BA First Class Vs Business Class

With a lot of miles in the pot and an AmEx companion voucher to burn, we decided to splurge on a First Class redemption to Mexico City. My gut feel, based on BA’s own literature, was that First wasn’t really worth spending any more money on than the equivalent business experience. I therefore made some mental notes about all the points of difference.

Lounge and pre-boarding

This actually promised the most from the promotional material provided. There are free spa treatments at Heathrow T5 for business and first travellers, though they’re actually very hard to book if you aren’t First. In this case, even if you are, it seems tricky. Becky had rung a booking telephone number, which twice went unanswered so in effect, it’s not bookable.

On to the airport proper, check in was in a separate area with couches. It does look a nicer and calmer area, which might count for some passengers, though really it doesn’t offer anything that the business counters, which I’ve never had to queue for either, doesn’t already. For security you get access to the fast track line, though again, seeing as you have this for business and One World Silver cards and above, it provides no time or efficiency savings.

One very minor niggle of business security is access from there to the lounge. This involves a walk of about fifteen minutes down one escalator, around a load of duty free shops and up another. First means you can just walk from security straight into the Concorde Room Lounge, exclusively for this class,which is quite a convenient short cut.

The Concorde Room itself is a much calmer and more comfortable environment than the business lounges. The food is more in the style of a restaurant with a gratis three course lunch. I had a blue cheese and raspberry salad, a burger and an affogato with cappuccino biscuit. The burger was the weak point in the menu here, it wasn’t bad, just slightly normal while desert and salad had original and effervescent touches with efficient service. More on burgers later!

Flight: super seat, sleep and service

The seat, 1A and 1K in a 747, is significantly better than anything in business. It’s longer, maybe of use dependent on your height and, crucially, wider. The unique thing with row one is, in the nose, the windows almost point forward resulting in the best view I’ve ever had from a plane. In terms of sleeping, the mattress, duvet, extra space and pyjamas (sleeper suit!) mean sleeping is easier, I got a solid two hours mid flight. Row one also avoids any traffic from the aisle.


Wildly varying food and drink

As you’d expect, service is a bit more polished than business and the food and drink menu more extensive. I drank the Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle and Marion-Bosser Premier Cru. The former I found just a little too buttery with a floral aftertaste, the latter was a touch short of flavour. If I’d thought about it more, I’d have gone with the business class Taittinger, pretty much my favourite champagne, seems expense doesn’t always trump taste. I would have followed with the Otago Pinot Noir, though this was on the menu, it wasn’t available. A shame, as I’m sure this would’ve been excellent.

The first meal on the ten hour flight was actually superb. A starter of poached lobster with courgette flower blended perfectly and a main of duck breast, a duck fritter type thing and mushroom sauce packed a huge punch of Asian mixed with Russian flavours. A robust Uruguayan red paired well, though it would be an acquired taste on it’s own. Cheese with the renowned Hungarian Tokaiji dessert wine rounded things off well. Finding Star Trek II on the AV was a huge stroke of luck. It was a wide menu, and I could find things that suited my tastes.


After a read and a sleep, therefore, I had big expectations of the light meal to follow. Unfortunately, almost nothing of the menu was available so I was pretty much forced (1st world problems, I know) to go with another burger. The first one in the lounge was OK, this one was terrible. Plastic cheese, limp lettuce and sweaty chips. Aeroplane ovens can take some of the blame, but attempting it in the first place is optimistic. I am certain guniea fowl tajine, my first pick, would have worked in this environment.

The schizophrenic nature of the service persisted to the end with, from my perspectiveat least, an amusing episode of all three flight attendants scrapping around on the floor and seat crevices  looking for a dozy passenger’s passport. This deployment of resources I’m sure was a factor in an intense disembarking procedure with First, Business and Premium Economy passengers all piling off at the same time. All a bit messy and accentuates the observation that First is far from streets ahead of Business.

On this experience, First isn’t worth paying any extra money for. But it could be worth a miles redemption if you get a good run with what seems is pot luck on the food and drink menu. My guess is London to Mexico City isn’t a huge earner for BA and they concentrate resources elsewhere. I have trouble believing such a patchy offering is the norm on, for example, the London to NY, Hong Kong or Singapore routes.


Tokyo: Breaking your conventions

“What is your expat story?” This is a question I have recently found myself spending too much time answering on a work-based discussion forum. It’s a slightly reminiscent time as it has just turned ten years since I got back from three years living and mainly teaching English in Koshigaya, just north of Tokyo. The key message was largely along the lines of pushing outside the conventions you follow at home, so I’ve detailed the five areas where I feel I came close to achieving that on this busman’s holiday.


Learning how to relax in a hot bath I found difficult at first, however, a vast amount of stimulus meant, oddly, I settled into it. Jakotsuyen in Asukusa comes equipped with an electric bath that gives a mild electric shock to kick start your relaxation. Ken Mi No Yu at the end of my street in Koshigaya comes with a sulphur bath and an ice pool, a tea bath I found in Yokohama while for the professionals, the Asakusa Kannon onsen has a massive tiled mural of Mount Fuji with a cedar-pannelled locker room.

Outdoor baths are numerous in volcanic regions so the Hakone area near Mount Fuji is full of them. Climbing Fuji itself is an overnight pursuit, arriving at the summit at dawn then walking down the next morning. The ten hour hike isn’t a classic climb, but it is enjoyable and sociable and is perfectly paired with a soak in an outdoor cedar tub with mountain views afterwards.

If viewing the sacred mountain is more your thing, nearby Hakone has a variety of mountain traverses and railways, the summit of one mountain provides great views of Fuji with, a terrific sulphurous whiff and the opportunity to guzzle black-shelled eggs cooked and soaked in volcanic water.


Honour, bravery, discipline and lingering samurai spirit has found a home in modern Japan with enthusiastic adoption of rugby. I played as the only Westerner in a Japanese team and also, more internationally, for a diverse bunch of foreigners at Tokyo Gaijin RFC. Members came from regular rugby countries as well as outposts such as Georgia, PNG and Canada. The rugby was often good, often horrendous. The cultural exchange and park-based drinking and BBQ was never less than excellent.

Baseball, however, is the national sport and imports its culture in the main from the US. You can spot amateur players on weekend mornings in the flood plains and almost certainly join in if you can follow disciplined fielding routines. More suburban are batting cages with automated pitching in most suburbs. Ostensibly for High School kids to practice in, they are generally utilised by inebriated salary men, cigarettes in mouth and cool teens posing in front of girlfriends. And foreign English teachers swinging wildly after work.


Eating and drinking

Street food is very definitely a thing in the UK just now but has been ever-present in Japan. Festivals, which local councils organise regularly, are packed out with stalls offering snacks such as barbecued meat on a stick, Yakitori, savoury pancakes, Okonomiyaki, and fried squid meaning you can eat a fill for under 1000 yen.

My regulars, which are more Japanese fast food, were noodle joints under the train track arches or curry and rice, an absolute steal at 290 yen a plate (1) and fantastic for discussing politics over for dinner. A permanent Yakitori stand under Minami Koshigaya station was more for special occasions where you ate under a corrugated iron roof and sat on upturned beer crates. The portaloo toilet in this establishment, I am pleased to announce, is laden with flowers totally spotless.


More intimidating than the Yakitori shack were tiny (8 seats) local’s joints on my street, crowded with committed Sake drinkers. They were shy at first, but one of my favourite memories saw a proprietor carry a 10 litre bottle back to my friends flat after his success in an arm wrestling competition. A nice reminder of the rewards for breaking an often frosty reserve with the Japanese people. Just a shame the Sake leaves such crippling hangovers.


I stayed in dozens of Japanese inns throughout Japan, Nakamuraya in Sapporo was my favourite though you can find equivalents in Tokyo. The experience at Nakamuraya involves sitting cross-legged on bamboo mat floors, a block-printed yukata dressing gown for trips to the pristine communal bath and green tea waiting for your return. Time your trip out well for the evening and your futon is laid out on the floor for sleep. It can be a delightfully secluded experience.

Seclusion is also the key attribute in Japan’s other contribution to the world’s hotel scene: The Love Hotel. Around 10,000 yen a night gets you check-in via a vending machine, a hidden entrance, a massive jacuzzi bath and occasionally a massage table. Amusement is guaranteed, but your sleep can be interrupted, or at least freaked up a bit, by vast amounts of porn on show and a luminously-glowing cabinet of sex aids.


A quick hop along the Sumida river can fill a day, or probably more, of the Japanese cultural experience. Start at Asakusa for the huge temple, pluming with incense smoke, and the retail oppurtunities presented by 100 or so stalls selling Japanese tat.

Making your way south to Ryogoku and you can take in a professional Sumo tournament at the arena there. Though Baseball and Soccer are more popular in modern Japan, Sumo provides a level of occasion neither of these sports can match, complete with a huge dojo, elaborate posturing and wailing, with prime seats sitting crosslegged on the floor with purple cushions.

The Edo-Tokyo museum sits next to the Sumo arena, it’s a good one to do early in a stay in Tokyo for a great history to the city and a grand entrance on a 100% scale replica of Nihonbashi, a historical bridge. There are hints of this historical reconstruction in Yokohama’s quaint Ramen museum, essentially a mini food court of replica noodle huts that provide an agonising decision about what to eat.

Perhaps the high water mark of cultural immersion while I was in Tokyo was a trip to Japanese-style theatre, Kabuki, for a friend’s birthday. It works on two levels (to borrow a pretentious literary cliche) with elaborate traditional costumes and highly choreographed movement provides gravitas without any language. A translation earpiece, however, renders an awful lot more meaning to the story. Those trying to follow along without one? You know who you are!

(1) About 200 Yen to 1 GBP, 130 to USD at the time.

T20, ale and a curry in Manchester

A T20 match pitting Birmingham against Lancashire, taking in the journey to Manchester from London, a curry and some Northern ale is all possible after work on a Friday. I was ostensibly taking the trip up to Old Trafford to see my old pal Phil, now working from the Manchester office, Leigh branch, and continuing our regular Friday routine of ales and cricket moaning.


The match

From Birmingham’s point of view, seriously over-hyped for NZ mega star, entertainer and captain Brendon McCullum. His 18 from 14 balls was a slightly slower cameo of his performances in the recent ODI series against England with muscular biffs over the top interspersed with clothed drives, edges and smears for singles. Will Porterfield and skipper Varun Chopra were the only others to even occasionally time the ball on a great pitch for pace-off bowling. Emerging seamer Recordo Gordon hit the only six of the innings in the last over to help Birmingham stutter to 137. It felt 15 light.

Snarling Aussie James Faulkner provided the star billing overseas biff for Lancs with the bat, the only batsman to get used to the pitch second dig. His scything mow over cow and into the second tier was shot of the evening, resplendent with a rifle crack sound off the bat. When he chipped to long off, that was pretty much it for the reply though Liam Livingstone hitting 15 of the 17 needed to win in the last over meant the one run Birmingham win was a closer and better finish than the match as a whole. On a slow bowler’s pitch, Gordon’s 4 for 20 was MoM stuff – it was great discipline.

+1 for the Lancashire crowd. Very accommodating and inquisitive of a belligerently shouting away supporter.

The beer

A huge big tent, immediately right on the entrance, serving Wainwrights golden ale was very good for the cricket ground standard of four quid a pint. The regular bitter from the stands around the ground was awful and the lager looked as bad. I’d probably go Cider next time I do it.

The curry

Akbars somewhere near Deansgate is a very agreeable way to warm up after four hours outside. Spiced Chicken wings at £2.75 were an absolute steal and the half metre garlic-naan-on-a-spike provides an excellent table centre piece with a more practical solution to the table covering naans I used to witness in Birmingham in the nineties. A very well respected craft ale pub next door would have been utilised – but too emotionally overcome this time round.

The journey

Plane vs Train to Manchester from London. The logical comparison is first class Virgin train against standard class BA flight as both include food and (alcoholic) drink. With all the airport faff of security, queuing and getting there in the first place, air is 20 minutes longer than train and about thirty quid more expensive. Similar to my trip to Glasgow, though, a BA silver card means champagne in the lounge and queue cutting privileges – so it essentially comes down to how much you enjoy these things. In my case quite a lot, so just the correct decision.

Worcester: Some cricket forced around some eating

Worcestershire have the quintessentially English cricket ground and the promise of cake. Being 45 minutes from Birmingham I took in the first day’s play of a game against Warwickshire and ate a load of food for good measure.

Costa cappuccino and brie and bacon sandwich

Apparently panini is plural for that piece of bread in Italian. I’m not sure what your average Italian epicure would make of this molten brie rectangle with bacon and cranberry bought from the only open cafe near the ground. It wasn’t too bad once it had cooled down but the coffee was a well off.


To contemplate over breakfast, Daryl Mitchell grafted for 30 odd runs while Moeen Ali elegantly went through his repertoire at the other end for a run-a-ball 30 odd. One of England’s many documented issues at the World Cup was frenetic carelessness from Moeen at the top of the order. Against a good attack though he looked utterly unruffled though seamers Keith Barker, Chris Wright and Boyd Rankin will probably admit they made neither batsmen play enough. Mitchell must have been seriously frustrated to give it away four balls before lunch with a tame chip to mid wicket. Probably eyeing up the cake.

Scotch egg and filter coffee

After sitting on a park bench (later discovered to be pock-marked with pigeon excrement) for the morning, I moved over to cathedral view seats for a light lunch, resplendent with loud bell ringing. Lunch time message from the Warwickshire bowling coach was clearly to make the batsman play more with the Worcestershire middle order folding quick time to catches close to the wicket. The mental side of Moeen’s batting is probably his weakest facet at the moment. With only the lower order to bat with a mentally flabby poke to mid wicket was what no-one needed.


Of the other test players involved, Boyd Rankin employed an exclusively back of the length line to floor several batsmen, rewarded by Joe Leach’s wicket out hooking. Jeetan Patel was treated to careful respect. At the other end of the scale, a good counter-punching 50 by Joe Clarke, a 19 year old wicket keeper on his second first class game, kept Worcestershire, just, in the game. He looks like he’ll have a future on this basis. The scotch egg was better than an orange-wrapped Supermarket special, but less than lovingly crafted by an old dear. Either way, it was definitely a step up on standard stadium scran. I’ve never had a filter coffee at a sporting event before, this was a nice touch.

Tea, ginger cake and lemon drizzle

Worcestershire CCC’s offering to the game of cricket is afternoon tea, served in the ladies pavilion, which I’m delighted to report has armchairs reserved for ‘Lady members’ while anachronistically you are served tea and cakes by a gaggle of old dears. I had a huge Lemon Drizzle cake, with just enough lemon peel to fizz and (Jamaican?) ginger cake. Two cakes does seem to be the limit, with the tea it comes in at a very reasonable £4.50.


The other Worcestershire institution is the cathedral. This doled out bell rings for over four hours over the afternoon and is something difficult to convey over media. If it hadn’t been for the cake, this and squawking crows, might have encouraged the onset of some gothic horror film paranoia by mid afternoon. The cessation was awarded a round of applause from spectators.

Some entertaining late order swishing and biffing from Jack Shantry and Saeed Ajmal, back from remedial work on straightening his bowling arm, saw Worcestershire close on 242, probably 60 light. Keith Barker’s removal of Saeed and Charlie Morris with accurate length balls illustrated to Stuart Broad (and perhaps Rankin too) the importance of bowling at the stumps to remove the tail. It was a professional close to what was shaping up for a bought tail had leg theory been allowed to continue.

Apres cricket

Booked an early train home so I missed what I’m certain was a silky 44 from Ian Bell. Train was comfortable on the way home, but noteworthy for hearing one of the more interesting bits of PR from First Great Western, blaming their customers for delays by leaving the doors open! We got to the next stop four minutes early.

Using BA Executive Club: Stop, start and continue

I was recently called upon to give some off-the-top-of-my-head advice on spending BA miles (Avios) and couldn’t come up with much of an answer. Given BA recently changed how you accrue and spend Avios, it seems to make sense to write up how I’ve made the best use of them, against what’s practical given the April 2015’s changes to the reward programme.

Stop. Spending on upgrades. Until this Spring, buying a premium economy (World Traveller Plus) return gave you the opportunity to upgrade to business (Club World) pending availability, thus you were earning Avios and Tier Points allowing you to retain status, while not paying full price business. Post April 2015, this is now very expensive in terms of Avios. An example, a PE to Business upgrade used to cost 15,000 Avios for London to Shanghai one way – it is now over 36,000. The introduction of minimum quotas of availability of peak and off peak periods gives more visible ‘signposts’ but on the whole, it doesn’t seem like such a great deal anymore – though it could be justified for the odd special trip.

Start. Long-term planning. Minimum quotas in cabins for redemptions has, partially, solved one of the perennial bête noirs of the Executive Club: Availability. Some routes are almost always available: London to New York and London to Chengdu, for example, you can use to build an indirect flight to areas in those regions. Destinations like LA and Johannesburg, however, were virtually never available. The minimum quota of four seats in each class should help, but probably only if you book a year in advance when tickets go up for sale. The new off peak/on peak pricing schedule, roughly to make the school holidays more expensive, is again something where looking six/nine months to a year ahead is likely to find some sort of saving.

Continue. Using Avios for redemptions. This has become more Avios expensive, but by a lot less than the upgrades and, if used in combination with an AmEx companion voucher can still be pretty effective with the minimum quota, and the additional flexibility of using partner airlines. A business return to Hong Kong, for example, used to cost 120,000 miles and approximately £500 – it’s now 180,000 and under £300. Continue flying, and you’ll also continue to earn Avios and Tier Points, though at a slower rate than before.

On balance, there is definitely less in membership than there was before, though before was pretty useful. If you continue to pay full price premium economy or business/first – you won’t notice much difference earning though will have slightly less choice with spending. I’ve only really done leisure with the odd short hall business which means I’ll probably struggle to retain Silver status though with creative usage of an AmEx companion voucher I should be able to make one long haul redemption in a decent cabin every other year.

Not great, but better than nothing!

Frankfurt and Hesse: A workday, an evening and a weekend

A stylish, fashionable and self-confident east end, a hotel with gold rooms and the longest shopping street in Europe (word of mouth verified) are three, only slightly off-the-beaten-track, highlights from Frankfurt and surrounding area.

I’ve set a period of the last ten years to include in this blog, during which time I’ve been to or through Frankfurt 20-something times for work and holiday, making it my most frequently-visited destination outside London (Bordeaux and Hong Kong are joint second at four visits each). Therefore, this post is a compilation of around four visits.


A digital workshop sounds more cutting edge than finance or commerce, so my team’s running of this event was the perfect chance to work and stay at the 25hours Goldman hotel in the up-and-coming East End of Frankfurt, an area almost worth a visit in its own right. The rooms are slightly on the basic side in terms of facilities, but are eccentricly decorated in lime green, gold, pink or blue. It was the first and only time I’ve been asked what colour I want at checkin.


The restaurant and the bar continue the eclectic themeas well. I can recommend the Tegenseer Bavarian beer from the bar and the restaurant did a decent, and pretty cheap, cod-based lunch with leeks. Great for the brain. This came with ‘Frankfurt cheese’, the name I forget, which is made, amazingly, I think, vinegar, which my colleague Hartmut enthusiastically recommended.

The greatest virtue of all is the price though, as little as 60 Euros a night, which I took advantage of with Becky on a subsequent visit. It’s close to a zoo as well as the European Central Bank, so there’s a huge range of stuff around and I think there’s more to move and shape to come. Great work from my colleagues Thomas, Doris and Jamil for organising this event.

The Goldman is a little far away away from the slickly-efficient financial heart of Frankfurt, this is more on the West side of the centre and is a vastly different proposition, albeit again with exceptions. My company’s base is a few minutes from Alte Oper, an Opera House, which is a German architectural landmark. Though I haven’t been in, it’s in regular use and apparently there’s a good festival there annually as well. It’s a useless travel tip unless you work for my Bank, but the 35th floor offers a superb view and also swathes of green and surrounding hills.


The “Oost” End is, naturally, a good micro location for the evening as well. Dinner at Oosten is a terrific experience for a summer evening with a terrace folding out onto to the Main river and with extensive use of glass walls. The portions, dinner and for brunch, are massive and on the way to being commensurately priced, though brunch comes out a bit more economical. I went for a slab of protein, but the salads here looked the most fun, fizzing with unexpected and satisfyingly fun ingredients. My colleague Thomas recommends a jazz night here on the upper floor, which in my mind’s eye is a relaxed and bohemian evening.

Though I’m sure they exist, the classic Germanian bier halls are thin on the ground in Frankfurt central. This doesn’t seem to be the case in Darmstadt, about 30 mins by train south. It has architecture of its own with an impressive wedding tower, used as its name suggests by my old Univeristy pal Chris, whom Becky and I visited recently. We took in two classic bier establishments here. The Ratskeller was the highlight, serving superlative German ales, stodgy pork based food with real hops as decoration. You could do the lot here on a summers evening after work in Frankfurt central and it seems very livable. Chris has been around here on and off for about 15 years now.


The archetypical, historical German town of Heidelberg comes into play for a weekend. Heidelberg is actually just outside Hesse, about an hour south of Frankfurt, though it couldn’t be more different. Topographically, it sits alongside the Necker river valley cradled between two of those green hills you can see from Frankfurt city. This valley creates a long, narrow town centre which Chris claims with authority has the longest shopping street in Europe. It’s stylish but funky and gives way to an old town with an interesting bridge and church, overseen by a castle reached by funicular.


Crossing the river, you can then walk the length of the town back on ‘The Philosopher’s Way’, a path on the other side of the valley with a spectacular view. The name matches the demographic of the town, populated by students, doctors, people who work for SAP and other intellectuals, a population visually marked by a stand in the train station selling medical instruments. In almost typical German fashion, this doesn’t mean an unequal or snooty society though and there’s plenty of rowdy drinking to be had. Just the thing to set you up for a working week!

Beasts of sea and land in Lyme Regis

Rumours of a food-fuelled town, the recent discovery one our favourite London restaurant chains had opened a B&B and the promise of some primate fun incentivised Becky and I to spend 24 hours by the sea in Lyme Regis.

Fruits of the sea

The grand feature of Hix Oyster and Fishhouse has to be the view. It looks out over the harbour, for reassurance of minimum food miles, and the rest of Lyme Bay. The adopted name of The Jurassic Coast for this stretch of Dorset is, I assume, more down to anomyte fossils on the beaches, but it could easily be down to the cliffs, from which I could easily picture any number of terodactyls swooping off. We speculated on this over a negroni and an english sparkling white with radishes with celery salt. I’d normally be a bit sceptical of a vegetable-flavoured condiment, but this worked well and added tang to a simple appetiser.


There’s no doubt where the main effort goes into in the kitchen. The Hake head, below, was visually impressive and also a great dish with clams and a white wine sauce going well with muscular fish. My John Dory didn’t have quite so much box office appeal, though was cooked perfectly and paired well with a Mendoza Sauvignon Blanc. This variety was better with food than a typical New Zealand or European equivalent grape and far nicer than the more typical Torrentes White from Argentina which doesn’t seem an essential part of any occasion.


Service at Hix has attracted the odd comment of late. We found it to the slower side of OK and perfectly acceptable for a seaside weekend – though there were a few rumbles of discontent elsewhere in the restaurant. I think there’s a tacit acceptance the vista and a bit of time to enjoy the wine is actually part of the routine here, which might not work for everyone.

Picnics in the townhouse

We were sleeping in Hix as well, his first restaurant now paired with a very convenient B&B Hix Townhouse. As art is a big feature of all the restaurants, the gaff is stylishly decorated, albeit with the odd lapsed detail such as a few plastering cracks in the bathroom, resplendent with authentic 70’s lino. Nothing that would affect your enjoyment though, and more than offset by the pufferfish light shade spied in another room and the antique one armed-bandit in the lobby.

A thing I’ve noticed a couple of times in B&Bs now is an absence of a sit down cooked breakfast, replaced by a delivery at your room, a feature here as well. Given Hix’ fishy prowess, a picnic basket with smoked salmon and rye with fruit and muesli got the morning off to a super-food fuelled start. It must be a fairly easy thing for your average B&B owner to fix, but decent coffees and teas, of which there were around ten here, is certainly more agreeable than the Nescafé I was offered at almost every turn in Glasgow recently.

Beasts of the trees

Being a bank holiday weekend, a park with 100 plus apes was expectedly rammed full of children sqeaking. The park was a bit of a contrast to Panda and Orangutan conservation establishments we’d been to recently in that it was quite a lot more condensed for human amusement. It does, though, mean you get to see a lot of them very close up, although with very close proximity to human apes at the same time. Orangutans and Gibbons the winner, but I was starting to devise a game deriving an index from multiplying the distance away people were ramming camera phones to the animals by how many prison tattoos they had or how many KGs overweight they were. The park was good fun, and clearly conservation is the aim, but it’s slightly overrun by a crowd seeking faeces-slinging primate fun.