me of the ones in Sydney which were dishing out free spirits samples at 9am back in January. Just as I was thinking, pah, Sydney beats London, that's not good, I spotted a lass handing out free Jura whisky. Didn't partake, but TAKE THAT, Australia.

I had a gin and tonic on the flight. And that's it. There was no food service. To be fair we were only in the air for about 40 minutes, but they used to do a lightning service even on the shortest hauls. I mean, this isn't a big deal, but just a bit surprising.

So. I'm in Belgium. I've got my suitcase back. I've found the Ethiopian Airlines checkin desk. I've got a €50 note in my pocket, a shitload of US dollars in my bag (useful currency in Africa, especially in countries where it's illegal to take their own currency out. Like, say, Tanzania). And I've got an hour to kill. There was a bar called "CafĂ© Stella Artois" which sold Leffe, and it was tempting, as was the American diner, but instead I just perched on a seat and fretted.

5.15pm - 3hrs before takeoff - arrived, and I sauntered up to the business class checkin desk. Handed over my passport and a printout of (one of) my e-ticket(s).

"Tanzania? Visa on arrival?"
"No, there's a visa in there"
"Oh, yes. Great!"

and pretty much before I knew it, there I was, checked in all the way to Zanzibar, my final destination. Hurrah! Not that I had boarding passes for both legs, mind - for some unexplained reason they couldn't issue the second flight's pass there at the desk, but I was assured that "someone will find [me] at the gate". Well alrighty then. I was off to Africa, via the Brussels Airlines lounge, a bottle of Leffe Brune, a Stella, and a whole lot of cheese. And Milan. But, eventually, it would be new continent ahoy!