A quick trip to London and Paris gave us the excuse to write this column, but it is not a true travel article about those capital cities. After all, if you have been there, you are probably already familiar with the great landmarks. If you have never visited, there are many extensive books that can make you feel like a native. So, this column is rather a collection of comments and suggestions about travel from your Energetic Travelers that hopefully will enlighten and entertain you.
First, we do need to mention that London and Paris are all that they were. Native Londoners are among the most polite and civilized people in the world. Paris has its usual collection of Francophiles who don’t understand that they have never won a war, although they are two generations past the depressing countenance of Charles de Gaulle.
The buildings in London have suffered from decades and, in some cases, centuries, of accumulated grime, but this year we were shocked — stunned — to see bright and shiny rows of clean apartment and office buildings. Apparently, the Olympics and queen’s diamond jubilee did what the liberal or conservative governments failed to do for so long. Paris, of course, had no such celebrations and looks as it has forever, except the tumbrels have been replaced by overflowing garbage cans.
We flew into Heathrow, and we must issue our perennial warning that this airport should be avoided at all costs. If you have any other options, stay away! We arrived from Chicago on United Airlines, which previously had a concourse that required a long walk from the gates to baggage claim. When they needed more gates, United built another edifice that added a further walk from the older terminal.
But the United terminal at Heathrow is not the worst. That honor goes to the brand new Terminal Five, opened last year by British Airways. This sprawling monster is truly ill-conceived and suffers from the usual bad management of Heathrow. Coming and going from this dinosaur is still not the worst experience. That ultimate honor goes to connecting from Terminal Five to any other terminal. Ouch! Or maybe the biggest “ouch” comes from taking the $100 cab ride into central London.
While on the subject of transportation, we took the Eurostar from London to Paris. We were in the Chunnel some years ago and remember it as being more lush, but maybe we were in a better class of service. There are three classes now and prices follow the format of our domestic airlines: The fares depend on time of day and day of the week and fall into three levels. We could not see paying more than the basic fare for the 150-minute ride, which is remarkably smooth without any sense of the high speed.
We had looked forward to seeing the “totally renovated” St. Pancras station in London, which was closed for more than a year to prepare for the transfer of Eurostar to it. This proved to be a major disappointment, and it has all the charm of a commuter station. In summary, Eurostar is absolutely great for travel between downtown London, Brussels and Paris and avoids the annoyance of airports and commuting to the city centers. But it is not much more elegant than traveling coach on our domestic airlines.
One of our biggest surprises was a visit to Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, the quintessential luxury department stores in Paris. Each designer has his or her own boutique, and some are in both stores. Customers would line up outside of a velvet rope at Louis Vuitton and Chanel for up to three hours for the privilege of spending $1,000 to $3,000 on a handbag and then emerge with multiples! Go figure.
We must reissue our usual annual note that “elite status” is good and our admonition to concentrate your flying and credit-card purchases with one of the three major groups. We favor United and the Star Alliance, but American Airlines and Delta are part of similar global organizations. Pick the one that has the most service between your most frequent destinations and build your “bank” of miles and gain status. Yes, “elite” is good, and upgrades to business class are a treat.
Stuart and Lois Scheyer are in their early 80s and are residents of Longboat Key. They each log more than 100,000 air miles a year. They will be pleased to answer any travel questions and can be reached by email at [email protected]. Travel Easy — Travel Light — Travel Now