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Welcome

Hello and welcome to this travel blog!

This is an online travel journal about the journeys I have taken. I hope you may find in it useful information about airports, airlines and hotels and their products and services. Perhaps you will also find here some inspiration for future places to visit and journeys to take.

– William

The scenic route from Engelberg to Lucerne

I spend my Sunday morning in Engelberg climbing among the rocks at 1800 m above sea level like a deranged mountain goat. Down in the valley it’s still fresh. But up on the Brunni the sun is already warming up the air.

By the time I make my way down the mountain it’s already gone eleven. I have until 12h00 to check out of the hotel. There is a train departure from Engelberg every hour at two minutes past the hour. There are two possibilities for me to get back to Lucerne. I can either just stay put on the Lucerne-Engelberg Express, which should get me there in 43 minutes, or I can take the scenic route.

The scenic route requires two changes, but is totally worth it! From Engelberg to Stans takes 33 minutes on the express. There I have seven minutes to change trains to a local service to Stansstad, which is a journey of four minutes.

And then from Stansstad it’s about five minutes on foot from the railway station to the lake, from where I’ll be catching the boat back to Lucerne.

The trip by boat from Stansstad to Lucerne takes just over one hour. En route the boats calls at Hergiswil, Kehrsiten, Kastanienbaum, and the Transport Museum. Today’s service is being operated by the Titlis, one of the smaller vessels in the fleet.

Despite the many places I have visited around the globe, as far as I’m concerned nothing beats a lazy Sunday afternoon on Lake Lucerne in the autumn. It’s still warm enough to sit out on the deck, but without the humidity and the oppressive heat of summer.

Pilatus emerging out of the fog.
Just before Kersitten.
The Rigi, if I’m not mistaken.
The Bürgenstock.
Just before entering the port of Lucerne.
The Uri, which entered service on the lake back in 1901. She was overhauled back in 1994 and is still plying her trade on the company’s scheduled service. The Uri is the only one of the original steamboats on the lake that also operates in the winter.

The port of Lucerne is right in the centre of town. The railway station is two minutes on foot and the city’s famous covered bridge, the Kapelbrücke, is not much further away.

Hotel Kempinski Engelberg

The Kempinski Engelberg is a five-star property that opened in spring 2021. Engelberg is one of Switzerland’s top ski resorts, partly due to the fact that it has some nice slopes, is easily accessible and not quite as far off as other places like Gstaad or Adelboden.

The Kempinski is in easy walking distance from the railway station. You really can’t miss it as you exit from the station. I spent just the one night at the hotel, from Saturday to Sunday, and also had afternoon tea and dinner there.

The public areas of the hotel are somewhat generic, and parts of it look haphazardly put together, with design elements that either don’t always fit or don’t match, such as the horrific plastic faux-palm trees…

The room I stayed was nice though, and I was quite surprised by how large it was. Clearly, they were going for rustic Alpine chic with the design of the room. And mostly I think they succeeded.

The room had a Nespresso machine with four cups, and there was a bottle of water on either side of the bed.

Most importantly, the bed was large, hard and tremendously comfortable.

The bathroom was also quite large and featured a separate bath and shower, as well as a separate toilet. The toiletries were by Salvatore Ferragamo.

And the view from the balcony was stunning.

Where the Kempinski really falls short, in my opinion, is the service and the staff. None of the things they did were really major issues, they just seriously lacked the kind of attention to detail I think a guest should be able to expect from a five-star property.

As I wasn’t sure how busy the hotel would be, I made a reservation for two persons on Saturday afternoon for tea. Only, when we arrived, it became quite apparent that there was no reservation for us, even though it had been confirmed to me by mail. In as much, it wasn’t really such a big deal, because the place was far from busy anyway. However, instead of sorting out the confusion, the staff seemed a lot more preoccupied in trying to figure out what had gone wrong and, more importantly, who they could pin the blame on. And while they tried to figure that out, they just ignored us.

I had also made a reservation for dinner for 19h30. However, the confirmation I received was for 20h00. I have no idea if this was an accident, but again, I would have expected better.

And then dinner was just a mess and honestly not very good. First, one of the waitresses came to ask if we wanted still or sparkling water, to which I responded that we would like sparkling water. I also told here not to bother with the wine menu as we don’t normally drink wine. The wine glasses were not removed and two minutes after she had left, the waitress returned wanting to confirm that we wanted still water.

A short while later she came back to take our order. For the main course, my partner ordered agnolotti filled with ricotta and herbs. A few minutes after we placed our order, the same waitress returned again, wanting to confirm that my partner had ordered the fillet of veal. So again, I explained that he was having the agnolotti. I mean, if the poor woman suffered from such a serious case of short-term memory loss, which didn’t she just write down what we’d ordered?

I ordered a soup to start and fish for the main course. However, the cutlery was not changed for me and it was only when the soup was served that the waiter actually noticed that I didn’t even have a spoon to eat it with. Then, when the main courses arrived, my partner was given a plate of Älplermagrone, which is a Swiss pasta dish with loads of melted cheese and didn’t really look all that appealing. When we pointed out that there had been a mistake, the waiter just wordlessly walked away in a huff and without even as much as an apology – leaving my fish on the table to get cold. And then nothing happened, until eventually the correct dish we had ordered arrived. By this time of course, the fish was cold. It was also very oily and frankly not all that good.

All things considered, I wouldn’t really recommend the Kempinski Engelberg. I think it’s seriously over-rated and over-priced for what you eventually get, and the service was, with all due respect, lousy.

Afternoon tea at the Kempinski

Sadly, Britain’s colonial history really is noting to be proud of. However, among the few positive contributions Britain has made to the world, I would definitely count afternoon tea. I mean, how could anybody not like cucumber sandwiches?

In my time, I have had the privilege of trying many different afternoon teas, such as Raffle’s Hotel in Singapore, or Fortnum & Masons in Piccadilly in London. This time, I am reporting from the Kempinski Engelberg, where I spend the weekend before my birthday.

Afternoon tea at the Kempinski is served in the winter garden, adjacent to the main lobby. The tables are rather low, and the sofas are very soft. But there are many cushions to make sure you’re sitting comfortably while you indulge.

The afternoon tea is served on bright and colourful crockery.

To drink I ask for a pot of Earl Grey tea. I forget to ask what brand the tea is. Which is a shame because it’s certainly very good and has a nice, subtle taste with only a hint of Bergamotte.

First, the sandwiches are served, and there are two squares each of four different types of sandwich: salmon, ham, egg, and cheese with chutney.

Once the sandwiches are removed, a three-tier étagère is served. It includes: two plain scones and two scones with raisins, a selection of sweets and pastries, and a plate with two little sticky toffee puddings.

For the scones, both cherry and raspberry jam are served, which is fine. Although I prefer the more customary strawberry jam. There is also vanilla infused butter, lemon curd and whipped cream.

All things considered, this is not a bad afternoon tea. However, at CHF59 per person I do think it is rather pricey – especially for what you get. There also appears to be a systemic lack of attention to detail among the staff at the Kempinski: there is no sugar on the table, which the staff don’t even notice. The waiter refers to the whipped cream as clotted cream, which a) it simply isn’t, but which b) I think would not be too much to expect given the price for the tea.

Trans Europ Express, First Class: Olten via Berne to Lucerne

Back in their heyday, the 47 train compositions that made up the fleet of the Trans Europ Express (TEE) were the Queens of the European railway network. They offered passengers an unrivalled and unprecedented level of luxury, comfort and service. The compositions originally only offered first class seating. It was only much later that second class carriages were introduced.

The Trans Europ Express was established in 1957 on the initiative of the Dutch national railways. They subsequently formed a consortium with the national railway companies of Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany and Switzerland. Later on, other members would join. In a way, the TEE was the natural successor to the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lit. The new, eye-catching trains symbolized Europe’s return to prosperity and innovation after the hardships of World War II.

The first trains were diesel powered compositions, mainly because they would operate internationally and would therefore have to cross international borders. This is also the reasons why the compositions were equipped with a power and/or steering unit at both ends of the trains, as a means of shortening the turn around times at the border stations – by not having to change locomotives.

In 1961 the Swiss Federal Railways introduced the electrically powered RAe TEE II trains. What made these trains unique, was the fact that they were equipped with four pantographs, so that they could operate outside Switzerland and without having to make any major modifications to the units en route.

When I was a young boy, I even had a LIMA model of the Swiss TEE. But as is almost always the case, the tragedy of the human existence is that you are rarely aware of what you have until it is too late. I could kick myself for not having kept that model and for chucking it out when I was a teenager and thought I was way too cool and mature for toys.

Fortunately, the Swiss Federal Railways have retained one of the original TEE trains and have had it beautifully restored to its original splendour by their historical maintenance division . To mark the 60th anniversary of the TEE this year, the Swiss Federal Railways have laid on a Festzug. The TEE will start its journey in Olten, then travels to Berne and Lucerne. And then from there to Zürich, then Basel and eventually back to Olten. I will be joining the journey from Olten to Lucerne.

Getting to Olten

Olten is kilometre 0 of the national network of the Swiss Federal Railways. Olten is normally thirty minutes away from Basel by train. Currently, the journey is taking a bit longer to complete because they’re building on the line at the weekends. I catch the 08h31 train, which gets me into Olten at 09h10 with enough time to take some photos of the exterior of the TEE as it pulls into the station.

When I arrive in Olten the mist is just starting to lift. So I’m hoping we’ll have good weather for this trip today. The departure platform is not displayed yet, but if the many train spotters with their huge lenses are anything to go by, I think I can make a pretty good guess where the train will be arriving.

Boarding

On the platform there are are plenty of staff of the SBB checking passengers’ Covid certificates. Which is good, because it means we’ll be able to keep our masks off on the train. It looks like it’s going to be a busy ride today, and there are many people milling about and taking pictures of our TEE once it pulls in.

What always drew me to the Swiss TEE, was its elegant design and the sleek lines of its nose section. That and the fact that the train can speed up to 160km/h, which was quite a lot back in its day and is still not too shabby for an old lady of 60 years.

The atmosphere on the train is nice. There’s a sense of excitement. All the passengers seem to be in a good mood, and most of them are commenting on what a classic the TEE is.

The cabin

The restoration of the train has turned out nicely, and I think the SBB did a good job in maintaining the original vibe of the cabin, while at the same time modernising it where necessary to meet today’s standards of comfort. On one side of the train are single seats that are arranged in pairs facing each other. On the other side, there are four seats in the same layout. Every seat has a foldaway table.

There is a proper dining car serving hot and cold meals and snacks. There’s also a bar for you to enjoy an aperitif or even just an espresso after the meal. The dining car and the bar are the most retro parts of the train and they’re just so cool, because you can just imagine what it must have been like to travel on one of these trains between Amsterdam and Basel or Milan back in the 1970s.

The seats are incredibly soft and very comfortable. To the point that once I settle in my seat, I find it difficult to stay awake while the train’s gentle movements lull me to sleep…

There is a welcome chocolate at every seat (common, this is Switzerland…) and a small brochure with information about the train and the TEE.

The journey

The journey takes us along the old route from Olten to Berne, the Swiss capital, in 45 minutes. This is honestly quite a bland route, and not just because the mist is still only beginning to dissipate. In Berne we have 15 minutes to step outside and stretch our legs.

From Berne, the train takes the old route through the Emmental (where the cheese is from) to Lucerne in just over two hours. By the time we leave Berne again, the weather has cleared up and it’s turned into a glorious day. The Emmental region is in the Voralpen, which means that you’re not surrounded by high mountains, towering above you on all sides. But the mountains are clearly visible in the distance. The landscape is dominated by softly rolling green hills with lush vegetation and so, so many happy looking cows grazing on them.

Other than that, the route is lined with train spotters, standing in fields or leaning precariously out of moving cars in an attempt to catch a glimpse of our train. Occasionally, we stop at a station to let another train pass. And wherever we stop, people are taking out their mobiles to take photos of the TEE!

Arrival

Eventually, we arrive in Lucerne on time at 13h23. And here too, there are spotters lining the far end of the platform, taking pictures of the TEE as she gracefully pulls into the station.

Conclusion

I suppose with this trip report my street cred as an avgeek will take a serious beating. But that can’t be helped. For me, this trip on the TEE has been a dream come true. As a kid, playing with that model I had, I always used to wonder what it must have been like travelling on such an elegant train back in the day. And thanks to the excellent work done by the team of the SBB historic division, at least I now have a bit of an idea. I sincerely hope that the TEE will be around for many more generations to enjoy. I certainly did!

Linz

Eating Linzer Torte in Linz

On the bucket list of things I planned to do this year while the droves of overseas tourists are still absent from Europe, was a visit to Linz. In the interest of full disclosure and investigative blogging, I will freely admit that I don’t think I could really say all that much about the city, even now that I’ve been. From what little I saw, it has a nice open feel to it and the centre of the old town is easily accessible and pleasant for pedestrians. But that’s just about it. I really only went along for the food…!

The Linzer Torte is a traditional Austrian sweet that takes its name from the city of Linz, although it seems that the original recipe is Hungarian and came to Austria during the K + K monarchies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Essentially, the Linzer Torte has a short crust pastry base with hazelnuts and lemon to give it a fresh, zesty taste. There are also spices in the dough, such as nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. On the base is a thick layer of jam. The traditional recipe recommends using red currant, although very often these days they tend to use raspberry jam or a mix of raspberry and red currant. On top of that, an intricate lattice is placed and the edges are decorated with almond flakes. The exact nature of the lattice is somewhat contested. Some shops will make it out of the same dough as the base of the Linzer Torte, while others will produce a lattice made of marzipan.

I decided to go with the Konditorei Heuschober on Marktplatz 13, which is close to the railway station and the Stadtpark. At Heuschober the lattice is made of marzipan, and it is put on the Torte before it goes in the oven for baking. At Heuschober they also put another layer of short crust on top of the jam, which helps keep the Torte nice and moist.

Getting from Vienna to Linz

There are frequent trains from Wien Hauptbahnhof to Linz. Most of them are operated by high speed Railjet trains. The journey time is roughly 90 minutes and tickets can be purchased online or on the app of the Österreichische Bundesbahn (ÖBB).

Austrian Airlines, Economy Class – Embraer 195: Vienna to Basel

Introduction

Today I’m on my way from Vienna back to Basel. My flight departs at 17h40 and the hotel refuses to grant me a late check-out. So I exit the SO/ Vienna hotel just after 12h00 and make my way to Wien Mitte railway station to dump my suitcase and bag in a locker. It’s only ten minutes on foot from the hotel to the station. You could take public transport instead, but I suspect that would probably take longer.

Once that’s settled, I decide to pay a visit to Schloss Belvedere, which houses an extensive collection of paintings by Gustav Klimt.

On my way back to Wien Mitte I make a brief stop at the Konditorei Oberlaa for a last helping of Kaiserschmarn, a kind of fluffy shredded pancake served with jam and has comfort food written all over it.

Getting to Vienna Schwechat airport

From Wien Mitte there are frequent trains to Vienna airport. The journey will take about 25 minutes and costs EUR4.80 for a single trip for one person. However, if you’re travelling with somebody else, you already qualify as a group, in which case the fare is only EUR5.20 for both.

“Europe without Greece is like partying without drugs”. Indeed, it’s very patriotic and I think the Greece ministry of tourism should adopt this as its new slogan…

Check-in

Austrian Airlines checks in at Terminal 3. I’ve already received my boarding pass online, but I still need to drop off my suitcase. Austrian Airlines’ self-check in process for Economy Class passengers is easy to use and has been well planned. As you come off the escalators that lead up to departures, there is a large area with very easy to use scanning machines.

You scan your boarding pass and the machine will ask you to confirm your name. Once that’d done, the baggage label is printed. The queue for the fast bag drop is long, but at least it moves quickly.

At the counter where a check-in agent once used to sit, there is now another scanner. You place the suitcase on the conveyor belt, scan the bar code on the label, and that’s it. Gone!

Airside

The airport is busy this time of day. The other terminals in Schwechat have been shut down due to the pandemic, so Terminal 3 is now handling all the traffic – and it’s rather a tight fit. Eventually, I find a place to sit at the very last gate on the Schengen pier. As it happens, this is where the Ryanair flight to Thessaloniki is about to board. And I really must say, it’s rather entertaining. The gate agent is, with all due respect, a complete and utter bitch and the way she treats the passengers boarding the flight is nothing short of outrageous. You have to be really hard up financially to be willing to put up with this level of verbal abuse. I think given the choice I would prefer not to travel at all than have to endure this kind of treatment.

This is something I have never been able to understand about the business model of many of the low cost carriers. Yes, their prices are amazingly low sometimes. But irrespective of how high or low the price for the ticket is, people are still paying their good money to avail themselves of a service. The amount they paid should not determine the politeness or courtesy of service they receive. And it certainly should not determine how rudely they are treated by the staff. Of course the saying goes that you get what you pay for, and if the likes of Ryanair are not willing to pay for polite and properly trained staff or handling agents, then that’s just too bad. But I disagree.

Boarding

Boarding for the flight starts with a slight delay and takes for ever. This is largely due to the fact that in Austria it is mandatory for passengers to wear FFP2 masks. Every passenger wearing a standard issue surgical mask is stopped by the L1 door and given an FFP2 mask to wear instead, which they must put on in front of the cabin crew before they are allowed beyond the galley and into the cabin.

The crew & service

The crew are quite friendly, which is rather unusual for Austrian Airlines. The purser is clearly trying to respect all the rules in place, and while I personally think she should be commended for that and for putting the passengers’ health first, I think we also need to acknowledge that in Europe the lack of harmonization between countries is a huge pain in the ass and makes it near impossible to travel between countries without breaking at least one rule or other.

The flight itself is short and uneventful.

Arrival

Eventually we land in Basel after a flight time of one hour and ten minutes. The cabin crew announce that deboarding will be by seat numbers. Passengers should remain seated until their row is called. In theory, it may make a lot of sense to deboard the plane in such a way. But in practice, the sad truth is that it is completely useless: Basel airport is on French soil and has a French and a Swiss sector. There is one long corridor that connects the arrival gates to the head of the terminal building and immigration. Even though Austria and France are both part of the Schengen treaty, France has suspended the free movement of persons, which means that they have reintroduced border controls. This does not apply to Switzerland. But the exit to Switzerland is only at the very end of the corridor, meaning there is no way for passengers entering into Switzerland to bypass the queues for immigration for France. Regrettably, we land right after two full easyJet Airbus A 320s, and the queue for immigration is endless. It takes me forty minutes to reach the head of the queue. At least by the time I arrive at the luggage belt, my suitcase is already there.

Conclusion

So, I’ve now done six flights with Austrian Airlines in short succession – mostly in Business Class. On a positive note, I’m very much impressed by the quality of their food. It should not be taken for granted these days to be given a hot meal in Business Class on a short sector of only one hour. Other than that though, I found their service a bit lacking and seriously inconsistent. First, I really think it wouldn’t hurt Austrian Airlines to provide at least a bottle of water to passengers in Business Class as a kind of welcome drink. Second, I find it rather interesting that on all six flights I took, an announcement was made that deboarding would be done by seat rows, from front to back. But in fact this was only enforced by the crew on the last flight. My point is not whether or not the procedure makes sense. I just find it rather unprofessional to make such an announcement and then very obviously not give a rats bum. Austrian Airlines are okay, and their network to southeastern Europe is extensive. Other than that though, they’re hardly worth bothering with.

Austrian Airlines, Business Class – Airbus A 320: Tirana to Vienna

Introduction

Originally, when I booked this flight, it should have been operated by an Airbus A 321, with a departure from Tirana at 17h00. But then, a few weeks later I received a schedule change from Austrian Airlines, informing me that the flight would now be operated by an Airbus A 320 and that the departure had moved forward to 15h00. It seems that Austrian has replaced the A 321 with two flights. One is an Airbus A 320 that leaves at 15h00, and the other is an Embraer 195 which departs a few minutes later.

Getting to the airport

There’s a lot of excitement in Tirana this morning, because German Chancellor Angela Merkel is visiting on her farewell tour of the Balkans. As a result, the authorities have shut down all the access roads to the airport for traffic. Nobody gets in, and nobody gets out. But it’s only a short distance from the facilities of the Albanian ANSP to the terminal, and it’s a lovely day for a walk anyway.

Check-in

The airport is a lot busier today than it was the last time I was here a week ago at three o’clock in the morning. In fact, I’d say the terminal facility is way too small for the amount of passengers it handles.

The girl at check-in has some serious Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde issues going on. When I reach the counter, the guy checking in at the counter next to me has scattered a ton of suitcases all over the place. He’s basically blocking three check-in counters but using only one. My check-in agent gives me the sweetest smile and welcomes me to Austrian Airlines. Then she turns to face the guy with the many suitcases and basically just rips him a new one in Albanian. I have no idea what on earth she says to him, but by the time she’s done, I’m really starting to feel sorry for the guy.

Tirana Airport Business Class lounge

The queue at security is long, but it moves quickly and the staff are very efficient. Once I’m through, I head one floor up to the Business Class lounge. It’s already gone 13h30 and I haven’t had lunch yet.

The lounge offers a nice selection of snacks, soft drinks and warm drinks. I’m not sure if alcohol is available too. Lavatories are available on the premises and are very clean. Complimentary wifi is also available in the lounge, with the password marked all over the place.

I ask the lady behind the buffet if she can just give me a bit of a taste of the Albanian dishes, which apparently means everything and in copious amounts. I end up with three plates. On the picture below you see pickled peppers filled with soft cheese, some shredded bell pepper, a healthy dollop of fresh cheese and another dollop of ajvars. Her English is about as good as my Albanian, but she makes it clear that the idea is that you mix the cheese with the ajvars and smear it on bread. Not in the picture are the plate full of bread and another plate with a cheese borek and a spinach borek that have been warmed. That should tie me over for the next week…

Boarding

Boarding already starts at 14h15. Even though it says 14h30 on the boarding pass. I get the feeling the ground staff are planning ahead in case there are any delays caused by all the diplomatic traffic. There’s a military Learjet from Macedonia and a Serb Embraer, in addition to Mutti’s Airbus of the Deutsche Bundeswehr.

The first bus departs just as I exit the terminal, but at least we’re allowed to wait outside in a closed off area for the next bus to arrive.

Most passengers are either making a mad dash to board the aircraft, or trying to capture a picture of the German Bundeswehr jet. My attention is immediately drawn to the completely white, non-standard engine cowling. What’s up with this bird?

The cabin

In the cabin there’s also something slightly different about this bird. First, the fittings on the seats are in silver colour, and not the usual Austrian Airlines red. And secondly, the Austrian Airlines logo is missing from the right bulkhead.

There’s a passenger missing and the crew are busy preparing the cabin for our departure, so I don’t want to pester them by asking about the aircraft.

There are three rows of Business Class on this aircraft, and there is one other gentlemen in the forward cabin with me.

The crew

The crew on this flight are a mixed bag, which seems to be quite normal on Austrian. Again, it’s just a small thing, but I really think it would be kind of nice to ask passengers if they’d like something to eat first, and not just dump the tray in front of them, whether they like it or not.

In any case, departure is to the north, flying directly towards Albania’s beautiful coastline. It’s a brilliant day for flying and visibility is excellent. About ten minutes into the climb, the captain comes on the mic to inquire if a certain passenger is on board. He explains that the second aircraft is delayed on the ground because of a missing passenger, and the handling agent figured he may have boarded the wrong aircraft ‘by accident’. Well that’s comforting…

The meal

After all the food in the lounge, I can’t honestly say that I’m still hungry. But goodness, the chocolate mousse cake for dessert sure looks tasty. And I mean, I didn’t have anything sweet in the lounge. It would be just such a shame to waste it. Oh, f*%@ it…

Now this dessert is really something. It’s very, very rich and sweet. The first spoon has my heart racing! But it really is just so good.

And just in case I hadn’t had enough chocolate yet, the crew pass through the cabin with farewell chocolates as we start the descent.

Arrival

Our arrival route into Vienna takes us past the airport on the downwind, to make an approach from the north. The light and shadows of the clouds dancing on the ground make the landscape look as though it has been painted on an enormous canvas.

We park on a remote stand. But at least this time the bus brings us to the head of the concourse, so we won’t have to walk too far.

Getting into Vienna

Next week the autumn semester starts and my life basically comes to a grinding halt until the end of the semester just before Christmas. So I figure I might as well break the journey and spend a few days in Vienna on a kind of mini-vacation.

To get into town, the train is probably the fastest and cheapest option. There are regular trains that run to either Wien Hauptbahnhof or Wien Mitte. The journey takes about 25 minutes to complete. There is a dedicated airport train called the CAT. However, apart from the fact that it’s currently not operating, it’s also outrageously expensive and really not worth the extra price.

Austrian Airlines, Business Class – Airbus A 320: Vienna to Tirana

Transfer in Vienna

My flight from Basel lands just after 21h00. I now have one hour to make the connection to Tirana. As my blog is getting a bit heavy on the Austrian Airlines posts, and it’s dark outside with not much to see anyway, I figured I’d just post an abridged post here with only the most important information.

Austrian Airlines Business Class lounge

Austrian Airlines has a Business Class lounge in both the Schengen and non-Schengen areas. Luckily I decide to head for the Schengen lounge to grab something to eat before I do anything else, and then go through passport control after. And what an excellent choice that turns out to be! Because the Business Class lounge in the non-Schengen area is only open in the mornings from 07h45 to 13h30.

The cabin

This evening’s flight to Tirana is operated by an A 320. There are three rows of Business Class and only four passengers. I’m seated on 1A, and to be honest, I’m not a fan. The pitch on row 1 is not as good as on the other rows : it’s impossible to stretch my legs because of the bulkhead. But I can’t really move them sideways either, because the tray on row 1 is stowed in the arm rest, which therefore cannot be raised. So overall, I’m feeling a bit like an unhappy Pretzel.

The crew

The crew on this flight are not exactly gushing, but they are polite. They make quite a few announcements about Covid, the correct use of the masks and how to disembark once we reach Tirana – and then go on to immediately violate their own recommendations and not follow through with what they advised passengers to do.

The crew of this flight operates the Tirana rotation as a kind of split shift. Meaning that the same crew that arrives with this flight at 00h15 will also be returning to Vienna on the same aircraft that departs at 04h25. And I know this because they’re in the same hotel as me, and I hear them requesting a wake up call at 03h10. To be honest, I think if that were me, I really would not be all that motivated either.

The meal

Without even asking any of the passengers if they’d like to eat, the crew rather unceremoniously plonk a tray of grub in front of each passenger. I’m not complaining, because while I think that Austrian’s cabin crew training is seriously lacking, catering is obviously something they do really, really well. I mean, what other airline will serve you a hot meal on a flight with a block time of only 75 minutes?

Tonight’s offering is Paprika chicken with Spätzle.

And a passion fruit panna cotta for dessert. The crew also pass through the cabin twice with the bread basket. Both the main and the dessert are excellent. The chicken sauce is rich and creamy and the Spätzle have retained their chewy fluffiness. Perhaps they could do some work on presentation though, because the dessert looks a bit forelorn on the large plate.

Arrival

We land in Tirana at 00h15. We’re on time, and for a change there is no queue at immigration. Within minutes I’m at the luggage belt waiting to pick up my suitcase, which duly arrives after only a very short wait.

Austrian Airlines, Economy Class – Embraer E195: Basel to Vienna

Introduction

It’s Sunday evening and I’m on my way back to the airport to give a second course in Tirana. After last week’s experience on WizzAir with Satan’s army of burping and crapping infants, I figured I would go for something a little more civilized this time and travel with Austrian again. It’s not the most exotic flight connection, but hey, my options are rather limited.

Check-in

I’ve checked in online, but I still need to make a stop at the counter to drop my suitcase. I’m carrying a ton of paper, and I’ve already got a back ache just from carting my stuff to the airport. The Star Alliance carriers have their own dedicated counters. There is one Business Class and one Economy Class counter open. Both of them are deserted when I arrive.

Airside

Security is such a delight at Basel airport these days. The fact that you can just walk up without any queues and without having to witness the stupidest specimens of humanity as they make their way through the beeping security gates is something I will one day be telling my grandbabies about. This is the stuff legends are made of.

I find myself a seat next to where the Easyjet flight to Hamburg is boarding and entertain myself watching human nature unfold. It’s quite entertaining, really. And then I come across this guy. I know it’s rude to surreptitiously take pictures of random strangers, but… get a load of this: Easyjet-proof trousers. Take a closer look. The man has an iPad stashed in the upper pocket of his cargo pants, and a 5dl bottle of water in the lower one. Not in the photo are a baby elephant and a Fiat Cinquecento in his right pockets. And no, he’s probably not that glad to see me, but probably just figured he’d also try taking his grand piano aboard as well by shoving it down his front…

Well that was fun. With the grand piano safely on its way to Hamburg, I make my way to gate 46, from where the flight to Vienna will be boarding.

Boarding

As you can see in the photo above, the passengers on the arriving flight disembark via stairs. They are taken to a waiting bus that brings them to arrivals. Strangely, once that is done, the stairs are removed and the airbridge is attached for us to board. I’m not quite sure what this is all about, but I assume this still has to do with the French government’s decision to suspend the Schengen treaty not quite so temporarily.

Oh yeah, and the lights in the airbridge aren‘t working, which gives me the opportunity to take the photo below. I kind of dig the haunted ‘I could see a light at the end of the tunnel and a feeling of calm came over me’ effect.

The cabin

The seats on Austrian’s Embraers are very comfortable. I am sitting on row 4 and the seat pitch is excellent. Even with my rucksack stowed under the seat, I still have plenty of space for my legs and to wiggle my tootsies.

The crew

My only interaction with the crew on this flight consists of the disinfecting towel I am handed as I board the plane. That’s it. Everything else on Austrian is buy on board, except for the farewell chocolate at the end of the flight.

I’m starting to think that the crews on Austrian Airlines tend to be rather unpredictable. Which is really just a euphemism to avoid having to admit that this lot are not exactly a credit to Austria’s reputation for outstanding hospitality.

Once we’re airborne, the inflight service, such as it were, begins. Which means the curtain separating the Business Class cabin is drawn by the crew. Is it me, or does the picture below remind others too of some old biddy’s bloomers hung out to dry? I mean, why bother if this is the best they can do?

Arrival

The flight time to Vienna is one hour and ten minutes, and we land on time just after 21h. I now have one hour to make my connection to Tirana, which should give me enough time to discover a few more things about the airport that I don’t like. I know, I’m really turning into a right grumpy bastard in my old age…

Austrian Airlines, Business Class – Airbus A 320: Vienna to Zürich

Transfer in Vienna

Nothing about Vienna airport really makes any sense to me. The impression you get is that the airside facility was built with everything but the passenger and the usability of the terminal in mind. My aircraft from Tirana parks at a remote stand, which means we are taken to the terminal by bus. But instead of dropping the passengers off near the beginning of the pier, which is where the security checkpoint and passport control are located, the bus driver only drives a few meters and then has us disembark at the very end of the concourse. From where it’s a long schlepp to immigration and the Covid certificate check, before eventually you arrive at the very beginning of the pier and the queue for security.

The Austrian Airlines Business Class lounge

The Austrian Airlines lounge is behind security, but in the completely opposite direction to the Schengen gates on the F pier.

The lounge is already quite full when I get there. The food options are rather nice, though. Other than that, the interior design is quite cheap. The seats in the dining area are covered in fake leather and aren’t really all that comfortable either.

Boarding

Eventually, I leave the lounge to walk around a bit and stop me from falling asleep.

The cabin

I am seated on 2F. There are five rows of business class for a total of twenty seats. On this flight, only eight seats are occupied. And funnily enough, I’m the only passenger seated on the right side. I’m guessing the other passengers all chose to sit on the left to get a better view of the alps en route.

The crew

The crew on this flight are all female and very friendly. They’re all smiles and are engaging with the passengers. Unlike SWISS, Austrian does not offer any pre-departure drinks or refreshing towels.

The meal

As soon as the seatbelt sign is turned off after take-off, the maître de starts preparing for breakfast. The curtain is closed, but I can hear her pottering around in the galley as she loads the hot meals into the trolley. But then suddenly, there’s a terrific crash as the whole trolley tumbles backwards and eventually keels over. The flight attendant opens the curtain with a horrified expression on her face and simply mutters: “Na, jetzt is mir der Trolley umgfallen…”. It seems like an odd thing to say because the crash was so loud that I’m pretty sure they probably heard it all the way back in Vienna.

Eventually, the crew manage to get the trolley upright, but most of the food has spilled. I really feel for the cabin crew, because she’s obviously distraught and so embarrassed. She keeps passing through the cabin apologizing and explaining that she can’t possibly serve the meal, as “so was gibt’s nicht amol bei der Ryanair”… Clearly, to her Ryanair is rock bottom and if not even they would serve such a messy looking meal, then she certainly won’t either in Austrian Business Class. She’s really quite funny in her state of upset.

Eventually, we agree for her to just give me the hot meal and a coffee. It just wouldn’t be very gentlemanly to have to lick the yoghurt of the tray… The hot meal is an omelet with cheese served with spinach.

To conclude the meal, the crew pass through the cabin offering small chocolates. They’re not as good as the SWISS ones, but they rarely are.

Arrival

We approach Zürich from the East, which brings us in right over lake Constance. It’s a gorgeous day for flying.

The maître de welcomes us to Zürich amid more profuse apologies at having ruined breakfast. She insists that in all her career, this is really the first time this has ever happened to her. I feel quite sorry for her, because she’s clearly very upset.

Zürich airport is very empty and quiet when we land. Even after all these years, I still think it’s impressive to think that we touched down on runway 16 at 09h00, and by 09h13 I’m already sitting on the train home!

Conclusion

Catering is, and has always been, one of the airline’s strongest points. And today’s two flights from Tirana to Vienna and then on to Zürich were no different – despite the mishap with the trolley. To serve a hot meal on a flight of barely one hour is certainly not bad at all and definitely a lot more substantial than anything I was expecting. On the other hand, I think it’s a shame they won’t even place a bottle of water at every seat as a pre-departure beverage.

The crew were very nice, which is a pleasant surprise. In the past, I’ve had crews on Austrian that were really just plain rude. For Tirana, I really think Austrian has the best and most frequent connections. Which is why I chose them. However, if it weren’t for their extensive eastern European network, I don’t think I would go out of my way to actively seek them out for my next trip. I find the whole experience a bit bland, and the unpredictability of the crew doesn’t help. I wouldn’t intentionally avoid them though, either.