Year in Review 2017

2017 saw a lot of changes for me; most notably, getting married and moving to Bristol. That also meant changing jobs – twice, in my case, as I left British Airways, found temporary employment at the airport, but then opted for a permanent role with an energy company. Leaving behind the perks of working in aviation – and such proximity to Heathrow – will probably impact my opportunities for travel, but hopefully not my enthusiasm; after all, it was in academia that I first caught the travel bug… With ever-closer personal ties to Holland, I expect there will still be plenty of European trips in my future, even more so once direct Eurostar services to Rotterdam become available. But that’s all still to come; let’s see how this year stacked up!

I visited six countries – The Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, USA, Spain and Cyprus – ‘properly’, although only Cyprus was new this year. I could also make a claim to Belgium and (more tenuously) Germany too, as they featured on our honeymoon railway adventure across Europe. That trip added a number of new Italian cities – surely one of my most explored countries now, and unsurprisingly a continued favourite – although I was mostly retreading familiar ground in Holland, Zurich and New York.

Flights

Despite only taking 13 flights, I covered over 25000km this year, a distance I last exceeded in 2013 (when it took me 19 flights to do so). Before departing BA, I managed to achieve a couple of goals: flying to a random destination using staff travel; and experiencing the upper deck on the iconic 747. Later in the year I also flew on a 787 – albeit on a shorthaul rotation – to complete the set of Club World cabins.

Almost all of my other flying was with KLM; getting started with a ‘first and last’ chance to fly on a special Fokker 70 service out of London; then shuttling back and forth between Bristol and Amsterdam for thanksgiving and Christmas. Easyjet were also able to claim some of my business for the first time since 2014, although only in support of more interesting plans: returning us from Sicily after our honeymoon; and allowing me to fly direct to Madrid before travelling home via London.

Larnaca and Catania were the only new airports I visited, and I had no new airlines at all (although the Fokker was at least a new equipment type). Bristol was already one of my most-used airports, but until this year I’d used it exclusively for flights to and from Edinburgh. It’ll take a while for BRS-AMS to displace that from the top of my route leaderboard, but the odds are in its favour: I flew between Bristol and Amsterdam five times in 2017, but it’s the first year since 2005 that I haven’t flown to Scotland!

I managed to extend my streak of not flying longhaul economy to five full years, but I suspect that cannot be sustained indefinitely… on shorthaul it’s already a different story, with just the MAD-LHR in Club, and an AMS-BRS in ‘economy comfort’ (i.e., the seats that would be in business had there been enough demand to move the curtain back). Fortunately priority pass (via Amex platinum) keeps me in lounges even when I’m not flying something that entitles me to them… or even flying at all, as I managed to get breakfast at a Heathrow arrival lounge whilst staying at an airport hotel! Sadly my duty travel flight to New York did not allow galleries access in LHR or JFK, but my Club Europe redemption out of MAD did give me plenty of time at the just refurbished – and excellent – Velázquez lounge in T4S.

Accommodation

This was one of my heaviest years for paid nights away from home – during one week I was living out of hotels whilst paying rent on two flats I couldn’t use (one empty, one in Bristol) as I worked out my notice at BA. Altogether there were 40 nights across 25 stays, and as usual I sampled various brands. As in 2016, Club Carlson saw the most activity, with 6 nights across five stays; I also did 4 nights with IHG (including my first EVEN property, a brand whose approach actually stood out!); kept my Hilton Honors account ticking over with 2 nights; and had my first Marriott stay (more on that below).

Otherwise it was a mixture of smaller chains and independents, the latter particularly for the wedding and honeymoon. I booked a suite for the first time – something I wish I had the budget to do again! – at the excellent Hotel New York in Rotterdam. Less glamorously, the year also featured such delights as the ibis Reading or Premier Inn Maidstone; but the Pentahotel in Ipswich gets a nod for being an affordable yet pleasant small town option I’d happily use again.

I tried glamping. I don’t think I’ll try glamping again.

Miles, points and loyalty

Although I’m much happier with KLM than BA from a hard product perspective for shorthaul (small yet spacious Embraer jets, operating from my local airport, without buy-on-board catering), their longhaul product remains an unknown for me and the Flying Blue programme offers nothing to get excited about. Hopefully closer integration with Virgin Atlantic will change that next year, but for now the Executive Club remains my airline focus. With all of my BA flights being staff / duty travel or redemptions in 2017, I didn’t earn a single avios (or tier point) that way. However, I took on the Lloyds avios credit card, which combines 0% forex fees on international spend with an unbeatable 2.5 points/£ earning rate in the first few months: a very useful combination when you’ve a wedding abroad (and honeymoon) to pay for! Between that, regular spend throughout the year, converting all my clubcard points and (whisper it) purchasing some points during a promotion, I was able to strengthen my balance by over 40,000 avios, which I promptly burnt to lock in a trip for 2018 (so, more details then)! My only redemption for travel in 2017 was a Club Europe ticket MAD-LHR, with the ‘avios and money’ lever pushed as far as it could go towards cash.

On the hotel side, my big redemption of the year was at the Zurich Marriott hotel. The sterling to Swiss franc exchange rate had taken a hammering since I last visited, and this would be peak season too, so cash rates started clear of £300 a night and rapidly spiralled upwards if you wanted, for instance, a view. However, I had a healthy balance of membership rewards points from taking out the Amex platinum last year; that same card came with gold status with Starwood; and the merger of Starwood and Marriott lead to an instant status match and the ability to convert MR points (via Starpoints) at 2:3. Better still, Marriott offers part points, part cash rewards, so I settled on a 49K points, £248 superior room redemption that guaranteed us a room in the main tower, and worked out at a saving of £11.50 per thousand MR points. Status would also get us club access (and hence breakfast and some evening drinks) anyway; but I was also hoping for an upgrade to a club room, and fortunately we got one, complete with a fantastic view (rate at time of booking: £354/night). A more than satisfactory first experience with Marriott, although it’ll be a while before I have enough points to repeat the experience.

Hotel room view
Hotel room view, Marriott Zurich

I also used 30K IHG points for a night at the Crowne Plaza Milan; a reasonable return of £4/K for a programme I find much less exciting since my Accelerate offers got stuck on some unattainable stacked stay targets rather than something more viable for a mix of genuine travel and mattress running. Perhaps they’d noticed my absence, as on an end-of-year stay at the Holiday Inn Express Rotterdam Central, we got upgraded to a suite – something I didn’t even know the brand had…

However, where I had most success this year was with Club Carlson (thanks presumably to the gold status that comes with the Amex):

  • A single night at the Park Inn Brussels Midi – costing less than £60 – netted almost 10K points; and they upgraded us to a much larger ‘business friendly’ room
  • The Park Plaza Nottingham went a step further and put us in a junior suite (not as impressive as the name suggests, but still a definite jump), whilst various promotions multiplied the base points nearly four-fold
  • The Radisson Blu Edwardian Heathrow upgraded us to a business room
  • The Park Inn Heathrow upgraded us to a superior room

These last two stays weren’t particularly lucrative in points, but they did suffice for the Q3 promotion, granting a free night anywhere… so long as it was Friday in the next few months. I used that for a €200/night room in Madrid – easily justifying the £60 extra I spent compared to staying at, say, the Terminal 4 Premier Inn. There, finally, my upgrade streak ended, but I still consider this a good run!