Although this was a work trip in my role at British Airways, it more closely resembled my original pattern of international travel: attaching some tourism to an academic conference. The event – a two day workshop on forecasting with massive data in real time – was being hosted by Microsoft Research in New York. The Thursday/Friday scheduling made for an obvious extension into a weekend break, with the time difference meaning I could fit in some pre-conference activities on my arrival on Wednesday evening too. Conveniently, Microsoft’s venue in Times Square was just around the corner from the Intercontinental, where I was based for my previous (albeit brief) New York visit; that familiarity plus the central location should allow me to maximise my sightseeing opportunities.
However, Manhattan hotels rarely come cheap, and having only pulled together approval for the trip a few weeks in advance there was little hope of getting a rate I would be comfortable expensing. I was willing to commute for the conference, but with more tolerable prices at the weekend, decided to split the stays and set up base in the city once I was in tourist mode.
First up, then, was the EVEN hotel brooklyn. This is IHG’s latest brand, with just half a dozen properties all to be found in the US, so I was keen to take a look. There’s a seemingly endless menu of hotel chains these days, and to be honest it can be hard to differentiate them, but EVEN seems to be something genuinely different. Their focus is on wellness in the broader sense (so including aspects like relaxation and sleep quality, as well as fitness), and as someone who has long bemoaned the difficulty in staying healthy on the road, I think it’s a good approach to take. Whilst the on-site gym was well-appointed – and they offer a free laundry service for your workout clothes – the standout feature is the in-room fitness zone. You get equipment such as resistance bands, yoga mat, ball, cube seat, foam roller and block; plus a huge printed guide on how to use them in a variety of themed workouts mixing stretches, yoga and strength training. If they could just add a pull-up bar, I’d consider it perfect for a travel workout. Certainly this is a brand I hope will spread to more locations.
My second stay was more conventional: the ponderously-named DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel New York City Financial District sits just by Battery Park, for easy access to downtown. Hilton status secured me an upgrade, literally- receiving a room on the 44th floor. Of course, being Manhattan looking out still felt like being part of the skyline, rather than gazing down from on high. New York is easily the most vertical city I’ve encountered, and although I’d find it overwhelming for daily living, in small doses I do like the sheer volume of detail to soak in. Sadly fog swallowed the view at first, but that made the clear skies of Saturday night and the sunny start to Sunday all the more rewarding.
As a work trip, I was entitled to duty travel in Club World. This comes with a few caveats – although (unlike standby travel) you are confirmed to fly, there’s still a chance that operational needs will see you moved out of your prefered seat or even downgraded. You’re also bottom of the list for meal choices, should decline amenity kits and can’t access the lounge – this last a particular issue if you want a sleeper service, for which pre-flight dining is the best option. However, with access to the demand forecasting systems I was able to pick the most lightly-loaded flights: good for the airline, as it minimises revenue impact; and good for me, as it meant there would still be a chance at some decent seats come check-in time (since you don’t get free seat selection either).
Specifically, I used this as an opportunity to try out what is often argued to be the best CW experience – the upper deck on a 747. At just 20 seats, this is arguably more exclusive than the BA1 service I used last time I flew to JFK. The traditional ying-yang seat offers more space and privacy than the babybus config anyway, and upper deck is proportionally particularly roomy. The common criticism of the format – that leaving a window seat may require stepping over a seatmate’s legs – only applies to six seats up here, and they benefit from some additional at-seat storage due to the curvature of the airframe. My pick – 64A, at the very back – is the best of all worlds: windows, direct aisle access, the side bins, and above all that sense of space and privacy that first got me hooked on club world a few years ago. Whilst I still think BA1 offers that little something extra special, this is a more than acceptable alternative – and, of course, is available to many more destinations.
My outbound was the BA117, which leaves at 08:30 and (thanks to the magic of timezones) touches down at 11:10. That meant the main food offering was an extensive breakfast: fruit juice or smoothie, fresh fruit or trio of smoked fish, blueberry yoghurt, selection of breads and pastries, then four possible ‘mains’ – I opted for the frittata, and was glad I’d made an early enough start that morning to tackle so much food! Throughout the flight there was access to the club kitchen of snacks in the galley – thanks to the low number of upper deck passengers, this wasn’t immediately depleted – then there was an afternoon tea service shortly before arriving. That was less impressive, so I prioritised the sweets over the sandwiches. Other than all that eating, I occupied myself with the in flight entertainment; as usual I managed to pick one good film and one terrible one to fill the time…
Returning on the BA116, I had interpreted the 20:15 departure (and 08:25 arrival) as a sleeper service, and thus grabbed a hasty (and disappointing) fast food dinner in JFK’s underwhelming Terminal 7. This turned out not to be necessary, as on boarding I was presented with a slim – but still three course – menu for dinner. In fact, I could have done even better, were it not for my non-rev status: there was a need to upgrade someone to first class, and briefly during the game of musical chairs it was going to be me! Instead it passed to a paying customer, and once the music stopped I had also traded 64A for 61K. Perhaps a shame, as I still haven’t flown right at the pointy end – but if/when I manage my ‘first first’, I’d like it to be the whole package of lounges and dining on a dayflight, rather than sleeping in a fancier bed. For after all, that’s the real focus of a night flight, and I’m glad to report full marks on this service: I slept so soundly I had to be shaken away by cabin crew – an abrupt awakening softened by the simultaneous delivery of breakfast 🙂
The tourist attraction
As with my last visit, much of the draw of New York is the fabric of the city itself: I spent plenty of time before my commute each evening just wandering and soaking up the atmosphere; and also was able to make some architectural pilgramages at the weekend. Top of my shopping list were two very different buildings – Oculus at the World Trade Center, and AT&T’s Long Lines building, both photographic treats. I also enjoyed seeking out clues of a future-that-could-have-been: originally, New York was New Amsterdam, and there are still reminders to be found.
I also managed to fit in a reasonable assortment of tourist attractions to my time and budget. First up, making use of the Wednesday afternoon arrival, was Brooklyn’s botanical gardens. I’d come in search of blossoms, and although not in full riot I had caught part of the season (although the weather wasn’t entirely cooperative). The Japanese garden played up the theme, and the glasshouses held an unexpected bonus in the shape of a bonsai exhibition too.
I exercised a little-known staff perk to get free entry to the USS Intrepid. Being the only person who can get lost on a grid street arrangement, I barely made it in time for the last Concorde tour, but grabbed the final remaining ticket with a minute to spare and was able to catch up with the group. Although the Heathrow concorde is a familiar sight (and one I’ve got up close to in the past), I’d never been inside one. It was strange to see the seating being preserved as, well, a museum exhibit: at BA headquarters, I would often take lunch in an area that has a few of them! Between the tourguide, a fellow visitor who had been a Concorde passenger, and my insider knowledge, a very enjoyable conversation developed that ran on long after the official end of the tour. Intrepid is also home to a couple of other high speed marvels – a Lockheed A12, and a space shuttle! As with the Midway, I strongly approve of turning aircraft carriers into aviation museums.
Finally, the last day of my trip was easily the sunniest, so I stored my case at the hotel and set off for Central Park. Their zoo is small and features only a few exhibits, but I was there for just one: the snow leopards. It took some patience (which, surprisingly, many guests weren’t prepared to apply), but eventually the big cats made an appearance. I can’t decide between these and jellyfish as my favourite creature to see, but am always happy with a trip that features at least one or the other. Afterwards, I explored the main park a bit more thoroughly than last time – although still barely scratching the surface – before settling in for pretzels and people-watching from under a shady tree, until it was time to traipse back to JFK.