Category Archives: Flight Reviews

Swissair Business Class (Airbus A321) DUB – ZRH

My Swissair Business Class flight from Dublin to Zürich was a breath of fresh air on my long journey to Europe.  It was my first time on Swissair and it left me with a very good impression of the airline.  Especially having come straight from a lounge-less layover and a long haul flight on a U.S. carrier, I was struck by the extremely friendly and professional service by the Swissair crew.  The food was a step above the business class fare from my previous flight on United, and the seat was comfortable and roomy.

A cup of good strong coffee and one of the famed Swissair chocolates.

This short flight from Dublin to Zürich was the second leg of my business class booking for my Euro2017 trip.  The booking also included the long haul flight from Chicago to Dublin in the new United Polaris class with a lie flat seat.  The whole thing cost me 57.5k United miles (most were transferred-in Chase Ultimate Rewards) and $8.10 in fees! To see more reviews and details on how I planned this trip, check out the main post containing links to related posts.

The seat

swissair business classJust like the British Airways flight Nicoleen and I took in 2015, my business class intra-Europe flight was in a medium range narrow-body Airbus jet.  And just like that British Airways flight, business class in Swiss Air leaves the middle seat in the 3-3 cabin configuration empty.  I was in seat A1 which meant I had to store my backpack in the overhead compartment during take-off and landing.

The seat itself was comfortable and I had virtually unlimited legroom due to the bulkhead row.  My neighbor in 1C had the same idea as me and we shared the middle seat’s tray table for extra shelf space.  Technically you’re not supposed to store carry-ons on the floor in a bulkhead row.  I set my backpack in the seat next to me for most of the flight and no one bothered me about it.

The meal

With only a 1 hour 30 minute flight time, I wasn’t sure if I would get a meal.  I should have taken a cue from my previous intra-Europe business class experience and expected that Swissair would do anything to give me something to write home about.  That meant a full lunch, followed by coffee and the famous Swissair chocolates.

swissair business class lunch meal

For lunch the options were chicken or pasta.  I ignored my own advice and ordered the chicken.  It was swimming in some sort of peach demi-glace and served with peach slices, pea pods, and what I can only describe as a semi-puffed potato cylinder.  The attendant salad featured high quality slices of roast beef, baby corn segments, and a tiny potato salad.  Like most things Swiss, the potato cubes seemed as though they were hand-cut to exact specifications.

swissair business class lunch saladThe bread, cheeses, and dessert were equally wonderful!

General impressions of Swissair

From the crew’s service and appearance, the captain’s announcements, and the food, to the gate employees and the airline’s website, Swissair screams one thing: professionalism.  I found an excerpt from the in-flight magazine that pretty much sums up what kind of operation Swiss International Airlines runs:

Those are some demanding requirements!

Those are some demanding requirements!

Of course one shouldn’t judge an airline as a whole based on just one flight.  And I’m sure the fact that I was in business class on a new and quiet Airbus A321-200 biased my opinion.  I happened to turn around and witness a few crew interactions with passengers in economy class and they seemed to receive the same level of service I did.

The only disappointing part of my whole Swissair experience was that the fabled Arrivals Lounge at ZRH was already closed up for the day when I landed at 3:00 PM.

I can’t help but to compare this flight once again to my only other business class, intra-Europe flight on a European airline.  Overall it was a welcome and unexpected treat at the tail end of my flight itinerary.

My almost-awesome picture of the Swiss army knife landscaping on the approach to Zürich. Swiss Air business class DUB-ZRH.

My *almost* awesome picture of the Swiss army knife landscaping on the approach to Zürich. Swissair business class DUB-ZRH.

This post is part of a series reviewing my [virtually] free trip to Europe.  For a full list of the posts in this series, and for an overview of the trip, check out the index page.

British Airways A380 Club Europe LHR – BSL/MLH/EAP

This post is part of a series reviewing our 2015 Anniversary trip to Europe.  For a full list of the posts in this series, and for an overview of the trip, check out the index page.

After the delay at LHR we took a short bus ride to the tarmac to embark on the last leg of our flight itinerary.

British Airways Airbus A320

British Airways Airbus A320

This flight would take us to Euroairport (BSL/MLH/EAP), the strange airport with 3 different codes, on French soil, built by the Swiss.  Since British Airways short haul flights within Europe have 2 cabins, the ticketing code on our boarding pass for this leg was for business class; even though our entire booking was a first class award through American Airlines.  Intra-Europe business class with British Airways is called Club Europe.

Club Europe seats on this plane are standard size, but with the middle seat in the 3-3 configuration blocked off with a little table thing.  If you can’t get a bigger seat in the premium cabin, at least you get elbow room.  On our particular flight I think everyone in the front of the plane had their own 3 seat row to themselves.
British Airways Club Europe
After we boarded, the mechanical delay continued for 20-30 minutes, but at last we got an explanation: The captain came across the PA and explained that the problem was due to a minor failure of the landing gear.  A non-critical failure had occurred on the plane’s previous flight and it needed to be checked out thoroughly.  The captain’s explanation and apology were so eloquent that Nicoleen and I both noticed it.  We joked that his speech almost made the ~4 hour delay worthwhile!

The meal service

Our flight was just over an hour so we weren’t expecting a meal service.  We figured we might get some snacks at best.  Boy were we wrong!  The front cabin flight attendant came around and gave us a choice of a meat and cheese plate or a hot English breakfast.

I opted for the meat and cheese plate, which came with a roll, a yogurt parfait, and coffee.  I enjoyed it very much!

Nicoleen thought the eggs, croissant, and bacon described to her when she asked about the hot English breakfast sounded good.  What she didn’t expect were the mushrooms, fried tomato, and veal sausage.  I happily relieved her of her unwanted breakfast assortments.  Nicoleen enjoyed the eggs, fruit, and little jars of jam . . . but she was very offended at being served mushrooms for breakfast, and she somehow harbors negative memories of the delectable meal pictured here:

My after-breakfast Johnnie Walker Black Label and Diet Coke

My after-breakfast Johnnie Walker Black Label and Diet Coke

After the breakfast was concluded there was enough time to squeeze in a quick round of beverage requests.  As the culmination of over 24 hours of first class traveling, I couldn’t resist one last chance to avail myself of the rare and exciting, complimentary alcoholic beverage.


We really had no expectations for this short flight.  If anything, we figured the business class service would feel like a step down after 3 consecutive first class flights.  The fact that they managed to pack in a full meal service on our 1 hour 35 minute flight was enough to impress us.  The food quality, polite and attentive service, and thorough explanation of the delay sealed the deal.  An honest and believable apology by an airline employee goes a long way.  If not the highlight of our itinerary, this short Club Europe flight left us with a very positive impression of British Airways!

The approach to Basel. I was very excited to return to mainland Europe!

The approach to Basel. I was very excited to return to mainland Europe!

American Airlines 777-300ER First Class JFK – LHR

This post is part of a series reviewing our 2015 Anniversary trip to Europe.  For a full list of the posts in this series, and for an overview of the trip, check out the index page.

300erstripOur entire itinerary was planned around this flight, the showpiece of the whole “surprise Nicoleen” plan.  I had actually wanted to book us business class seats (50k miles one-way) on the same flight but none were available at the saver award level for the entire summer.  First class saver seats were only 12.5k miles more however, and I wanted access to the 777-300ER’s premium class stand-up snack bar, so I searched for first class saver seats.  There were only a few saver level first class seats available, and only one date had a pair of seats.  Luckily that date worked within our other constraints, so I booked them (62k miles one-way, each).

But before I get to the flight…

Having been delayed on our ORD-JFK flight, we only had an hour to spare at JFK before boarding began for our transatlantic flight to London-Heathrow (LHF).  While Nicoleen would have been happy to stop by the Admiral’s Club for a beverage, I was determined to see both lounges we had access to, American’s Flagship Lounge and Admiral’s Club.

At JFK both American Airlines lounges share a lobby area in Terminal 8.  An elevator takes you from the concourse up to the lobby where the staff at the desk check your privilege and point you toward whichever lounge you have access to.  (Click here to go to American Airlines’ page on lounge access requirements.)  We were waived through to the Flagship lounge and politely reminded that we didn’t have much time before boarding would begin.

The JFK Flagship Lounge struck me as long and narrow.  It has a nice big window along one entire side, looking out over the tarmacs and runway.  My visit was brief so I didn’t get to explore every nook and cranny, nor take advantage of all the amenities.  The JFK Flagship Lounge was much more crowded than our experience at the Chicago O’Hare Flagship Lounge, but this very well could have been due to the time of day more than anything.  The food seemed more picked over and old as well, but not deplorable by any means.  I made a small snack of chicken, cheese, and olives, grabbed a beer, and scarfed it down while Nicoleen watched.  She was worried about making the flight, so she went ahead of me to board.

After my quick snack I took a walk through the Admiral’s club and found it to be even more crowded than the Flagship Lounge.  During my quick walk-through I saw no noticeable differences from the Admiral’s Club we walked through at ORD.

On to the flight…

After my brief snack at the Flagship Lounge I had to scurry down to the gate for boarding.  By the time I got there nearly everyone had boarded.  I don’t personally put much value in early boarding; I have a back issue that makes sitting painful so for me the more time spent upright, the better.  I was warmly welcomed by the attendant and shown to my seat, 1A, where I found Nicoleen settling in across from me in 1D.

Seconds after sitting down I was handed a bottle of water and offered champagne, which I accepted.

The purser offered us a choice of several newspapers and quickly moved onto getting our meal orders.  As I have previously stated, I’m not much of a wine connoisseur but I do enjoy good wine (in much the same way as a dog “appreciates” a good steak – he doesn’t quite understand why it’s good, but he still likes it).  With some guidance I chose one of the whites and was not disappointed.

Another little bonus for flying in a premium cabin is the amenity kits often offered.  Although not in the cool iPad case bag I had expected from previous reports, the kit had all of the goodies I was expecting:

The meal service
After knowing about this trip for months and having the meal choices available online for over 30 days, you’d think I should have been able to order quickly.  As it happened, I think I was still debating the food options after Nicoleen had ordered.  I settled on the Thai chicken starter, creamy carrot soup, the salad of mixed greens with artichokes and feta, the seared halibut with gremolata, and the royale chocolate mousse cake for dessert.

I should have probably skipped the snack at the Flagship Lounge because I was fairly well full by the time the fish came, but oh well; I’m a sucker for free food!  Overall the food was pretty good.  The Thai chicken and salad were excellent, and the soup was interesting (unexpectedly spicy!), but the fish was a bit dry and rubbery and the seasoning was nothing to write home about.  The presentation was good but I found a piece of dried on food stuck to a piece of silverware…not something you’d expect to find in a first class service.

A cool feature of this first class cabin is that the footrest doubles as a jump seat, complete with seat belt, so that you can dine across from your traveling companion.  The tray table is deep enough for two place settings.  We weren’t planning on doing this however, due to Nicoleen’s baby belly.  She was plenty happy to enjoy all the room her own seat afforded her!  The purser never mentioned this as a possibility though, which was the start of a series of not being shown or offered many of the amenities this flight had available.

After dinner
According to other reviews I had read on this first class cabin, we were supposed to be offered pajamas and slippers (yes- to keep), an amenity kit in a cool bag that doubles as an iPad carrying case, and turn down service.  Nicoleen started watching a movie and I purchased the in-flight wi-fi so I could send a few e-mails saying “I’m sending this from an airplane!”

Side note: One of the biggest “problems” about flying in these cool lie-flat first and business cabins is properly splitting your time between sleeping, which is actually possible with these seats; and enjoying all the other entertainment, eating, and drinking options.  I would have loved to have milled around at the stand-up snack bar or ordered some beers and watched a movie (in comfort, for once!).  On the other hand, I had a rare opportunity to get some real, quality sleep on a flight due to the lie-flat seat.  It was tough to divide the time.  This conundrum brings to mind some valuetactics wisdom: The value of paying extra (miles or dollars) for premium cabins, especially with lie-flat seats, vastly increases as the length of the flight increases.

After a while I started wondering about the stand-up stack bar I was enamored with, and was part of the reason I wanted to fly on this aircraft.  It is located between the first and business class cabins, and when I went to check if it was operational I found the flight attendants assembling the snacks.  I was told that it was almost ready but that I didn’t have to use the lowly business class area; I could go to the first class galley for the first-class only version (which I had not read anything about).  So I went up in front of first class and found the purser and another attendant putting the finishing touches on the snacks there.
777-300ERsnack1This would have been great had I not been completely stuffed after eating about 5 meals’ worth of food in the past 12 hours!  I wanted to see the “real” stand-up snack bar though, so I deigned to walk among the plebeian masses and stepped between first and business class to that area, which had mostly the same snacks as the first class gallery but looks waaaay cooler:
777-300ERsnack2777-300ERsnack3After checking out the snack bars I decided I’d better get a few hours sleep on this overnight flight.  I was surprised we hadn’t been offered pajamas or slippers yet and I was worried that maybe American Airlines had dis-included them as part of the first class service.  I asked the purser about them and he reacted as if his memory had just been jogged.  He quickly produced a set of jammies for me and asked what size Nicoleen would prefer.  She was already dozing off so I told him I wasn’t sure, and he gave me two sets in different sizes and told me to just give her both to keep!

At this time the purser seemed to remember that turn down service was supposed to be included too, and offered to do so as I changed into the pajamas in the bathroom.  None of the other 6 passengers in first class received pajamas or slippers to my knowledge.

Yes, it's totally staged. I had just crawled into bed and was not sleeping.

Yes, it’s totally staged. I had just crawled into bed and was not sleeping.

Upon waking we were offered a small breakfast, which we both declined.  It was a rude awakening after only 3 hours of sleep or so, and the remainder of my flight was spent gathering up all my strewn-about belongings to prepare for landing at EuroAirport (MLH).

In the end we had an amazing time on this flight.  But I was a bit confused that I had to specifically request some of the amenities, and I was not as impressed as I should have been by the meal service.  Let’s look at all the things we weren’t told about or offered without asking:

  • Seat operation
  • Pajamas and slippers
  • Turn down service
  • Companion dining configuration
  • Stand-up snack bar

I don’t know if it was just this particular purser, crew, or just an off day for American’s service, but I finally understood why many other bloggers and reviewers talk about how American carriers are just not up to par on service in their premium cabins.

Overall first class experience
Among all the stages in our first class itinerary (the American Flagship Lounge at ORD, the Flagship Lounge at JFK, both domestic first class flights, the 1st class JFK-LHR flight, the Galleries Lounge at LHR, and the BA flight to MLH), we felt like the lowest experience to expectations ratio was on this transatlantic long-haul flight.   The service was by no means horrible, but neither was it exceptional…which it should be on an international first class flight.  I’ll never complain about flying first class for virtually no cost, but had I paid the full retail $9,821 for this booking, I would have justifiably felt a bit ripped off.  As they say the hard product delivered, but the soft product fell short.

American Airlines First Class ORD – JFK

Our flight from Chicago (ORD) to New York (JFK) was delayed on the tarmac, which made me nervous about making our connection to the “important” flight, the transatlantic on American’s semi-new 777-300ER.  The estimated delay went from 45 minutes to 5 hours back to 35 minutes, for an eventual departure between 1 and 2 hours late.

The first class cabin in the Boeing 737-800 was about what you’d expect on a long-ish regional domestic flight.  The seats up front were in a 2-2 configuration as opposed to the 3-3 in economy.  The seats were comfortable and the seats we selected, 6E and 6F, in the last row of the cabin afforded us a semi-private feeling.

Besides more legroom and more comfortable seats, the first class seating on our American Airlines 737-800 offered the unanticipated benefit of some extra in-flight shelf space.  In addition to the normal fold out tray table, our drinks and small electronic devices were welcomed by several mini trays.  These were surprisingly useful and convenient; your personal space bubble isn’t invaded by a big slab tray when all you want to do is set your drink down.  They were also, as Nicoleen pointed out, very cute.  (As cute as a piece of aircraft seat hardware can be I suppose.)

Yes, that's a super old Blackberry phone. I use it as an mp3 player)

Yes, that’s a super old Blackberry phone. I use it as an mp3 player)

Shortly after take-off we were offered hot nuts.  I had read about this American Airlines specialty and was always confused why people even bother mentioning this little snack.  Well, now I know why!  The heated mixed nuts are surprisingly more yummy than room temperature mixed nuts.  Besides the increased yumminess, being served something warmed up that’s normally just thrown into a ramekin makes you feel pampered 🙂  (It’s the little extras, ya know?  Like crushed ice in urinals…sorry you miss out on that little joy of life, ladies.)
hot nuts

The meal choices were hot pasta or a cold chicken salad.  I had pre-ordered the chicken online, and Nicoleen opted for the pasta.  If I were a more experienced traveler, I would have remembered the general rule of thumb for cheap food: Never order the meat when there’s another option available.  The salad was pretty good, but the cold lemon chicken was, well . . . nasty.  I suppose it didn’t help that I was still stuffed from the lunch I had in the Flagship Lounge at ORD.  Nicoleen enjoyed the pasta.

The "cold chicken salad" was actually cold chicken AND a salad.

The “cold chicken salad” was actually cold chicken AND a salad.

While I would never pay the extra miles or cash for a first class seat on this short a flight, as part of a longer itinerary it was sure nice to have the upgraded seats and service. The little perks like early boarding and disembarking, complimentary in-flight drinks, a more private in-flight bathroom, and of course the hot nuts made our otherwise grueling itinerary (24 hours of travel including 3 layovers) much more tolerable; even enjoyable.

American Airlines Flagship Lounge – Chicago (ORD)


After revealing to Nicoleen that we had first class tickets by skipping the huge check-in and security lines at MSP (major wife points scored!), we had an unremarkable flight on an American Eagle regional jet to Chicago O’Hare (ORD).  Our itinerary had been readjusted a month prior to traveling, and we were now arriving in Chicago at 6:00 AM for a 6 hour layover.

Fortunately for us, our first class award booking granted us access to American’s Flagship lounge in Terminal 3.  The lounge opens at 6:00 and we arrived at 6:10, the day’s first customers.  This was especially nice for me because I was able to get a few pictures of the empty lounge with all the day’s consumables untouched.

The main hallway, complimentary newspapers

The main hallway, complimentary newspapers

One of the seating areas

One of the seating areas

The beverage buffet, opposite the food buffet

The beverage buffet, opposite the food buffet

The Flagship Lounge is the first class version of AA’s Admiral’s Club, which we visited and briefly walked through before departing ORD.  While the Admiral’s Club would have been a nicer place to spend a layover than the general terminal seating, from what we saw the Flagship Lounge is a very definite step up from the Admiral’s Club.

flagship_ord_breakfastBreakfast in the Flagship lounge was an assortment of fruit cups and yogurt parfaits, hot pan quiche Florentine, and a scrambled egg/bacon/potato dish.  There was also the regular assortment of whole fruit, instant oatmeal, and cold cereal.  The coffee machine makes virtually anything you could want, and the full bar of juice, soft drinks, wine, beer, champagne, and hard alcohol is open the entire day, including breakfast time.

Eventually a few more travelers made their way into the lounge.  Nicoleen moved to a seat nearer an electrical outlet (somewhat hard to find) and I went to the business center to write a ValueTactics post.  The business center features private computer desks with granite counter tops and ethernet ports.  Several desks have computers available for use.  There is also a free printer available.
computer-station redo
Shortly before noon the breakfast became gradually replaced with lunch.  The lunch consisted of a variety of pre-made sandwiches, several appetizers, and sushi rolls.  The shrimp cocktail and the hummus and pita appetizer were especially tasty, but the sandwiches were so-so.  All the lunch food was made better when washed down with a refreshing Amstel Light!  (They even had non-alcoholic O’Doules, although Nicoleen wasn’t in the mood for NA beer that early in the day).
I can’t comment on the wine and champagne selection because my opinion would be pretty worthless.  I can tell the difference between an $8 bottle of wine and an $80 bottle; but I probably couldn’t tell the difference between a $40 and $80 bottle.  I’m just not that fancy.  I know beer a little bit better, and I was happy with the selection.  Besides the aforementioned Amstel Light, there was also Corona, Heineken, Samuel Adams, Sapporo, Guinness and several others.

The hard alcohol selection at American Airlines Flagship lounge in Chicago O'Hare

The hard alcohol selection at American Airlines Flagship lounge in Chicago O’Hare

The lounge eventually filled up, primarily with Asian travelers awaiting a flight to Beijing.  Even at the peak of the attendance while we were there the Flagship Lounge was never crowded.  The bathrooms were clean and tastefully decorated.  Besides the food, drink, and comfortable chairs, the lounge also provided major newspapers and had several TV viewing areas.

To access American’s Flagship Lounge you’ll need to be traveling on a first class international flight with American or a oneworld partner airline, be a oneworld Emerald member, or have American Airlines AAdvantage platinum status and flying internationally.  It’s complicated and confusing, but it’s worth it to know the access rules well.  We were almost denied access because our last leg was in business class, until I pointed out to the desk lady that out long-haul flight was first class.  Here’s the link to the official American Airlines page outlining access rules.

AA’s Flagship Lounge at ORD was a great way to spend our 6 hour layover.  If I had to complain about anything it would be the slight dearth of outlets.  The food was fairly good (especially the breakfast), the chairs were comfy, and the layout provided a quiet, intimate atmosphere.  The unlimited beverages, including some decent booze, was definitely a plus (although common to most lounges) and would have been even more valuable has 50% of my party not been pregnant 🙂  Overall this lounge made our long layover enjoyable, started off our long itinerary in comfort, and generally exceeded my expectations.

My First Points Redemption – Europe 2014

(This is a data recovered post, originally published on June 22nd, 2015.)
(Sorry, the jump links don’t work since recovering this page – you’ll have to scroll for now.)

Jump to section:
Trip Background Info
Planning Phase
Travel to Europe
Travel from Europe
Cost Summary
Cost Breakdown

Ancient and Modern History


This is me wearing cotton shorts, standing next to a sign in 1996

When I was 14 years old I visited Europe for the first time.  It was a guided bus tour that went around Germany and Scandinavia. Two years later, in 1998, we hosted a German exchange student for a month. That June I stayed with his family for a month. I repeated the exchange program again in 2000. Having friends in Europe makes traveling there very affordable for a young adult, so I returned to Germany (among other countries) in 1999, 2001, 2002, and 2003. As the fairytale that is youth slowly ended, I found myself unable to reasonably return to Europe due to budgetary constraints. Fast forward to 2012, when I decided to jump into the credit card game head first. The endeavor had a dual purpose: move debt onto 0% interest cards and get some points and miles for my trouble. I didn’t have any concrete plans to use my miles and I soon half-forgot about my accumulated points/miles.

When my wife graduated from college in 2008 she cashed in a promise I had made to her years earlier, and we invested in a new car for her. In summer 2013 I graduated and thought to myself: I deserve a reward too, right? I knew it would be at least autumn before I heard back about any jobs, so I hatched a plan to return to my estranged vacation hang-out, Germany.

The Planning Phase

Historically my trip planning process has been overly involved and unnecessarily thorough. I enjoy the process. But for this trip, I had to act fast because award flights for the dates I was planning to travel were disappearing fast. I think the whole planning phase lasted about a week, from committing to the idea to booking the plane tickets.

My first step was to re-establish contact with my friends in Europe. Once I confirmed that I had a place to stay and people to see, I started shopping for award flights. My only real option at the time was United Airlines. A benefit to United’s award ticketing scheme is that you can book two one-ways for the same amount of miles as the round trip to and from the same region. One of my German friends had moved to Switzerland so an open jaw itinerary would be very convenient. Not needing to travel back to the city I flew into would save me at least half a day of train or car travel. My trip was short to begin with (7 days) so being able to fly out of a different city for the return flight was very valuable to me.

I found two economy one-way award seats, both at the saver miles level. I would fly from Minneapolis to Zürich, and then return from Frankfurt to Minneapolis.The cost was 60,000 United miles and $140.70 in fees. Not bad for a round trip flight to Europe in June!

Travel to Europe (MSP > YYZ > ZHR)

My short flight from Minneapolis to Toronto was uneventful. Although I booked through United, this flight was operated by Canada Air Jazz. The aircraft was a Bombardier CRJ-200 regional jet. The experience was what you would expect on a jet this size: short, cramped, and skimpy service (one beverage and a bag of pretzels).

My 5 hour layover at Toronto Pearson Int’l Airport was fairly comfortable considering I had no lounge access. The public seating areas feature nice leather chairs, stone tops, ample power outlets, and an iPad at every seat. The iPads can update you on your flight information, provide weather and news, and let you order from the nearest bar/cafe.
My only real complaint about the YYZ public areas was the horrendously slow and spotty wi-fi connectivity.

My flight from Toronto to Zürich was on a Canada Air Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, which is one of the flagships of the new generation of commercial jetliner engineering. It is supposedly very fuel efficient and comfortable. The on-board literature made several claims about the design, including: increased cabin pressurization and humidity (was supposed to reduce jet lag), passenger-dimmable window shading, more headroom for a more open feel, and aesthetically designed lighting for a calmer atmosphere. Oh, and by the way the seats are thinner too, so they can cram more seats in economy with supposedly no loss of leg room. Well, at 6’2″ I was cramped and uncomfortable anyway. However, the other gimmicky-sounding innovations actually seemed to improve the overall experience. The pressure and humidity seemed to make me feel generally not as crappy by the time we landed, and the lights and big windows were just really cool to look at!
Overall I think the Dreamliner is a bit hyped, but it does live up to a decent portion of that hype.


The first leg of my trip was to visit an old friend. Hannes is one of my German exchange students, now living in Switzerland. I won’t give too many details about my stay there except to say that Switzerland is an exceptionally beautiful and clean country, and I would recommend it to anyone. We spent most of my first day there driving through the Alps and we even swung by the tiny country of Liechtenstein.
Part of my time with Hannes was spent just over the border in Konstanz, Germany, to visit his mother and to see the city where he went to school. Konstanz is perfectly charming and I would highly recommend it to anyone near southern Germany.


The next part of my short trip brought me back to familiar Germany. There I stayed a few days each with two old friends, both named Christian. The first Christian was my first exchange student back in high school, and it was great to see him and his family again after so many years.


Christian’s family and I at Apfelwein Wagner, enjoying traditional Frankfurt cuisine

Christian 1 lives near Frankfurt and after a few short days it was time to move on to Christian 2, who lives near Siegburg. The timing worked out so I got to his house the day of his birthday party, so it was a perfect way to see all his friends and family together in one place.

Although the trip was only 7 days, it seemed like a lot longer. I managed to fit in a lot of variety in my short time, and the fact that the main expense (airfare) was virtually free made the whole thing seem even sweeter.

Travel from Europe (FRA > YYZ > MSP)

My return itinerary once again had me stopping over in Toronto, but the long haul flight was on Lufthansa. The flight was your standard transatlantic economy seat on a Boeing 747-400: nothing to write home [or online] about. Although it was an older aircraft, the service and food were better. I have always found Lufthansa to be a step above U.S. carriers in these departments.

My layover in YYZ was shorter on the return flight, and I spent most of my time sitting in a chair, staring at the wall, wishing I were still on vacation in Europe.

The flight from Toronto to Minneapolis was a mirror image of the previous Canada Air Jazz flight, except in a slightly larger aircraft, the Bombardier CRJ-705, which has a small 1×2 business class cabin in addition to the 2×2 economy seating.

Cost Summary

Airfare: $140.70
Other transportation: $179.88
Lodging: $0.00
Food, shopping, entertainment: $555.54

Total cost for my week long vacation in Switzerland and Germany: $819.55
Savings from using value tactics: at least $1,692.50

Cost Breakdown

This is the fun part! Using the tactics outlined on this site, a week long vacation spanning three European countries, including airfare, transportation, and lodging only cost me 320.58 !!

The airfare cost me 60,000 United miles, which I transferred from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account, earned mainly with my Sapphire Preferred card, and $140.70 in fees. Buying both one-way tickets (MSP > ZHR and FRA > MSP) directly from the United website would have cost $6587.90 in cash! Now to be fair, I would have never done that had I not had the miles to spend. Realistically I would have bought a round trip (MSP > < FRA) and spent the additional day traveling back to Frankfurt from Zürich. But even that ticket would have cost $1733.20 and I got a better itinerary for $140.70 cash!

Ground Transportation:
I took trains from Zürich to Frankfurt and Siegburg to back to Frankfurt. The total for my train travel was $195.74. I used my Barclay Arrival Plus for these online train purchases and later redeemed 10,000 Barclay Arrival miles for a $100 credit. So that brought the rail expenses down to $95.74.

I also traveled a lot by car. I recorded $252.41 charged to gas stations in Europe. These charges were split among three purposes: 1) paying my share of group travel (I count this as transportation cost); 2) being a stand-up guy and filling the tanks of my hosts (this was actually in lieu of bringing any gifts for them); and 3) using my friends as human ATMs, an awesome tactic I will write a whole post about soon. In stead of tracking every cent, I am just splitting the $252.41 three ways, for an estimated car travel cost of $84.14.

None, $0.00. Staying with friends makes travel cheap! Besides the cost savings, you get to see the real country, not just the tourist destinations. If you have any friends in foreign lands, I highly recommend staying with them when you travel. Just be sure to be a gracious guest and to reciprocate the offer to host them any time they are traveling in your corner of the world.

Food and Shopping:
I don’t include these costs in the value break-down because they are highly variable based on your shopping habits and your cuisine choices. But for what it’s worth, I spent an estimated $555.54 on food, gifts, local entertainment, and clothes. This included a $325 pair of Lederhosen, so the food and smaller gifts were actually just over $200 for the week. Considering I would have probably eaten about $75 in food in a week at home, this is getting by pretty cheap for the value I perceived.

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