Malta, the long way: LGW-MLA-FCO-AMS-BRS

Since my local airport changed from being Heathrow to Bristol, my ability to fly direct has been somewhat curtailed, with my choice of a winter break in Malta proving particularly difficult. Whilst there is a twice-weekly link (on, alas, Ryanair), the precise timings didn’t mesh with my limited time off work. At first I resigned myself to simply travelling via London, but on closer inspection of the schedules, that didn’t work either! Thus I needed to get a bit more creative… I stuck with routing through the capital – albeit Gatwick rather than Heathrow – for getting to Malta. Coming back, though, I would be transiting through Amsterdam to connect to my familiar KLM Cityhopper service to Bristol – except I’d also have to connect in Rome, for what I believe is my first ever two-stop journey. Worse, this itinerary didn’t actually fit into a day, with the night to be spent at Schiphol – similarly, an early departure from Gatwick would necessitate arrival the night before. Despite booking with KLM, none of their (mainline) metal would feature on the trip, with Malta to Rome flown by partner Alitalia and Rome to Amsterdam by low cost subsidiary Transavia.

With the outbound being a BA service, that meant four flights, four airlines, four countries… I’d also be trying two different flavours of airport accommodation, and ideally some lounges along the way…

~

But before all that excitement, there was, of course, a train. London proper can be avoided entirely on a Bristol – Gatwick journey by changing at Reading, but that’s about all there is to recommend this approach. It took some time for the staff to decide which train would actually operate the leg from Reading, and after unloading us all from their first pick, settled for something far too small given how many passengers to an airport would have luggage. Fortunately I managed to claim another seat during the shuffle; we eventually departed around twenty minutes late for what turned out to be a very slow journey. Next time, I think, a coach.

BLOC Gatwick
In the past I’ve used Yotel several times and – spoiler – would be using them later on this trip in Amsterdam. The Japanese-inspired ‘capsule’ concept is ideal for an airport stay: rather than risking missing a flight after an outrageously early overland journey, I’d much rather get there the night before, but once there all I need is somewhere to sleep, a shower in the morning, and perhaps breakfast, before a leisurely stroll to departures.

BLOC is a similar concept, and was pricing up better, so I was interested to see if it was a suitable rival to Yotel. Based on this experience, I’d say it doesn’t just beat Yotel, it’s playing in a different league. The closest I can think of is citizenM, but my stay with them – in Rotterdam just before my wedding – cost at least twice as much for arguably little more. Make no mistake, BLOC rooms aren’t in any way large – but they are – just about – rooms, and viable for two people, neither of which I feel applies to Yotel’s cabins.

BLOC Gatwick

At the time of booking I could have paid £5 extra for a window, and learnt a bit about myself by not doing so – however, at check in I was upgraded anyway (the view was mostly buildings and the monorail, but a few airplanes could be seen off to one side). I assumed from the excellent condition of the room that it – and the whole property – were new additions to Gatwick, so was surprised to learn later that it’s been in place since 2014. Clever use of mirrored surfaces creates an illusion of space – one by the entrance was so clean I tried to walk through it – and there are some well thought out touches such as a storage space for suitcases under the bed. As with citizenM, it’s a smart room with lighting, climate and the window blind all controlled from a touch-screen device. Despite the small scale of the room, they fitted 4 (UK) power sockets, plus a TV, bedside table and an ottoman for more storage; you even get a hairdryer and couple of hangers in the ‘hallway’. Rounding out the hard product is an excellent bathroom with both rainfall and hand-held showers – although you will flood the floor space around the toilet and sink whilst showering.

There was also a few other soft perks provided – free wifi, 2 bottles of water, a booklet of discounts for food and drink in the terminal (unlike Yotel, BLOC doesn’t attempt to offer breakfast). Most interesting though was a pass for ‘premium Gatwick’, the priority security lane – the line for which conveniently starts just outside BLOC’s reception. At £70 for the night, I was more than happy with all this, and Yotel would have to be notably cheaper to win me back…

Gatwick to Malta
British Airways BA2644 LGW – MLA, 2018-11-30

This was my first tier point earning flight with BA since May 2016; it’s interesting how far staff travel, duty travel and redemptions got me in that time! As one of the shorthaul plus routes, it even counted double – but with no other commercial Oneworld fares lined up before my reset in Feb, I won’t be regaining status any time soon… a basic one-way hand baggage only fare from Gatwick to Malta priced up at just over £100, from which I was able to chip off £5 in exchange for 500 avios, an unusually generous part-payment rate.

On finding myself assigned a middle seat at check-in, I stumped up another £13 just to shuffle back a bit and into the aisle. Or at least I tried to; payment was taken, but then my boarding pass was issued for the original seat 15B! Another advantage of arriving at Gatwick the night before was that check-in was all but deserted. So too were most of the airline desks, but the folks at first class check-in waved me over and were happy to help – and still had some aisle seats clear to relocate me to.

The next morning I went from BLOC room 784 to airside in comfortably under ten minutes, thanks to the early hour and that convenient premium lane. These days I rely on Priority Pass instead of status to upgrade my pre-flight experience. At Gatwick they now offer an alternative to a lounge visit, with the card good for £15 of credit at the Grain Store cafe / bar. I suspect that their eggs benedict was better quality than anything I could have rustled up from a lounge buffet, and given it wasn’t yet 7AM the quantity was more than enough to defeat me! It did take a while to settle up my minimal tab, but as my gate hadn’t been called I shouldn’t have worried.

Once it hit the screens I ambled over to gate 38, arriving as pre-boarding begun. Since the flight was completely full and I was in group 5 – I didn’t even know the numbering went that high – it took a while before I settled into my seat aboard. BA2644 would today be operated by G-GATP, an Airbus A320; the once-familiar ‘barking dog’ sound signified the start of our pushback at 8AM. Clearly that wouldn’t be swift enough for our scheduled 8:05 departure time, but we were aloft some 20 minutes later.

Honestly, I’ve little to discuss despite nearly 3 hours in the air. BA’s economy catering has long since switched to buy-on-board, so given my hefty breakfast (and a tactical chocolate stash) I didn’t bother with a meal. Nor is there any IFE, but between a book, an ipad and conversations with my seatmates, time passed swiftly enough – and despite the departure delay, we landed ahead of schedule, just after midday local time. Immigration took over 20 minutes, due to a lack of e-gates; but at least there was free water whilst we queued.

LGW- MLA

Malta to Rome
Alitalia marketed as KL3492 MLA-FCO, 2018-12-03

Fast-forward past an enjoyable three days and I found myself once again at Malta’s Luqa airport (having learnt my lesson in Larnaca, I spotted in advance that Google’s public transport directions stop far short of the passenger terminal). La Valette Club, the airport lounge, turned out to be one of the best I’ve used in a while: a buffet laden with both savoury and sweet options that were remarkably well presented; a spacious interior plus an open-air terrace, both with runway views; and staff proactively circulating with champagne! As well as priority pass and similar schemes, I think this might also be used by airlines for business class passengers; however you get in, it’s a definite improvement on the rather crowded terminal.

A small section of the lounge at MLA

This was my first Alitalia flight, a carrier whose aircraft I’ve been treating as an endangered species whenever I spot them at airports, as the airline seems permanently on the brink of financial collapse… somehow it soldiers on, but based on this experience I won’t mind if they don’t! Our sub-90 minute flight to Italy was being operated by an Airbus A321, curiously registered to Ireland as EI-IXJ. For such a short hop I hadn’t bothered to pay for seat selection, but lucked out with window seat 25F – in fact, all of 25DEF would be mine on this lightly-loaded evening service.

Another row forward, though, and I’d have been not just on the exit row, but in 24F, which benefits from endless legroom due to the absence of the seat in front. Apparently not satisfied by all that space, 24F’s lucky occupant reclined his seat into my face with no warning, an arrangement he would maintain for the entire flight. Despite 24D being a crew jump seat, no attempt was made to get him to assume an upright position for takeoff – probably because they had to convince him to remove his headphones and pay at least some attention to the responsibilities of being on the exit row. Not that he’d necessarily have got much from the briefing, which alternated between rapid-fire Italian and some of the most strangely-delivered English I’ve ever encountered.

We departed at 18:30, five minutes ahead of schedule, and ‘dinner’ was promptly served: a packet of orange-flavoured biscuits. These were free, tasty and unexpected so I shouldn’t complain too much, but they mostly reminded me I wouldn’t have time to get a proper meal in Rome, thanks to just an hour allocated between arrival and departure. Post-refreshments the cabin lights were dimmed, which coupled with a lack of noise from my few fellow passengers, made for a peaceful – almost sleepy – ride. That came to an abrupt end on approach, as Mr. 24F started making a phonecall (again unhindered by crew) before we’d even reached the ground – which happened with a solid thud shortly before 8PM. Alas we rolled on past the terminal to a remote stand, before being bussed back – thus it was 20:20 before I found my way to a transfer kiosk to retrieve my next boarding pass.

MLA-FCO

Rome to Amsterdam
Transavia marketed as KL1608 FCO-AMS, 2018-12-03

Given the tight schedule, it was thus no surprise that I found the boarding queue had already formed once I reached the gate and then my seat – total time in Italy outside of an aircraft, barely 30 minutes! I’d spotted on boarding that the middle seats were blocked in the first few rows, which didn’t make sense for Transavia. It turned out that although the aircraft (PH-HXJ, a Boeing B737) was indeed one of theirs, this flight would be operating to KLM standards, having been leased back from the low cost subsidiary. Hence (euro)-business config up front, and free food instead of buy-on-board for those of us down the back 🙂

Push-back was at 21:05, although it was another ten minutes before we left the ground. A complementary food and beverage run followed soon after, with today’s ‘tasty snack’ being an egg sandwich. (A second beverage run was made about 90 minutes into the flight; alas with nothing else to eat).

With an almost two and a half hour scheduled flight time, on this leg I’d paid the £16 for seat selection to avoid a middle (the three flights combined had run me £163 via Expedia, but that was for Economy Light – so no hold bags or seats). But I’d chosen one by a window instead of the aisle… as my seatmates fell asleep almost immediately, I was pinned and unable to retrieve either my book or ipad from overhead. Thus my notes declared that I was thoroughly bored by 22:30 – with still potentially an hour to go!

In the end, we arrived a little sooner than that, with wheels down at 23:23 – and, mercifully, disembarking straight into the terminal by jetbridge.

FCO-AMS

Yotel Amsterdam Schiphol
Yotel wanted a steep €97 euros for a few hours, but that was still cheaper than anywhere else on the airport estate, and had the advantage of being airside, so I could both avoid security and claim a little more sleep.

At first I thought I’d made a terrible mistake – although from upstairs in the Schengen zone I could see Yotel, it was through thick glass, with the entrance on the non-Schengen side. This should be no issue – my next flight being to the UK, I’d have to leave Schengen at some point. But all the e-gates were shut, and the staffed gates unattended, so I was briefly concerned that I’d arrived too late to transfer over (and if I exited to landside, might not be able to get back through). Nothing seemed worse than having to sleep on a bench in view of a room you’ve paid for! Fortunately a member of cleaning staff pointed me towards a – still unmanned – checkpoint that I could walk through, provided I then proceeded to a desk on the other side: although I assume they’d have intercepted me quickly if I didn’t present myself!

Thus it was almost midnight before I reached Yotel -the adjacent McDonalds was still open, but that was about it for dinner options. Strangely the receptionist couldn’t issue me with a keycard, as they’d run out… which meant my room would be unlocked whenever I wasn’t inside. Not an issue on a 7 hour stay, but strange nonetheless. The cabin was as I remembered it, which is to say notably smaller than BLOC:

Yotel cabin

Still, given that I was in my third country in six hours, and a fourth beckoned, I slept well.

Amsterdam – Bristol
KLM Cityhopper KL1049 AMS – BRS, 2018-12-04

I’ve flown KL1049 a few times now, most recently just over a week ago: thanks to the magic of timezones (and Bristol’s swift arrivals process) it arrives early enough to go straight to the office for a 9:30 start. It’s even more efficient starting from airside at Schiphol – even getting breakfast and doing some gift shopping, an hour would easily be enough from Yotel cabin to the bus gates from which these Cityhopper services invariably depart.

The safety briefing turned into a test of who was paying attention, when the wrong tape was accidentally started, and we were calmly informed

Ladies and gentlemen, the cabin pressure has been reduced. Please remain calm.

As we were still on the ground – possibly even below sea level – everyone was indeed able to remain calm whilst the correct audio was located. Also proving elusive was a runway – pushback was at 8:12, but we had a fully fifteen minute drive around Schiphol to some remote bit of tarmac.

Once airborne, though, this turned out to be an excellent flight. I always enjoy these smaller Embraers (this one, PH-EXT, was an E175 and thus about as small as they get), and we had beautiful sunrise conditions which I was able to admire from a window seat. At the other end of the route, we descended over a Bristol still waking up: mist clinging to the route of the river Avon, a hot air balloon preparing at Ashton Court, and clear views of the city centre and Clifton bridge. Which is to say – I was finally home.

AMS-BRS