London, or a lesson in reading maps and using elite status wisely

Wise people say that you should read maps. Study them, understand them, and cherish them, for in war they are the difference between victory and defeat, and in travel they are the difference between a boring business trip and a visit to a cultural relic that outlived your ancestors and will outlive your children down a dozen generations or more, assuming nobody demolishes Earth for an intergalactic bypass in the meantime.

I’ll back up a bit, though. The story here is that I had to go to London – bar that, Reading. In my eternal wisdom cluelessness, I suffered through the prep for this trip because I dread going to the country, as it often ends up being hyper-boring, and not much happens in the neighbourhood, so you end up getting stuck in the hotel with little else to do. Like in Hamilton, Ontario, or something, where the most exciting thing to happen is … actually, anything, for lack of anything happening otherwise. Because I wasn’t expecting any entertainment, I also didn’t bring my proper camera – which means all the shots below are from my phone, so apologies for that.

I flew Air Canada for this trip, which has a funny side story. The routing was NRT-YVR-YYZ-LHR, because I needed Air Canada metal miles. By the time I got to Toronto, I lucked out on the upgrades, and all was well; in Toronto, I was waitlisted and not confirmed until last minute. At the gate, they called my name, and I, as usual, dashed through the line to pick up my boarding pass, get into my seat, and begin the journey of culinary excellence that Air Canada is, starting with the incredible wildcard champagnes that they serve (as in, you have no idea what’s in it on any given day). The funny part is when I met a coworker who was on the same flight: he was completely perplexed as to why my name was called, because I was clearly departing Tokyo, so there was zero reason for me to be in Canada for a flight to London – and his wife, the ever wise one, commented “Oh, it’s him, he’s probably doing it for the points.” How right she was.

Anyway, on to the trip. The reason I keep harping on about the maps is because when barely days prior to the trip I actually looked up where Reading was – or more precisely, what was near Reading – I was completely blown away. You see, Stonehenge is minutes’ drive from it. Being terribly poorly cultured, I was absolutely certain Stonehenge is far further north – maybe in Scotland (since to me, Scotland is basically at the end of the known universe). So when I was researching “best driving roads around London”, since I wanted to make the best use of the car I would get from my good old Sixt, I was very surprised to have the word “Stonehenge” show up in the search results. So I searched … and it turned out that it was about an hour and a half away from London, just past the actual destination I had to go to. So it was a complete no-brainer as to what I was going to see on this trip.

When I got to Heathrow, I headed out to grab my rental. Sixt is located off airport, so a shuttle bus takes you there. I saw a lot of interesting cars on the lot, but after chatting with the manager, the nicest one that corporate insurance would cover was the SLK – sadly, neither the SL nor the Maserati was included (though in retrospect, I should have just freaking paid for it!). That and the clerk told me the Maserati was garbage because it was all cheap plastic.

This was the lot:

I’ve already driven both Jaguars, so I decided to go for the SLK.

Not too bad for $50 a day or so. And of course, I had to stuff it full of junk that doesn’t fit in the trunk (kind of like my Corvette rental in Los Angeles, or my F-Type rental in Munich and Frankfurt – my Briggs & Riley is my eternal partner… and I take great pride in using convertibles the wrong way).

The amusing part was when I left the lot: I don’t know what the story is, but I was literally surrounded by BMWs. Look at this picture:

Anyway, so I decided to drive over to Stonehenge. It turned out to be the highlight of the trip, besides a brief moment where I almost crashed my car into someone’s farmhouse when I saw a procession of F40s, Testarossas, a McLaren F1 and even a XJ220 (!), which apparently were at a local exotic/classic car show.

Obviously Stonehenge itself is impressive, but just before it itself, the surroundings are, as well. It’s quite impossible to take a picture of just how vast the expanse of plains is, but it’s really very spectacular. Especially on a nice day. The vast rolling hills of England are arguably one of the most relaxing sights you can see, and Stonehenge is the cherry on top.

 

And of course, the main character of the play.

People do go to extreme lengths to take artistic photos of it…

Here’s a panorama view of it as well.

So this was well worth a visit. On leaving Stonehenge, there was a sign that said “why not also visit Old Sarum”? I had no good answer to this question, so I went: it is the site of the earliest settlement of Salisbury in England. It, of course, isn’t nearly as famous as Stonehenge, but hey, it was nearby, and was worth a visit, although it seemed a bit of a “backup” location rather than a main purpose of a visit. I should mention that I almost had a huge and a very expensive car accident on the way, because as I started driving there, a completely mind-blowing cavalcade of vehicles pulled out – a Porsche 959, a Jaguar XJ220, a Ferrari F40, some Lotuses (Lotii?), and so on…. and while I almost crashed into them as I was oggling them, I had to stop and see what the story was – turned out there was a classic car show that day that I could’ve gone to. Oh well. On to Old Sarum.

It turned out to be the ruin of an old castle – which was interesting for its old and lush British greenery with splendid views of plains.

I spent the rest of the week in Reading dutifully performing my duties as a valuable (I dare hope?) company employee. On one outing to London, I went to a place called Duck & Waffle, a rather well-rated restaurant which also bills itself as the highest-floor restaurant in all of London. I’ve always found it odd that there is such a dearth of tall buildings in London, so this claim was maybe not so difficult to substantiate. More surprisingly, the food a) isn’t tikka masala, and b) was actually rather excellent, both of which are unusual for London.

Oh, and the view was pretty impressive, as well.

The restaurant itself (or rather, the view):

On the last day, as it seems to be almost a rule with my travel, the return to the airport became a story. As I wrote earlier, my meetings were in Reading, a place approximately 51 minutes away from Heathrow via highway M4. I was booked onto the London-Toronto-Montreal flight departing at 18:00, arriving to Toronto at 21:00, and leaving to Montreal at 23:00 arriving at 00:15. Not an ideal flight, obviously. So I started investigating my options. The easiest one seemed to be simply moving the itinerary to 15:00 and connecting via Toronto, arriving to Montreal around 21:00. Much better, obviously, but still not ideal. The ideal flight was the 14:15 London-Montreal direct. But my meeting was only ending around 12:30, so there was no mathematical way I could make it. I tried to get out of my meeting at 11:30, but that didn’t happen. So I figured I’ll play by ear. I was sure I’d make the 15:00 to Toronto. The rest was immaterial and a bonus.

The meeting went on and on, and it ended at 11:50. It occurred to me that not everything is lost, and I might still have a chance, so I said my goodbyes and *ran* to the car. Working the clock backwards, if departure was at 14:15 (I figured, why not try, right?), I needed to be at the checkin counter 60 minutes prior, which is 13:15. Allowing 50 minutes for the drive to Heathrow, that meant that if I left at 11:55 (I did need 5 minutes to get my suitcases and package them into the car), I could be at the Sixt return location at 12:45. That left about 30 minutes in total to refuel the car, return it and take the shuttle back to the airport. And at the same time, call the Air Canada Super Elite desk to, you know, actually *switch* me to this flight, because I was still booked onto the 6pm one.

Now logically, this seemed to work without rushing and panicking. I am somewhat skeptical of things that look too good to be true, and anyway, I don’t actually know how to drive slow (which is why I hate biking, because I bike competitively even if I’m riding to a grocery store, so I’m constantly exhausted from biking). So I got in the car, whipped out the Waze app (which tells you where the speed cameras are), and FLOORED it.
Fast forward 30 minutes, and I was pulling up into the Sofitel Heathrow which is where the Sixt return location is. I drove up right to the Sixt counter, parked the car sideways and yelled out, “take it. Sorry. didn’t have time to refuel it even. how do I get to the airport?” The guy goes “that’s fine. [i assume he meant he’ll just charge me. haha.] but the airport? it’s right upstairs mate!”
I tell him “Sorry. hectic day. I need terminal 2.” His face visibly falls and he goes “Uhh, you must take the subway for that.” Recall that the time right now is around 12:40. So I tell him, “that’s fine. how long does that take? I have 10 minutes.” His face contorts further and he goes, “umm … yeah I don’t think this will happen.” It’s high time for me to pull out the DYKWIA ace card, so I go “okay. look. can someone drive me? I’m a Diamond member, if it helps.” Sixt loves its Diamonds, so the guy immediately goes “yes of course. One second, I’ll drive you myself because I don’t think any of the other staff members actually know how to get there.” Hah.
So we head out. As he drives, I get onto my Tmobile global roaming SIM and phone up the Air Canada Super Elite desk. I tell the agent, “call will drop any minute. switch me from the 6pm YYZ connection to the direct Montreal flight.” Sure enough, call drops a few minutes later. We pull up to T2, I profusely thank the guy who literally saved me many hours of flying time (who’d have thought I’d ever want that? heh), and run into the terminal. I make my way to the Super Elite checkin, and time check: it’s currently 13:20, so I’m far past flight close. But sure enough – not only was my ticket changed, but she checked me in (to make sure that IF I show up less than 60 mins prior, they will have me loaded onto the flight already so they don’t count me as a no show). And she put me on the upgrade list (!), which was thoughtful. Only one seat left in J, so I figured I wouldn’t get it, but this was one time where I didn’t even really care since I was so happy I got my direct flight. I quickly paid the change fee (a massively reasonable $100) and went in.
Got to the lounge, spent some time there (see other post), then went to the gate. Gate was fully loaded already, no people left, so I asked if my upgrade cleared. They took me aside (they really take care of SEs. Wow.) and asked me if I prefer to immediately board into premium economy, or wait for a business seat as they gave away the single one (I’m guessing another SE member must have been in the queue), and they have a delayed flight with two people who may or may not make it. Fine, I say, I’ll wait. So it’s 13:55 and gate closes at 14:15. The delayed flight was at 13:37 and it’s completely nerve wracking. 🙂
Finally the two people show up, one an older lady so exhausted that she can’t speak and is running barefoot. I almost felt bad and somehow actually felt glad I didn’t get her seat. She’d have been crestfallen. The agent gives me a choice: window premium economy seat (cabin full otherwise) or full row in economy. Clear choice – I take the full row and keep my eUpgrade credits for next time.
I board and show up to my seat and … find some people in it. Argh. The stewardess comes and asks what’s up. I tell her it was supposed to be my full row. She goes oh I thought boarding was complete. I’m like no. They were going to upgrade me but held a full row in case it wasn’t possible. She goes omg omg sorry about that! Let me free you one up. And she moves some people’s bags from another row and seats me there. Hilarious.
All said, none of this could have been achieved without status. No drive with Sixt (in a Mercedes), no proper ticket switch handling with AC, etc. All is well. Even though I flew economy. Didn’t care in the slightest and I still have 50 credits left for the next trip 🙂
Incidentally, the AC LHR lounge is pretty nice. They even have an actual bar counter now!

And, shockingly, ………… FOOD!!!!!!!!!!

But I can’t believe someone actually ferries over that liquid piss called Molson Canadian over to London to feed to the hapless guests. What is this, like Fosters to Australians? “Omg, you’re Australian miles from home – you must want a Fosters, here you go, mate!” — so in a similar vein, “Hey, you’re Canadian? Oh boy you must want a Molson Canadian, eh – let me import you one from across the sea!” I can’t fathom the logic behind this.

Anyway, so that’s it for the England trip. If I learned one lesson from this is that status is absolutely critical if you’re trying to do things that aren’t within the standard guidelines of what you’re supposed to be doing.

At least I didn’t hold up any plane this time, which is progress for me.