Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mini Eurotrip

I was browsing the internet at work one day (oh the shame! *Wink* in late June/early July and came across an email from Delta advertising some pretty good fares to Europe, and in particular Budapest. Now, Budapest is a city that I had wanted to visit for quite some time, partially because for Americans it's not necessarily a well-traveled destination and I got to put another country on my list. What I found was a very enjoyable, colorful city. I had also wanted to visit Prague when I was in Europe for two months in the summer of 2007, but never made it out there. SO, I played around with some dates and found a fare for about half of what one would expect to pay for a transatlantic fare in the summer. Considering I would be starting medical school at the end of August (have since started) I pounced, not knowing if I would even get the chance to go back any time in the next three or four years AND with a bargain that good. The bargain allowed me to splurge a little more on the hotel side too Smile The end result was flying into Budapest, and out of Prague.

Booking the ticket was a little bit of a challenge because every time I tried to book a particular itinerary it would come up unavailable. I called Delta and they were incredibly helpful and in a nutshell told me to book through Northwest, because the identical itinerary was available through them. In a nutshell I wanted a PTV for the overnight to distract me from the inevitable lack of sleep. For the return I knew a good book would suffice, because, well duh, I was supposed be awake Wink So, in the end I booked a flight through AMS on KLM, connecting to Malev. Interestingly enough, after booking with NW, I transferred the flight over to my DL SkyMiles account (I'm stackin in miles for somebody's who 23, haha) and when I checked my itineraries I noticed that a SECOND itinerary (routed through CDG) was posted. After spontaneously emptying the entire contents of my GI tract I promptly called the friendly folks at Delta, prepared to battle this one down. Nothing had shown up on my credit card statement (the NW one had, so I knew it should've). My thought was if worst came to worse my dad could always accompany me (I'm a Jr.), haha. As it turns out, I never had to get ugly because even though it was posted in my itineraries, it was "On Hold" so I was told, and no payment had been received. Apparently the incredibly helpful agent I spoke to at the onset of purchasing the ticket had put a placehold on it for me should I want that routing. There were plenty of routings through CDG when I was trying to book, but I wanted the KLM flight, as mentioned, specifically for the PTV. So, after about three minutes that was cleared up and the itinerary removed. It wasn't that big of a deal, I understand they're still getting all their ducks in a row from the merger.

NOW, having rambled on and on with that soliloquy, let's get to the flying part!

17 August 2009
I arrived at the airport just after 1400 for the 1640 departure from ATL. It was very hot that day. I had checked in online and was going to just walk on through and present my passport at the gate. I was not checking any bags. However, when I got there, there were a grand total of three people in line at the KLM counter, so I went ahead and had my passport scanned. I proceeded through the T-Gate security in a slugish four minutes and meandered my way down to the E-Concourse. I splurged and treated myself to a nice glass of Sauvignon Blanc and some sushi while the KLM A332 was prettied up at it's usual home of E-22. I exchanged some money into Hungarian Forints, which incidentally thicken up your wallet as it's approxmately 200 to 1! The name of the A330 was the Plaza de Something Madrid. An odd name for any aircraft, I thought, much less a Dutch one... but I digress.

Boarding started an entire hour prior to scheduled departure, which I thought was rather odd. I had a window seat toward the back (sorry don't remember which one) and settled in. We sat there in the aircraft for approximately 45 minutes before FINALLY pushing back and meandering toward the Southern runway and lifted off.

A note, KLM's economy seats I find recline more than their Delta, Austrian, and Lufty counterparts, but their lumbar is just in an awkward place for me. In order to be comfortable I had to stuff two pillows under my neck despite the presence of the adjustable headrest. Delta wins the seat competition for me.

The PTV system was fine, a sufficient number for the flight at hand. Over the course of the flight I wanted, though not necessarily entirely, Star Trek, 101 Dalmations, Memoires of a Geisha and Changling. The interface was very user friendly, though getting the blasted controller in and out of its place could be a bit of a challenge if you aren't thin as a cotton swab because your hip/thigh significantly impedes your access and work room since the bloody thing has to be tilted for removal. I would put it an infinitesimal notch below Delta since Delta's is a touch screen and I don't have to fumble with the controller and above Austrian's for being AVOD (only two carriers I've flown with PTVs).

The dinner service was just bad, but that was mostly personal preference. I fail to comprehend how black olive and green beans mix with penne rigate and some unidentifiable cheese. YUCK! Our attractive blond frequently came by with water, wine, and any other libation that struck our fancy. The breakfast service was excellent. We received, IIRC, a ham, egg, and cheese hot sandwich and a box that had IIRC some granola, cheese, and a few other goodies. Much better than Delta and Lufty (the only other two carriers I've flown on overnights).

The flight itself was uneventful, which is what you want. There were no screaming babies *bounces up and down* and the crew were friendly. The movies and drinks were plentiful, and I just rode out the flight with maybe forty-five minutes of sporadic sleep. Made for a fine flight, but an unpleasant morning, as we shall see.

We landed around 7am in Amsterdam on what could only have been the infamous Polderbaan as we taxied forever. I thought we had landed in Rotterdam and were taking the road the rest of the way... We deboarded in the E concourse. I went through immigration and made my way over to the C Concourse, which is a much less pleasant environment than the E Concourse I must say! It was a very easy connection though. I stopped by the bathroom to brush my teeth and freshen up as best I could before my two hour layover. Annoyingly, my gate, C10 was situated right at the end of a moving sidewalk that bleeped "MIND YOUR STEP" every time somebody got to the end. I mean really, airports all over the world have these things and people manage to not spontaneously impale themselves on the end without having to be told to watch your step... In a nutshell, it got old very quickly. Thankfully I had my iPod and cranked it up while I read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (I'm behind on the times) until boarding time came. By this point I was hitting a wall. It was approximately the time I would have normally been going to bed (I had just spent two weeks in Mountain and Pacific Time) and was starting to have to fight sleep, something I do not normally do. It made for a slow two hours.

The Malev 738 strolled up to the gate and about forty-five minutes later (and twenty minutes late) we boarded. I had seat 9A, a windowless seat, bah! Oh well, I just pulled out my book and cranked the iPod again. The FAs came by with a drink service and offered a ham or cheese sandwich, which was nothing special. I was taking all the Coca Cola though that they offered me in a vain attempt to stay awake Smile This flight was even more uneventful than the KLM flight. The Malev seats were comfortable, but rather flimsy, I doubt they would survive being used in a long haul operation.

Being a Schengen flight and me not having checked any bags I saw very little of BUD-2. I bolted for the taxi line in the hopes of getting my happy ass to my hotel so I could grab two or three hours of much needed nap time. Normally when traveling in Europe I take public transportation to/from airports BUT, in both Budapest and Prague the airports aren't well connected enough and my proficiency in Hungarian and Czech is nonexistant, so I decided paying more for the taxi was worth not getting lost and not being able to decipher where the hell I was and needed to go. The same went for later in the week when I wanted to go to Memento Park, there was no metro, so I took a taxi. Had I been in France or a German speaking country a) the transit links would've been much better, and b) I would be able to make myself understand and understand enough to get my happy ass in the right direction Smile That is by no means a slight on Hungarians or Czechs, merely me being self aware of my deficiencies!

I stayed at the Hilton West End, very nice hotel in a good location for anyone who may be planning a trip to Budapest. I THOROUGHLY enjoyed Budapest. And by some chance of fate, or I'm just that lucky, I was there on August 20, Hungarian independence day! I found Budapest a very friendly and open city, and it was very easy to meet people. One day I spent the day with a German and two Swedes. One of the Swedes had actually lived in my hometown while studying at UGA (bizarrely small world). The German, amusingly to me and the Swede, grossly extrapolated the correlation between Borat and American society. The four of us met on a river cruise of the Duna (Danube in English). A tried and true trick of mine when traveling in Europe is to search out people speaking English with accents -- 9/10 times they're single/double travelers just wandering around looking to meet people such as yourself. I also did a bus tour of the city to get familiar with it.
Some of the highlights included Memento Park and just meeting the random people. On Hungarian Independence Day (August 20) I spent the day with a Hungarian and some Belgians. I had a very good time. They enjoyed racing up and down random stairs that faced buildings. The fireworks display that night was amazing, with Buda Castle in the background it was just breathtaking. It lasted about half an hour. The bridges were lit up and there were air races during the day!

The next day it was time leave Budapest :( and head to Prague. The train ride was LONG. I didn't get much sleep the night before. My first seat mates were Spanish ladies, and they were very nice. After they left the train in Bratislava a mother and son got on. They have to be quite possibly the most obnoxious pair of people I have ever had the pleasure of sharing a space with...The kid felt it was ok to put his feet everywhere, the mother apparently felt no need to correct him. I would have been quickly reprimanded for that (even now come to think of it). After they got off (thankfully) in Brno, a younger couple got on. I thought this would be interesting, but no. The guy smelled like the salami sandwich that he was eating (which reeked by itself with no assistance). Compared to Hungarians the Czechs didn't smile nearly as much. I wonder if that's a Slavic thing? Russians never smile either. The train arrived in Prague late, and I took the metro two stops down to my hotel (carefully chosen for its proximity to the metro line). I checked in and explored a little bit of Old Town before bedding down for the night.

Overall my impression of Prague was that it is overrated. It had a DisneyWorld feel to it. It was much harder to meet people and it was much more crowded than Budapest (as in suffocating). The buildings were gorgeous from an aesthetic standpoint, but honestly, it's just too much. Paris even yields its prettiness. Turns out Prague was a trophy city/money dump for the Hapsburgs and as such EVERYWHERE you go is insanely beautiful that it's a little off putting. Plus, add again that Prague is a huge tourist city (and not much else in August).

24 August 2009
It came time to leave, and honestly I was ready to go. I didn't enjoy Prague as much as I had anticipated, though I think some of that was anticipation of moving in the coming five days. Anyways, to ensure a quick ride to the airport I took a cab to the airport. The cab driver must have thought it amusing because I was swaying and jerked all over the place during the ride. I had to look down at my feet as he sped at sixty kmh through tiny side streets barely big enough for the car, all the while revving the engine!

We arrived at PRG, which is a very nice airport, very clean, modern. It reminded me of Munich's aiport. Delta uses Terminal 1. I had a little scuffle with the check-in agent, though. He was of the opinion that my small carry on was fine, but that my backpack was too large to fit into the overhead bin. Never mind that people were carrying bags on the plane that were still larger than my two put together...admittedly it was a bulky book bag but that was mainly because there were three Harry Potter books in them and they had all slid on top of each other -- in other words easily adjustable. I argued with him and then the supervisor for a minute or two and said, "I'll happily put it under my seat, there's no need for this bag to be checked." She finally relented either realizing that the check-in agent was being overzealous or she realized I was going to be stubborn. Either way the two bags fit very nicely on top of each other in the overhead bin, hardly taking up any space...

I watched the flight from either ATL or JFK (dunno which) arrive. Its first officer was a woman, I think the first I had seen for an international flight, though that's not a HUGE number to pull from. I waited about an hour before seeing a really long line at my gate, B8, and panicked thinking it was mine. Turns out it was the one for B9, but a few others had panicked like me and a short line was forming, so I joined it and chatted with the people around me.

Soon we were through security (I hate individual gate security in the EU, drives me nuts) and then milled around the gate area for about twenty minutes before boarding started. I made my way to 36J and got settled. Before completely getting settled I went to the lavatory and I noticed there and on the way back that this aircraft had not been cleaned very well, perhaps something to do with unions at PRG? I've flown Delta quite a bit over the Atlantic and this aircraft was frankly not up to par. It was mostly the bathrooms, and it was mostly trash, not filth, but nonetheless...

The movies on this flight were the Soloist (couldn't get into it) and Monsters vs. Aliens (I watched just to kill time). The meal was an interesting chicken dish, better than the KLM pissy-pasta, though nothing special. The FAs came by frequently enough to be satisfactory, but this was another mundane flight across the ocean that did what it needed to do.

I must mention however that there were about fifteen YOUNG kids in my section, and two or three of them were allowed to holler and scream at will for the entire flight. One of them had this obnoxious "ehhhhhhhhhhhhh" every time he didn't get something he wanted...which was apparently often. We flew over Canada and down through Michigan. On approach into Atlanta we basically flew down I-85, over my house incidentally, the Mall of Georgia, and a few other local landmarks. For the last hour of the flight the girl sitting directly behind me talked as though she were giving dictation. I discreetly looked back and listened, though I couldn't understand a word of her Czech, and I swear hear seatmate just sat there with this glazed over petrified look on her face, every ten minutes or so mutter a "oh" while this girl seriously JUST KEPT TALKING, it was kinda funny, but seriously, how do some people talk that much....

We landed on the North runways with little incident. I proceeded through Passport control, didn't have to wait for baggage check!! and then went through customs and security, and hopped on the train back down to the South Concourse where I was picked up.

I must say I enjoyed the trip, in retrospect incredibly glad I did it, though I don't know if I would make Prague a destination again! Any comments are welcome, though again, I chose to include more of the rest of the trip than most people do. Thanks!

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