2019 was a year of contrasts, with limited international travel but a record-breaking volume of domestic trips. These were related to an employment change – or rather, return, as I rejoined British Airways in its centenary year. Working mostly remotely from Bristol, periodic visits to Waterside allowed me to steadily explore the many hotels serving Heathrow – but the vast majority of my travel in and out of the airport has been by coach rather than plane!
Of the time I did spend abroad, only a couple of trips warranted coverage here – Austria was an entirely new country, whilst Tuscany a new region of an existing favourite. A short break in Stuttgart was mostly to spectate a sporting event, but proved the concept of using time in the office as an excuse to jet off somewhere for the weekend. This I reprised for a long-overdue return to Edinburgh; with my staff travel perks back in place, I hope to make rather more use of this model in 2020! Other than that, I made a couple of journeys to The Netherlands, as usual.
I’m also pleased to note that despite last year‘s fears, I continue to be an EU citizen for now.
The mere 5169 miles covered this year represents my lowest annual total since 2007. The eleven flights contributing those miles is also my fewest in a year since 2015. Unsurprisingly, this left little room for novelty – four new airports (Salzburg, Bologna, Pisa, Stuttgart) but no new airlines or aircraft (although I did find myself on a NEO A321 for the first time).
Instead, my new aviation experiences were unwanted ones: my first in-air divert, and my first aborted landing, both courtesy of Ryanair. I had a flight cancelled entirely by KLM, narrowly dodged the BA strike, and flew on the first day of the Heathrow Pause drone action – which fortunately proved a non-event. On the plus side, thanks to staff discounts I was able to spend five of my BA flights in the greater comfort of Club Europe.
After weather scuppered a first attempt in February, I also had my first helicopter flight in May, lucking out with the co-pilot seat for an aerial tour of Cardiff from HeliAdvenutres.
As with the lack of long-haul flying, so there were no truly epic rail itineraries this year. But I did get to sample a variety of Austrian trains, in Railjet, Cityjet and Nightjet flavours. I finally used Eurostar’s direct service from the UK to the Netherlands – a bargain at £35 each one-way. Sadly a return leg would have been slower and substantially more expensive, both on account of the need to get to Brussels first by Thalys. This issue should be resolved in 2020, but in the meantime a mixed rail out, fly back approach seems to be working for us.
As mentioned, this was easily my heaviest year for paid nights away: 55 in total, across 36 stays. A week of this was spent in a collection of farm cottages with friends in the UK; another in a villa in Italy. But the clear majority were single night stays in or around Heathrow airport, with 13 of these across eight months. Remarkably, peak train fares are so high that it’s cheaper to travel the evening before and stay overnight than to commute in the morning; it’s also a less punishing schedule. But this meant I selected mostly on the basis of price, favouring cash in my pocket over loyalty to any one property or chain. Still, the Holiday Inn Heathrow Ariel, Doubletree by Hilton Hotel London Heathrow Airport and Moxy London Heathrow Airport all saw repeat custom.
At the more glamorous end of the scale, easily my most expensive choice was the Hotel Stein in Salzburg – sadly, I didn’t feel it lived up to the image it tried to project (and charges for…) Instead, I would award stay of the year to the Hilton Edinburgh Carlton. Mostly this was because of the ridiculous over-fulfilment of my gold status benefits: I got at least double-upgraded to an enormous room with sitting area, two 40″ TVs and views across Waverley to Calton Hill from a pair of bay windows; found a slate of snacks awaiting me on return to the room; was granted executive lounge access (which I raided for dinner); and was told that in addition to the buffet, I could order anything I liked from the a la carte breakfast menu without charge.
But it’s also in an excellent location in a city I love, and the staff were extremely helpful. On this occasion I’d justified the price by booking in a sale and double-dipping with a BA e-store bonus, but I hope I can visit again next time I’m in town.
Other notable properties were the Hotel Indigo in Cardiff, where we stayed for the first attempt at that helicopter flight and enjoyed so much we returned for the second; and the ibis Birmingham New Street for a solid #hotelosaur effort!
I end the year with a slight improvement to my avios balance, having collected about 12,500 but using 3000 of those for £30 in discounts. I also earnt 215 tier points – more than in the previous five years combined, but still worth nothing!
I continue to hope for a tie-up between Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Red and KLM’s FLying Blue; in the meantime, I added a few thousand point to each (purely through credit card and Tescos spend for the former, and flights for the latter).
Despite crediting stays to five different hotel programmes this year, the only meaningful activity was through IHG Rewards Club. I chased two of their accelerate-style promotions: between base points and the bonuses, I received 35K from Reward Nights Faster, and 25K from Make Every Stay Count. Along the way, I also fast tracked my way to Platinum status.
These came in handy as I burnt through over 100K across four nights. There’s nothing glamorous in here, but IHG points continue to represent genuine savings on stays I needed to make:
- 25K for Crowne Plaza Plymouth – part of a series of nights for a wedding, the first of which was quoting £136 cash. Hotel hopping would have brought that down to about £110, but would have been far less convenient.
- A 15K point break at the HIX: London Hammersmith – face value £107 although as part of a work visit I could have found alternatives at LHR for around £60.
- 25K for the Staybridge Suites LHR – a steal compared to asking price of £142, but I could have stayed elsewhere for about half that.
- 40K for the Crowne Plaza Kings Cross – central London on short notice does not come cheap, and it would have been £240 for this exact property and at least £120 for anything vaguely nearby.
All told, this gives a valuation of £3.44 to £5.95 per thousand points; or about a 25%-45% rebate on the stays I earnt them with!
However, whilst IHG is great for earn and burn opportunities, its status recognition is negligible at any level I’ll ever attain. On that front I had far more success with Hilton Honors – out of five stays, three saw room upgrades and all benefited from free breakfast and 80% bonus points. All my Doubletree stays also seemed to double-dip on MyWay benefits, with bonus points arriving despite opting for breakfast.
Finally, my credit card strategy remains simple. As much spend as possible goes through an American Express platinum card due to the flexibility of membership rewards points – I currently have enough there to top up either my BA or Virgin Atlantic accounts for a business class flight, but not both, so it’s helpful not having to commit at time of spend. Where Amex isn’t accepted, I use Virgin Altantic’s free mastercard in the UK, or a Starling bank debit card abroad (no points earning, but no foreign currency fees either).
Both BA and KLM claimed 2019 as their centenary year, which activated my collector instincts. In the past this has been for experiences – such as their 737 and Fokker 70 farewell flights, respectively – but this time it was for artifacts. As BA staff, I received a ‘100’ pin and a fragment of the recently-retired 747 GBNJL, which had been recycled into keyrings. KLM offered a very specific discount for my own birthday: 15% off their e-store, but only for items collected on a flight in the next month that was scheduled to take more than 90 minutes. This proved to be too many hoops to jump through, but at least I could take advantage of much cheaper postage to Dutch addresses. So I am now the proud owner of two limited edition anniversary items: a t-shirt and, erm, a bicycle bell. Everyone needs a hobby, but I suspect this pushes me a bit further up the avgeek scale…
For 2020, I find myself with some of the same hopes (that Virgin/KLM joint venture) and fears (Brexit) as I entered 2019 with. But I already have a couple of trips booked, and many more half-formed ideas. Two goals are to get my visited countries count up to 20 (which means adding three more); and to earn Executive Club silver status once my tier point year resets in February. I will also no doubt continue to slowly survey the wide range of Heathrow airport hotels!