Friday, July 27, 2018

April in Athens: A luxurious stay at the Hilton Athens

Photo credit Athens Hilton

My apologies to Chairman Sinatra for altering the title of his iconic tune, but I was in Athens, in April, and it was unbelievable.  On this trip, I was fortunate to stay in the historic Athens Hilton, and in two different types of rooms.

Having arrived to the hotel after a 5 hour trek from my Mom's village in Central Thessaly, with no less than a plainclothes police escort from the outskirts of Athens all the way to the front door.  To say it was epic would be a gross understatement.

Having my bags taken directly inside by the speedy and sharp bellhop, I said my goodbyes to my cousin and headed inside.  Gave the agent at the counter my passport and credit card, and she looked me with a huge smile and told me she couldn't check me in, and I would have to proceed to the elevators and up to the Executive Floor and check-in there.  So off I went, hoping my bags would be on their way up behind me as well.

Depositing me on the Executive Floors with a distinctive ding, the elevator closed behind me as I sauntered over to the desk and presented (again) my credentials.   The classically gorgeous concierge checked me in rapidly, explained the hours and activities in the Executive Lounge and directed me to my room, which thankfully was not too far away.

Shortly after getting myself situated in this amazing 1 King room with this AMAZING view of Athens and the Acropolis in the distance, there was a knock on my door.  It was the bellhop with my luggage.  Arranging it just so in the closet, (not to mention showing me how to get into the closet and use it!)  he told me if I needed to get and clothing items pressed, they could be done in 3 hours.  Awesome.  I told him I do have my suits than could use an airing out and freshening up, but i have to dig them out first.  He said no problem, take my time and just buzz the Executive Concierge for pick up.  Excellent!

Photo credit Athens Hilton
The room was nicely spaced out, with the bed tantalizing close to the balcony door, at an angle just right for falling asleep with the Acropolis in the distance as the last thing you see before closing your eyes.  The bathroom was completely marble, with a bathtub that was decently deep (enough for my large frame and be comfortable), and a separate, walk-in rainfall shower.  Believe me, this room is worth every last silver Euro of the nightly rate.

The Executive Lounge was nice as well.  Bright and airy, with a great assortment of refreshments during the off hours, and great breakfast in the morning and hors d'oeuvres served in the evenings.  Oh, and did I mention endless supplies of Orange Fanta?  No, not that bland kind you get back in the States, the Greek version, as quite a few people can attest, is a whole different animal, MUCH tastier.  I ended up with a stockpile in my room of somewhere between 15 and 20 bottles...

Photo credit Athens Hilton
Due to a screwup in booking that was completely this author's fault, I had to scramble at last minute to find another room at the end of my 4 days stay for an additional night.  The Executive Floor was completely booked that final night, so I got myself the standard City View 1 King Room.  Laid out just as nicely as the Acropolis View lodgings, these rooms are on the other side of the hotel, facing the City, and if you're on the right side, the US Embassy.

Photo credit Athens Hilton
Up on the top floor is the world renown Galaxy Bar, voted one of the "World's 10 Best Rooftop Bars" by Premier Traveler Magazine, an award most decidedly deserved, with some unbelievable incredible views of the Acropolis, nee ALL of Athens (and a good chunk of Attica in general) to be had, especially from Sunset onwards.

Just off the Main Lobby downstairs is the Byzantino Restaurant, prices are typically high, considering it is a hotel restaurant after all, but from the 2 breakfasts I had, the food was fantastic, even though it was your standard buffet breakfast fare.  They had a few traditionally Greek items, but i would've liked to have seen more.  Other than that it was not a bad place to start one's day.

In closing, the Hilton Athens is your typical high-end Hilton, however, it's history and legacy put it at the top of the heap with the Hilton International hotels.  The Acropolis View rooms are worth their slightly higher nightly rates, and you are mere minutes from major attraction, historic sites, ancient ruins, and some AMAZING hole in the wall establishments with the absolute best in Greek dining.  Plan your stay here the next time you have a few nights in Athens, you won't regret it.

**All photos authors own except where credited.

Friday, July 13, 2018

5 Years old and growing!

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this blog taking off like it did, or having the staying power and relevance it does.

When I started this blog back in 2013, it was with the intention of making this a springboard for my opinions in Travel, the Airline Industry, and Luxury.  I dropped the Luxury bit real quick and focused on everything travel related.  It was a very slow start, the first posts were averaging a total of about 20-50 reads.  Pitiful really, but hey, you have to learn to crawl before you can learn to walk.  

When I shut down my first agency, Vintage Travel, and started working for Egencia (I refuse to say I worked for the third party contractor, I represented Egencia, not them, to the folks on the phone), my posts started gaining traction, but still, maximum reads were in the 250-300 range.  At the time I was thrilled, as I thought I was finally on the uptick.  More and more entries were made, and by the time I left Egencia to start my second, and final at home travel agency, the Gold Standard Travel Co., I was drawing around 500 reads per post.  Having never been at that level, I was thrilled.  Then I met author, thespian, and all around great guy Thorman Hulse, and he helped me hone my writing craft.  I owe a HUGE amount of gratitude to Thorman, without him, I more than likely would've given the writing game up for dead, especially since i was getting no support from my wife at the time.  So Thorman, if you get a chance to read this, thank you, dear sir, from the very bottom of my heart.  I owe you and Kathy immensely for the friendship and support.

The jump happened when I was caught up in the self-made implosion of the fly-by-night scam airline SkyGreece.  I was working for a shady faux travel agency in Salt Lake City and I had been watching with growing alarm that planefuls of travelers were stranded in Athens, Greece, Budapest, and Toronto, due to the grounding of this airline's sole aircraft.  I managed to help get a few travelers back across the Atlantic home, and followed up and got caught up in the unfolding drama of this scam.  My following write up of the drama  (The Perils of Pride)  caused a windfall of reads, and then kept bringing them in, averaging about 1100 to 1200 reads per post.  That post, along with a writeup I did on the actual downfall of the first airline I ever worked at, TWA (Setting the Record Straight), boosted my daily readership higher.

It wasn't too much longer after that, and after a bitter and bloody divorce, I was invited to become an Agent with the American Automobile Association (AAA).  It was no secret I had wanted to be an agent for them since I first became an agent back in 2009.  From what I know, I was the 3rd or 4th Agent in Utah hired by AAA to help them open up their Travel operation in their huge new Member Service Center in Clearfield, Utah.  Thanks to several trips and multiple postings every quarter, and support from quite a few folks in AAA's Travel Dept, my postings have reached more people and further away than I ever imagined, so a HUGE shout out goes to my incredible employer, and my amazing and fabulous clients.  Thank you, one and all, for making this blog reach an average of 25,000 reads per post!!  Another huge shout out to one person in my own office,  Angela, for pushing me when needed, and pulling the reins in as well, you have shaped me as an agent and I look up to you too and consider you a mentor in every sense of the word, and hopefully that has come through in my posts since being hired in 2016.

Well, that was the first 5 years, let's spin the globe and see where the next 5 will take the Jetsetting Globetrotter.  Thank you, one and all! 

Shortly before the beginning of FL310, on top of the Acropolis with my Dad.

5 years of refinement as a Travel Agent, photo credit AAA.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Flying Blue: Business Class on KLM's Boeing 747-400

How often can a guy get lucky?  I seriously thought my first and only time to get on the fabled Boeing 747-400 was last September with Delta.  I was fortunate enough to snag the last seat on the final domestic 747 flight, thinking I had flown on my only flight on the Queen.

You should've gone to La$ Vega$ and put money on me.

Originally, this trip to Greece didn't even have me on the 747.  At all.  My routing was Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, overnight there, then the next morning do Los Angeles - Seattle - Paris - Athens, with the return 3 weeks later doing Athens - Amsterdam - Detroit - Los Angeles, overnighting there again, AFTER a segment on Delta's new long haul flagship, the Airbus A350-900.  Well, by the time the end of March had rolled by, my ticket for this trip had been subject to not 1, but 5, that's right, count them, 5 schedule changes.  Each change getting worse and worse and my arrival time into Athens going well past midnight.  Ugh.  So I got on the horn with Delta and told them, I don't want another schedule change, and while I'm at it, get me off as much Delta metal as you can, just for putting me through those changes before.  The poor agent was horrified, but we ended up with a decent schedule.  Leaving from Los Angeles, I was to go nonstop to Amsterdam then onwards to Athens, all on KLM, and returning the same way.  Beautiful.  The agent made the final change and confirmed the flights.  Turns out, the Los Angeles segments were on the Queen herself, the Boeing 747-400.  I was happier than Hugh Hefner in a Strip Club.

So the time for my trip FINALLY came.  Off I went on an overcast morning from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles on the hot rod Canadair Regional Jet 700 (or CR7 to us avgeeks).  As I was on American Eagle (American Airlines' regional operation), we arrived at the double wide trailer sized commuter terminal smack in the middle of the sprawling complex LAX is.  No biggie.  Until you realized how much luggage I had with me...

Fast forward 24 hours.

Having been dropped off at the iconic and much-filmed Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) (you can see it in Die Hard 2, Die Hard, Commando, etc. etc.), with my mountain of luggage, I shagged a luggage trolley and made my way to the KLM check-in counter upstairs.

"My apologies, Mr. Andritsakis, but it seems we have given your Economy Comfort seat away.  We have a few seats at the very back of the plane, or one last seat open in Business Class on the Upper Deck.   Which would you prefer?"   advised the harried agent after he realized the system goofed.  I told him I wouldn't mind the Upper Deck at all.  "Very well, sir, also, since you'll be in Business Class, I'll check all your bags for you all the way to Athens, and you also have access to the OneWorld lounge just inside security until departure."  Bonus. now I don't have to pay the extra baggage charge for my 3rd suitcase, nor do I have the pay the excess weight charges, either. This trip was starting off just right.

Why would KLM have use of the OneWorld Lounge when they are a full-fledged member of SkyTeam you ask?  Well, it's simple.  The TBIT only has a few lounges, and Korean Air has one, but it's small, noisy, and most of the time cramped.  So, KLM, and the other airlines not in OneWorld, sensing they don't want to lose their premium cabin passengers at such an important gateway as LAX, struck up agreements with the airlines that have the lounges, and sure enough, at that time of the day, this lounge was full of KLM, Aeroflot, and other SkyTeam passengers.

After a great breakfast and preflight mimosa in the club, I headed down to the gate, insomuch as for me to get my inner avgeek satisfied by watching planes until boarding.  I got a few good shots with my phone, and before I knew it, it was time to board.  The gate staff had us line up behind several boarding group signs, and Lord have mercy on your soul if you tried to board before your group, as I saw while waiting behind the Group 1 sign.

My ride for the day was KLM's Boeing 747-400 PH-BFL, named the "City of Lima".  Delivered to KLM from Boeing on May 12, 1991, this Queen is the 888th 747 off the line.  Stepping inside, you really can't tell, though.  KLM, as European as it is, keeps their fleet up to snuff.  OK, so the Business Class isn't a suite, nor is it single seat with aisle access AND a window, but, that being said, my seat was spacious and amazing to my 6'1", 400 lb frame.  I was far more comfortable in this seat than I was in Delta's 747-400 DeltaOne seat several months earlier.  No offense to Delta, but GOD those seats, once I was in the lie-flat mode, felt like a narrow coffin.  But I digress.

So on board I went, hang a right after greeting the gorgeous Dutch Flight Attendant, passing the oddly laid out Economy Comfort section (including my long since re-assigned seat 16A), and on up the staircase to the Upper Deck.  down the aisle I go and get myself situated in 71K (shoes off, and wearing my KLM issued socks from the quaint amenity kit), the very first window seat on the starboard side.

Before we knew it, we were getting the pushback out into the alleyway behind the TBIT, and we were on our way.  Being early afternoon, there were a few Asian, domestic, and European flights already queueing up for departure on LAX's North runways.  One by one they departed, and soon enough it was KLM 602's turn, and we were hurled aloft by the power of those 4 GE engines, over Playa Del Ray Beach and the Pacific Ocean before a leisurely left turn and high angle climb Eastward towards Europe.

The dinner service promptly began once we had leveled off somewhere between LA and Las Vegas.  The lovely Flight Attendant brought my seatmate and I our pre-meal warmed nuts and beverage service, where I decided to try KLM's signature drink, the "Flying Dutchman".  This amazing concoction was developed for KLM by legendary Dutch distillery Bols, who blend their amazing blackberry schnapps with gin and a splash of lemon juice and simple sugar.  An amazing cocktail to start the journey off right.

The appetizer course came and I chose the cauliflower soup, thinking it was cold.  Well, it wasn't and hit the spot with an amazing taste that left me asking for more later on in the flight (my daughter Susie would've emptied the plane of it had she been with me!).  The main course was a selection between cheese fragottini with grated Swiss Chard over it, chicken teriyaki with rice, or a beef stew over ratatouille.  I picked the fragottini, and was not disappointed.  For inflight dining, and a pasta dish no less, it was not over cooked and slightly al dente, which is the way I like it, with plenty of cheese to satisfy the heaviest of turophiles.  Out of the several choices I had for dessert, I picked the unlisted pecan pie tart that the flight attendant recommended.  Not quite to Deep South standards, but it was delicious nonetheless.  Once the dinner service was over, I laid out my seat to the full flat position, polished off one glass of Perrier while I was brought another, popped my earbuds in, turned on the Stephen Coonts audiobook I was listening to, and was lulled asleep by the 4 GE engines droning on yards away and below me, aimed for the bohemian paradise of Amsterdam.

About 7 and a half hours later I woke up, not groggy, not lagged, but remarkably refreshed, even though I was completely flat.  I opened my window shade to look out and sure enough, it was still night over the Atlantic, with a full moon in all its glory higher up in the heavens.  I took a look at the map on the screen and we were only 2 hours away from touchdown.  No sooner had I turned my head and reached for my Perrier, the flight attendant came by for the breakfast order.  They had a choice between a turkey, ham and cheese wrap, apple pie a la mode, or granola-topped yogurt.  Since I was on vacation, and I couldn't care less about making my arteries scream, I chose the turkey, ham, and cheese wrap, accompanied by a bowl of fruit, several croissants and a plate of cheese and jam.  Oh, and let us not forget the amazing Dilmah Tea (served straight black, of course).

With breakfast cleared, I reclined a bit and watched the map and gazed out the window as the sun rose over Western Europe.  A few twists and turns put us into the approach pattern for Schipol Airport and sooner than I would've liked we had a featherlight touchdown and quick taxi to the gate.

Overall,  KLM's Business Class is a fantastic way to cross the pond.  Thanks to the mistake made by the LAX ground crew, I got to experience it, and in nothing less than the grand dame herself, the iconic Boeing 747.  From what I have seen of newer planes, even though they are single seat window and aisle access seats, the new layouts seem almost...what's the word...antiseptic and bland.  The 747 and her iconic upper deck allow for the Premium classes to have their own space, without intruding past the other Economy or Economy Plus sections.  In the 747, KLM has a small Business Class section forward of the L1 entry, an oddly laid out galley that is parallel to the length of the cabin wall (this must make it MUCH easier for the crews), with Premium Economy in that space between the L1 and L2 entries, the main Business Class upstairs, and standard Economy in the 3 cabin sections from the wings aft.  The inflight service is fantastic, living up to the famed hospitality of the Dutch, with a storied and historic carrier that spans the globe.  The 747-400's days are sadly numbered, and are being replaced by newer, more efficient Boeing 777's and Airbus A330's and A350's.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

**All photos my own except where noted**