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Bonjour! This week we come to you from Europe. I’m here for my brother’s wedding. More on this trip in a second -- but first we need to travel from Nantucket (where we left off last week) to back home in California before heading out again to Europe. I know, it’s crazy!
SONG AIRLINES JFK-LAX
After taking the ferry to Hyannis and driving to Connecticut, I bought the cheapest one way JFK-LAX ticket I could find. The best deal was on Song (Delta’s low fare carrier). I found it on our JohnnyJet.com search engine for $107. What a deal! Song, which recently took this route over from Delta, flies only 757s, which is great for economy class passengers. But because the plane is only one class, that means first and business class passengers are out of luck.
However, in my opinion Song’s economy class is better than some carriers’ premium cabins. That’s because of Song’s fun-filled atmosphere, which begins with the flight attendants and includes a great in-flight entertainment system. Each seat has its own touch-screen personalized monitor with 25 channels of live TV, movies (for $5), games and music options. I had a whole row to myself, so when I wasn’t lying down I sat in the middle and enjoyed my own little media center. My computer was on my tray table, and I had all three monitors on. I kept surfing the one on the right between the three news channels, sport channels and the Travel Channel. The one on the left I kept on the live map, so I could check out where we were. The middle monitor was my music headquarters. Do I have ADD or what? Best of all, Song passengers can make their own song list by choosing their favorite tunes off a variety of albums. That really makes the time fly (pun intended). Oh, yeah: Song also offers tasty meals (for a charge), and drinks.
I hadn’t been home in a month, and even though it wasn’t for long, I was happy to be there. I had just enough time to get organized, change clothes, get a new laptop (Toshiba totally hooked me up with a replacement for my damaged one). I also got to play some beach volleyball and softball, and hang and dine out with friends and family.
CASHING IN UNITED MILES
As you probably know flying to Europe this summer is quite expensive. One way around that is to use miles, but cashing them in is no easy task. When I called United in late May to use my Mileage Plus miles, the agent laughed and said nothing was available for any class of service for June, July and August! I knew there was at least one seat available because I found it while searching on United’s website. But the agent said that wasn’t true, and hung up on me without even looking. Ugh! After I counted to 10 (so I didn’t go postal), I called back. The second agent was very helpful. I told him the magic words for using frequent flier miles in peak times: "I’m very flexible in terms of cities, dates and class of service." Plus I needed only one seat. Mission accomplished.
CASHING IN USAIR MILES
Next I had to help my dad and sister book their tickets. One was using USAir miles. That was very difficult, because I kept getting transferred to call centers in Mexico City, El Salvador and the Philippines. All the agents in those places were friendly, but either I couldn’t understand them or they didn’t know what the heck they were talking about. Finally I found USAir’s U.S.-based agent number (336-661-8390). Dealing with them took a tenth of the time. BTW: Shame on USAir for charging double miles for a seat to Europe this summer. That’s a total ripoff!
FIRST CLASS LOUNGE
I flew in style, and it cost me 100,000 United miles and $117 in taxes. Still, it was quite a deal. Buying the same first-class ticket from United would’ve cost me $13,500. Ouch! But of course I would never buy a first-class ticket online. I would call a consolidator, and get the same ticket for a deep discount. (My 1st/Biz class consolidator is John Dekker -- Tel:. 800-714-8728)
United flies nearly everywhere from LAX. But they don’t have a nonstop to Paris (only from SFO, IAD and ORD), so I connected through Chicago. It was a good thing I was flying first class, because I showed up at LAX 90 minutes before my flight. I would never have been able to check in -- let alone clear security – without the special First Class/Premier lines. That’s a great perk.
Once inside the terminal I headed straight for United’s International First Class lounge to check out the goods. That’s another fine perk. This posh lounge is hidden behind Gate 74, but the lounge is on the second floor. The place is plush, with nice décor, plenty of seats, friendly staff and good food and drinks. The big disappointment was finding out that United’s lounges do not offer free wireless. The only access is to T-Mobile Wireless, which costs $6 for 1 hour, $9.99 for 24 hours, $29 for a month with a year contract, or $39 A month without a contract. I think if people spend $13,500 for a ticket, then United can give passengers free internet. Heck, JetBlue offers free internet access in JFK, and their most expensive ticket is $499 one-way.
I got my flight pushed up by two days so I could arrive at the same time as my sister, father and his wife Nancy. I achieved this by calling United frequently, and asking if anything had opened up. They said the only stipulation to leaving early was that I had to fly business class to Chicago. Please! Like that is such a big deal, especially in a phat 777. The flight to Chicago was smooth, and I had a very cool seatmate. She was a professional rock climber and travels all over the world. Not only that, but the landing was the best I’ve ever had. It was so perfect, it felt like we were still flying after we touched down. My flight from Chicago was delayed by two hours, so I ended up with a five-hour layover. I was going to walk a few hundred feet to the Airport Hilton Hotel to work out and swim for $11 ($6 for Hilton Gold members), but I felt lazy. So I just hung outside in the sun, roamed the terminals and chilled in the lounge.
The Chicago-Paris flight was quick and painless. The 4,140-mile flight took only 7 hours and 21 minutes. There were 10 seats in the 767-300’s first class section. Surprisingly, only three were occupied. I was in one of them. I was so excited, I did Michael Jackson’s moonwalk to my seat. Maybe it wasn’t full was that United flies 777s from SFO and IAD, and those first-class sections have much better seats (flat beds). But I didn’t care. I slept just fine, and had so much leg room I couldn’t even touch the seat in front of me -- not even with my toes! The flight attendant was very cool, and fed me very well. For dinner I had pork dumplings, salad with Jamaican jerk chicken, filet mignon, and of course ice cream with hot fudge. For breakfast I had an omelet with potatoes and sausage. Then I looked out the window, and we were over France!
CHARLES DEGAULLE AIRPORT
I was the first person off the plane. I jumped on one of the neat moving walkways and escalators. They are so cool in Charles De Gaulle Airport (Roissy) that I always feel like I’m in a Jetsons cartoon. I didn’t have to wait in the customs line, and my bag came out quickly. My dad, sister and Nancy were waiting for me near the exit, and I almost fainted when I saw how many bags they had. It looked like they were moving to Europe. It was funny for a millisecond, but then reality kicked in. I knew it would be a huge problem traveling around Europe on trains with all that luggage. Of course, I‘m guilty of over-packing too, so I can’t rag on them. In order not make the same mistake, follow this golden rule: Lay your clothes and money on your bed, and take half as many clothes and twice as much money. Then repeat the process again.
GETTING TO HOTEL
We hit the ATM to get some euros. One euro is equal to $1.19, which means that makes everything is 19% more expensive than in the U.S. We found a taxi big enough to hold everything for our 14-mile (23-km) ride into the city. One or two travelers without a lot of luggage could take the RER trains (line B). They leave every 15 minutes, from 5 a.m. to midnight, and cost 8 euros. Another option is to take either one of the two AirFrance Shuttles, or the Roissybus (tel. 01-48-04-18-24). They cost between 10 and 13 euros, and take 50 to 75 minutes. For information on ground transportation, check out www.aeroportsdeparis.fr.
When we arrived at our hotel the taxi meter read 35€. However, we were charged 50 euros, because in France they charge 2 euros per bag in the trunk, plus more for a fourth passenger. Guidebooks say to tip 12 to 15 percent of what the meter reads. But tipping in French restaurants is not necessary, unless the service is really good. In that case you can tip up to 5 percent. In hotels, you should tip maids 1.5 euros a day, and the bellman 1 euro per bag.
Speaking of Paris taxis: Can someone please tell me the reasoning behind French taxi rules? I understand these guys make a fixed wage regardless of how many passengers they take, and they get six weeks of paid vacation a year, but why can’t Paris be like New York City in terms of hailing a cab from any corner. In Paris there are designated spots (marked by a "TAXI" sign), which are the only places to hail a cab. Parisian cabbies will drive right by you with an empty car, and won’t look at you even if you’re doing the funky chicken in the middle of the street (something I don’t recommend). It would be okay if the taxi spots were on every street corner, but they’re not. The "TAXI" signs are hard to find, and they’re really spread out. We once walked a mile before finding one. Passengers or hotels can call a taxi, but the meter is turned on the moment they leave to pick you up. That’s means you already owe money before you get in. Prices vary every time, but on ours were pre-charged between 3 to 4 euros.
The best way to get around Paris is by Metro. There are 16 metro lines and 297 stations. Tickets cost 1.40 euros each way, with Discount Rail Passes "Paris-Visite" (tel. 01-38-78-20-20) valid for one, two, three or five days. These passes include not only the Métro, but buses (Paris has 58 bus routes) and RER trains too. Prices range from 17 to 37 euros. You can buy them at Metro stations, tourist offices or an RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens) office. We would’ve taken the Metro a lot more than we did but my sister (prima dona that she is) didn’t feel safe on the Metro. Of course, after I told her how much money she would save (and have available for shopping), she quickly changed her tune. The Metro is safe and clean --- just watch out for pickpockets. Helpful tips: "Sortie" means "exit," while "correspondences" signs are transfers.
Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements (districts). The city is compact, and there are so many great neighborhoods it’s hard to find one that is not charming. They all seem to offer something, and a hidden gem is always waiting to be found. We stayed in the 10th arrondissement, which is a bit away from all the major attractions (Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysee…). They were 10 to 15 minutes away by Metro, or a 7 to 20 euro taxi ride. The biggest landmark near our hotel -- Hôtel Relais de Paris Lafayette-- was the Gare du Nord train station.
The neighborhood around the Hôtel Relais de Paris Lafayette is not my favorite, but the hotel was good for what it was: An inexpensive comfortable, friendly and safe 3-star hotel. The hotel elevator was so tiny, it could hold only two of our bags at a time. My sister’s and my room was on the 4th floor, so we took the stairs every day. That was a great work out. We needed it too, after eating the hotel’s Parisian breakfast (croissants, toast, café, cereal, cheese, fruit). Another plus about the hotel is that free wireless internet is available on the ground floor. In Paris you don’t really need to spend a lot of money on a fancy hotel, because there is so much to see you really won’t stay in your room for long. In fact, there is no need to do anything but sleep and shower (This hotel has the best water pressure) there. Hôtel Relais de Paris Lafayette 3*, 7, rue des Petits Hôtels, Paris 10e; tel. : 33-1-42-46-33-00;
I gotta go hit the beach now. We’ll pick up next week in Paris, and visit another cosmopolitan city that is close by, but in another country. Au revoir!
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