Travel is unpredictable. Award travel can be particularly so. Add that in with the other variables that can upset a trip and a lot of it’s a gamble. And, ooh, boy, did I have a terrible trip back from Berlin – not really the result of any airline behavior or anything, just luck.
My return ticket home from Berlin was booked for 50,000 AA miles, just before the most recent award price hike to 57,500 miles for US-Europe business class. It used to be that Berlin was an easy place to fly from using AA miles, since Berlin is a hub for Oneworld partner Airberlin. But when I was booking in the winter, literally zero Airberlin availability was showing—not just for transatlantic flights, but even for short flights like Berlin to Frankfurt. Expertflyer showed plenty of availability, but it was invisible on the BA and AA sites for months. AA’s response was the nonresponse “we understand it’s frustrating when the flight you want isn’t available for an award booking,” ignoring the fact that there was clearly an issue here for months. That made booking quite difficult, as the only partner availability out of Berlin was on BA, Iberia, and Finnair – and Iberia doesn’t show on AA.com, and flying through London involves expensive fees and surcharges.
Nonetheless, I was able to assemble a not terrible itinerary, flying Iberia from Berlin to Madrid at 7:25 in the morning, connecting to an AA flight from Madrid to Charlotte, and then up to DCA, all in business. A few months before the trip, Airberlin availability opened up on its flights from Berlin to Chicago, and Dusseldorf to JFK and Boston. But every time one of those opened up, there was no availability connecting from ORD/JFK/BOS to DCA. And when my alert for ORD to DCA went off, the TXL-ORD availability was gone.
About 3 weeks out, I decided to just switch to the TXL-ORD flight on Airberlin, which left 2 hours later than the early morning Madrid flight. The best available connection from Chicago to DCA was via Memphis, with a 3-hour layover there, on two regional jets in business. (I obviously would have taken coach on the nonstop.) Memphis has no lounge, and minimal services, so that was a suck. But the flights from Chicago to DCA were showing 7+ seats a few days out, so maybe I’d get lucky and a seat would open up on one of them.
I took the train from Potsdamer Platz and connected to the bus to Tegel pretty easily. My first stop at the airport was the drugstore, as the previous night I had started feeling very congested and sniffly, and had used up the last of my decongestant. Unlike in the US, over-the-counter medicine requires talking to the pharmacist, but I got something that seemed correct.
The lounge situation at Berlin-Tegel is pretty bad, and no airline will invest to change that given the uncertainty of how long Tegel will still be open. As an Airberlin business class passenger and OneWorld Sapphire I had access to both the AirFrance-KLM and British Airways lounge, both of which I reviewed two years ago, and remain unchanged. I headed to the KLM lounge, and had a small bite to eat from the underwhelming spread. But then my stomach started sending massive warning signs. Damn that Indian food.
I headed to the bathroom, which is not connected to the lounge, and confirmed that things were not good. I went back to the drugstore and got stomach medicine which proved to be the completely wrong thing, and then spent the rest of my time pre-boarding back in the men’s room.
Due to the layout of Tegel, immigration and security is at the gate. Even in the priority lane, it was a mess, and I was stuck behind an American father and his two sons who wore matching porkpie hats, a clear sign of douchiness, combined with their bottles of liquids and many computers they didn’t take out of their bags. Boarding started late, leading to a lot of stupid questions, including “Where is the flight to Chicago?” – stupid since there was only one gate. About 20 minutes before scheduled departure, Business Class boarding began.
AIrberlin business class is not my favorite. The seats are in a 1-2-1 layout, with seats alternating on the sides either being next to the window, or separated from the window by a storage cubby, “exposed” on the aisle. The seats are also narrower than many other A330 business class seats. Unfortunately, by the time I got booked on that flight, my seating options were limited, and I got one of the solo aisle seats. One advantage of this configuration, though, is that there is a massive storage unit at the seat.
On boarding, there was a video looping on the immobile screen highlighting all 8 members of “Etihad Airways Partners,” i.e., failing airlines Etihad’s bought into that are in a range of alliances or no alliances at all. At the seat, a menu was displayed, along with a nice Wunderkind leather amenity kit containing the basics, as well as noise canceling headphones, a small pillow, and a bottle of water. There was a variety of magazines spread out at the center bulkhead. There was in-seat ac/dc power, as well as USB.
Pre-departure, the Flight Attendants distributed orange juice or champagne. I stuck to water given my stomach. There were fairly nice hot towels presented in a dish, followed by post-departure beverage orders.
We took off about 15 minutes late and the take-off was quite rough. Once airborne, I figured I’d watch a little TV while I awaited the meal service. The IFE offerings weren’t super-extensive, but there were several newer films. Nothing grabbed me, so I watched some of the first season of Fargo.
Berlin to Chicago is a pretty long Europe-US flight, over nine hours. I still don’t understand the menu, which had three courses, a “light snack,” “hot meal”, and “cold meal.” What came first was hot nuts and a tonic water. Given my stomach, I barely touched the nuts. Then there was a choice of appetizer, I got the mushroom terrine which I did not eat, but was very pretty and fancy. I did eat the small salad and a roll.
For the main, I thought they all seemed kind of heavy, particularly for a 9:20am departure, but went with the beef with polenta. It was pretty good but I ate less than half if it. For dessert I picked at a tiramisu cake and had a cup of tea. And then I went to sleep.
It felt like a few hours, though I’d soon learn it was only 45 minutes, and I woke up feeling not right. I got up too quickly and knew I had to get to the bathroom. For some reason I went to the lav between the two cabins, which was occupied, and tried really hard, but, it was a good thing I only ate a little bit of lunch. My sincerest apologies to the Airberlin Purser and, of course, super hot flight attendant who had to clean up the galley. They were efficient and not particularly angry at me (unlike the last time this happened to me on a Delta flight in 2011), and were genuinely concerned with me. I stuck with water and changed into clean clothes, with 6 hours 45 minutes to go, plus two flights on regional jets. (To be clear, I hadn’t had alcohol other than 1 beer at dinner the night before; I’m pretty sure it was the Indian food. The flight was pretty turbulent, too, but I don’t have that sensitive a stomach.)
I watched half of the movie “The Savages” and then was able to sleep again for a few hours, waking up to have some tea, served with chocolate truffles I didn’t eat. There was also a lunch service, consisting of some quail breast with a mushroom salad, a panna cotta, two rolls, and cheese. I just had the rolls and half the panna cotta, with a Diet Coke. In all, the food was a lot more appetizing looking than the Finnair food, although I was not in a place to eat.
The service was generally quite excellent, with the Purser frequently checking in on all of the passengers. I finished the movie, and we landed in Chicago about 35 minutes late. Just prior to landing, the purser came around with the chocolate red hearts I had had on my Airberlin domestic flight. When I disembarked, I apologized again to the flight attendant who had borne the brunt of my illness, and he told me not to worry about it.
At that point, I checked to see if any other flights options back home had opened up. The only thing with award availability was connecting through Minneapolis, with only one leg in First, and arriving in DC the same time, but leaving Chicago 30 minutes later than the Memphis flight. It was also on bigger planes, mainline 737 to Minneapolis, and had a shorter connection in Minneapolis – a much better airport to connect through. I figured I’d just go to the customer assistance desk once clearing customs and see if they’d help, as I still had about 50 minutes before boarding time for the Memphis flight.
One thing I’d never seen before, though, was that as we entered the terminal, agents had taped about 50 bright orange “Express Connection” envelopes to the wall, organized by departure city and passenger name. Each envelope had onward boarding passes, and the envelope allowed you to clear immigration and security in a special lane, though Global Entry and Pre-Check lines were still shorter.
I think I looked sickly, sweaty and pale. So when I tried to go to the Priority customer assistance desk beyond customs I was stopped and told I had to go to the Main Cabin line. I explained I was priority, and then the agent challenged me, “You’re First?” “First and Platinum.” Unfortunately the AA agent there wasn’t interested in helping. I sweetly explained my quandary in general terms, and after looking at my boarding pass, she told me “We’re all full today and since it’s an award ticket I can’t put you on any other flight unless it has the exact same availability.” Of course she had the power to put me on a different flight, certainly the MSP flights, but she didn’t even look. Rather than argue, I said thank you and figured I’d try my luck at the Admirals Club.
I took the train from the International Terminal to Terminal 3, and recleared security, before hitting the Admirals Club. There, I took a different tack- specifically asking to be changed to connect through Minneapolis, but I wonder if she would have put me on a better route. The only thing is she put me in coach on both flights, though there was award availability in First on one, but I was so incoherent and looked and felt terrible, so I didn’t care. I drank water and had a banana, before getting some American Pepto.
I was so miserable. I just wanted to be home. But two flights to go. The curvature of the plane made my seat particularly bad, but it’s a pretty short flight from Chicago to Minneapolis, and I had a ginger ale and rested my eyes.
There’s no Admirals Club at MSP, but there is a Priority Pass lounge, the Escape Lounge, which I’ve actually visited before on work travel. It’s relatively new and a lovely space, with much heartier food than an AA or United Club, including pasta salad, pork sliders, and salads. I still wasn’t in the condition to eat, so I had toast points and a soda. Check out the menus, though.
There is also tons of varied, comfortable seating, lots of staff.
Finally, it was time for my last flight, which was a ERJ-175 operated by Republic Airways from Minneapolis to DCA. I was more annoyed that I hadn’t been put in F given there was award availability, since it is a 2h 45m flight on a regional jet, and the cabin went out with 5 empty seats, in addition to 3 filled by deadheads. But I had the bulkhead seat in coach, which actually has just as much leg room, but is a bit narrower. And I probably wouldn’t have eaten anyway. Coach was half-empty. The plane was really beat-up, though, and hadn’t been refurbished in quite awhile. One thing I noted- there were maxipads in the lav, which I haven’t seen in years.
And then I was home, where I ate close to nothing for the next 18 hours and slept and drank water and continued to eliminate the toxins of Berlin’s Indian cuisine. My advice: don’t travel with food poisoning, particularly for 14 hours of flights!