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October 3, 2007

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                 London With My Dad
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Cheers from England! Last week, I flew across the pond with the low-fare, all-business-class carrier MAXjet. This week, we tour around London with a very special person ... my dad! That's right! Just a few months after his grueling, eight-hour emergency quadruple bypass surgery, he was on an airplane. We met in London at a swanky Red Carnation Hotel. This is a very dear trip, not just because we rarely get to travel alone together, but also because my dad's never been to London and has always wanted to go. Who knew? If you want to tag along but don't have time to sit back, relax and read this week's story, don't worry. There's a two-minute Johnny Jet video at the end. Don't feel like heading to London this week? Then join our newest writer Natalie Bahadur as she makes her maiden voyage to Finland's capital and tours you around Helsinki.

STANSTED AIRPORT TO LONDON
Stansted Airport is 30 miles north of central London and is popular with low-fare carriers due to cheaper landing fees. But it's good for passengers too, because then you don't have to deal with the legendary madness of Heathrow, especially clearing customs and baggage claim. I was processed in less than two minutes and the luggage (not that I checked any) was already on the carousel. I grabbed a free cart and pushed it down the ramp to the Stansted Express train station, which is directly below the airport. Trains depart every 15 minutes, which makes getting to central London a breeze. If you travel all the way to Liverpool Street, the journey takes 47 minutes. One-way Express Class (coach) fares are 15 (about $30USD). A roundtrip fare is cheaper, so if you plan to head back to the airport, be sure to buy a return. Greater discounts are available for same day return tickets.

BRITRAIL PASS
I didn't have to pay the train fare because I used my BritRail pass TIP: Be sure to get BritRail passes stamped at the ticket window before first use. Each time thereafter, fill in your travel dates before the conductor comes around or risk getting slapped with a fine. To get a deeply discounted pass, you need to book it prior to leaving North America by logging on to RailEurope.com. There you'll find a variety of available options. If you're planning on doing a lot of train travel in England or the rest of Europe, you should really look into getting one. I got the BritRail England Flexi-Pass, valid for four days of travel in a two-month period and cost $235.00. It allowed me unlimited access to England's rail networks, including transportation from Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted airports. Tickets and passes are also available for practically every European country.

THE TUBE
From the Liverpool Street station, I transferred to the subway, or, to what the Brits call the tube. I love London's underground except when it's really crowded or when the workers go on strike ... which seems to be the case every time I'm in town. It's important to pack light because schlepping bags on the tube or even on the trains for that matter, is no fun and taxi fares to and from the airports are crazy expensive ... just like most of London. Currently, the exchange rate is 1 (GBP) to $2 (USD), so there's no bargain. Rail passes don't work on the tube so instead of spending 4 ($8) for a single ride, I did what the locals do. I got an Oyster card. This transit card has a 3 refundable deposit, and you can add as much credit on to the card as you like. Plus, it's good for traveling by bus as well. The Oyster Card makes those 4 rides turn into 1.50 (more for those traveling longer distances). The blue cards can be found in a number of places including at most tube station ticket offices and at the Oyster website.

HOTEL 41 LOCATION
I took the tube to Victoria Station and walked three blocks to where I was staying at Hotel 41. TIP: When you get to Victoria Station, don't walk down the stairs and then back up the pedestrian alley, which is a huge pain with luggage. Instead, just walk half a block to the right and cross at the underground crosswalk. Hotel 41 is directly across the street from the Queen's Mew, home to many of the horses and coaches used on state occasions. There aren't many hotels around so when darkness falls, the street goes from being a tourist haven to being eerily empty. But hey, it makes for good sleeping.

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BLACK AND WHITE
The moment I walked into the entrance of Hotel 41, I was greeted by the hotel's signature color palette black and white. It's modeled after the 21 Club in New York City. From there, the elevator whisks guests up to the fifth floor, where the hotel officially begins ... and ends ... it's just one floor. Because Hotel 41 only has 30 rooms, it doesn't really feel like a hotel. It feels more like a club, which might explain the black and white color scheme. After doing some quick online research, I discovered that the hotel was ranked #9 out of 1,011 hotels in London on TripAdvisor.com. Pretty impressive. Even more impressive is the fact that it just placed 10th on Travel and Leisure's World's Best Awards 2007 list of the top 50 hotels in Europe.

MY DAD
I was pretty anxious to get to my room to see if my father had made it safely. You see, my dad is legally deaf, does not often travel alone, (especially internationally) and tends not to follow my instructions. He says I'm bossy. I booked him on a flight using my frequent flier miles and the only business class seat I could find for him, got him into Heathrow six hours earlier than me.

USING MILES
Booking a mileage ticket is an art and the key is flexibility! You'd be surprised what a difference it can make if you're flexible with either your dates, times or even departure or arrival cities. I found nothing when I logged on to Delta.com, United.com and American.com, the airlines on which I've accrued the most miles. The best thing to do is to call and speak to a representative, even if it means spending a few extra dollars. When I called United, the agent then had access to its 16 Star Alliance partners. Suddenly, options started popping up. The choices weren't grand since my dad lives in Erie, PA and any flight to London required multiple stops. The best I could do was to fly him into Pittsburgh, then to Washington D.C. and finally onto London. The first flight was with USAir and the rest were with United. However, one thing to keep in mind when using United's partners is that once a ticket is issued, neither the dates nor the cities can be changed, though that's not the case with all United Airlines tickets. Other notables to keep in mind: Tickets can be put on hold for just 72 hours, so no more lengthy contemplations. That wasn't an issue for us since my dad got the green light to join me at the last minute, which tacked on an additional $75 late fee on top of the $214 in taxes. Can you believe how high those taxes are? The agent told me that the price of flying into London is double that of flying into other European cities. Right from the get-go, the English let you know that you won't have any money left over when you go home! FYI: Typically, the best time to use your miles is 330 days in advance when airlines begin loading their inventory. I also seem to have luck at last-minute travel.

CHAPERONING SENIORS
I worried about my dad finding his way through the airport and switching carriers. The positive aspect about my dad flying alone was that it was much easier to secure one seat using frequent flier miles. The negative part is that I would have felt a lot better if he had had someone accompanying him. In fact, I briefly looked into hiring a personal chaperone and found a new company, based out of Georgia, which specializes in giving seniors the freedom to travel anywhere in the world. But it's expensive! You have to pay the chaperone's travel fares on top of their daily rate. Instead, I arranged for airline representatives to escort my dad to his gates. This was free of charge and my dad said that the representatives all showed up and that it all worked out well. His only regret was turning down the golf cart ride at Heathrow; he didn't realize how long the walk to baggage claim was and while schlepping his carry-ons, he re-injured his bad back, putting a slight damper on the trip.

MY DAD ARRIVED!
My biggest concern was that my dad wouldn't make it to the hotel. If he got lost, there would be no way for me to get a hold of him. But the helpful staff at Hotel 41 solved that predicament. When I emailed them a few days prior and explained my dilemma, they had a solution. They suggested my dad take the Heathrow Express train (15 minutes from London's Heathrow Airport) and they would send a representative to meet him at the train platform. We swapped photographs so that each knew what the other looked like.

The rep who met my dad was actually the hotel manager, Chantal. What a lovely person. She's originally from Martinique and she had that innate, friendly Caribbean attitude that I love. When I arrived at the hotel, my first question for the pretty receptionist was whether or not my father had made it. With a big smile, she confirmed that he was in the house and that he was sleeping. Relief flooded over me. She went on to tell me that my father is a real character, that he was so excited to be in England and that all the staff who had met him, wanted to adopt him. Chantal expressed the same sentiments and I thought that maybe they were just being overly kind because they knew I had a travel website or something. But that didn't appear to be the case; the next morning, as I milled around the breakfast room, I took a look at the guest book and sure enough, it was filled with nothing but high praise, especially commenting on the hotel staff's friendly attitude. FYI: 60% of the guests are from the U.S., while 35% hail from the U.K.

HOTEL 41
The staff alone is reason enough to stay at Hotel 41. The location is another; its just blocks from Buckingham Palace, the tube and bus station. But most of all, the rooms are really comfortable. They're all beautifully decorated with traditional mahogany furniture, a flat screen TV, an iPod docking station, warm feather duvets, a clean bathroom with strong water pressure and fancy toiletries. Internet is free of charge and some rates include breakfast. It's served in the civilized library/dining/TV room. Some tables are made just for one and face the TV, which is nice for business travelers. The service is refined. The waiters are dressed in tuxedos with tails and they take their time. It seemed like each piece of china was being brought to the table one by one. The final touch was a single red carnation, a subtle reminder of the company the hotel belongs to. Breakfast was worth the wait; they served freshly squeezed orange juice and I had one of the best Belgian waffles ever. Room rates begin at 225.00. Hotel 41, Buckingham Palace Road, London, Tel.: +44 (0) 20 7300 0041.

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Copyright 2007 JohnnyJet, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Pictures From

The Trip

 

MAXjet

 

Arriving Stansted Airport

 

Stansted Express

 

Scenery

 

The Mob Squad

 

Liverpool St. Station

 

Inside Taxi

 

Pounds

 

Hotel 41

 

Hallway

 

Black & White

 

Pretty Receptionist

 

Chantal and my Dad

 

My Room

 

Buckingham Palace

 

Comfortable Room

 

Our Bed

 

My Bathroom

 

Hotel Waiter

 

Dining Room

 

Belgian Waffles

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