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Best of Travel 2015

westjet
Headed to Toronto on WestJet.

Despite 2015 being my first year as a parent, this has been a good year for travel. We got the Little Person on her first international trip, in addition to numerous runs around the country; she may have even outflown me with a total of 18 legs to her credit.

In spite of my expectations, I have some really interesting thoughts about my travel highlights. So here’s my Best of Travel, 2015 travel edition.

Best Airline

Considering that I flew two trans-Atlantic flights on a Lufthansa 747-8i, you’d expect Lufthansa to win this handily. All the Lufthansa employees I encountered were as polished as they were personable. They were excellent with our Little Person (let’s not forget the onboard bassinets and stuffed animals), and the economy class seats were the best I’ve flown in.

By WPPilot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Orange County John Wayne is a better airport than you probably realize. By WPPilot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
But not so fast, says WestJet. This Canadian carrier was the surprise of my travels in 2015 – a likeable, eager-to-please, reasonably priced revelation that makes me wish it had a few US hubs. It’s Boeing 737 fleet is honestly nothing special, especially next to the marvel that is the 747-8i or even a newer iteration of 737. But WestJet one me over by having modestly priced upgrades to its premium cabin, which also gets you free food and snacks.

I am bummed that I can’t fly WestJet more. But you can bet that I will go out of my way to get on a WestJet intercontinental flight; they just added some 767s to the fleet. I’m eager to see what WestJet can do on a widebody aircraft on a long flight.

I expected Lufthansa to be great. And they were. I wasn’t sure about WestJet – but they delivered a wonderful air travel surprise.

Best Airport

This is hands-down Orange County John Wayne Airport. It has barely any lines or queues to speak of. It has an open, airy design that makes the best use of natural light. It’s easy to get around.

Lufthansa 747-8i
Lufthansa was great – but WestJet wins the upset for my favorite airline of 2015.

And in VinoVolo, it has terrific food. Skip all the the restaurants and hit VinoVolo. If you have time to sit and dine, they have an excellent charcuterie platter; though they pride themselves on wine, they also serve a small stash of bottled craft beer.

If you’re in a hurry, go for the to-go picnic boxes. I got a Mendocino Picnic box before my last flight out of John Wayne, which they modified with some pieces of prosciutto for me. I made everyone on the plane jealous with a fine selection of cheese (including an amazing brie), fruit, nuts, crackers and dark chocolate.

My only quibbles were the terrible WiFi and scarcity of power outlets.

In contrast, Chicago O’Hare International Airport is nothing short of the worst of the worst, from taxi times to TSA. Avoid connecting at O’Hare if you can. It truly stinks. I’ve had a lot of things happen at O’Hare, and none of it is good.

Best Brewery

Best of Travel 2015
Good times at Iron Fist Brewing.

When my family travels, we are on the lookout for great breweries. And by far my favorite is Iron Fist Brewing Company. It had everything I like – a warehouse/industrial vibe, a decent food truck and a stellar and varied selection of beers.

If you’re visiting, a flight is the way to go. But do yourself and a few good friends a favor and grab a few bottles of the outrageous Pillow Mint stout.

I also have a lot of great things to say about Noble Ale Works. It’s the best thing happening near the House of the Mouse in Orange County.

Best of travel 2015
An absolutely perfect autumn day in Schwabisch Hall.

Best Destination

If you crack open a travel guide for Germany, you won’t find any mention of Schwäbisch Hall. I wouldn’t have known about it if I didn’t have family in the area. So all those "follow the guidebook" people are missing out on a picturesque, storybook example of a German village (pronounced "willage" by my relatives, father included).

You can spend some time shopping in the town center. Or you can head out to the Einkorn ro hike – if you’re there in fall, pick some apples! If you’re a diehard fan of American football, you can also check out the – and I’m not making this up – Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns, which is one of the stronger gridiron teams in Germany. Be on the lookout for the very amusing sausage-dispensing vending machine.

Oh, and if you’re near the village of Rosengarten and you notice some cool art hanging up in a public area, the odds are good that you’re seeing my Uncle Johann’s work.

Best Laugh

Best of travel 2015
This mannequin is definitely yelling “ja!”

So my family rolled into Stuttgart Airport on the German equivalent of a harvest holiday. Everything in the airport before security was closed with three exceptions: A convenience store, an electronics store and a sex shop. I don’t know many people who hit the airport for a ballgag or a flogger – but if you’re one of them, Stuttgart has you covered.

I figure the outfit pictured would make security searches a breeze, but I would want to accessorize with a nice gas mask -- which might cause difficulties at the security checkpoint. So I refrained. (Equality points to Germany for having a male mannequin in the window.)

Best Hotel

We absolutely fell for the Hôtel BELVUE. But after the events in Belgium following the Paris terrorist attack, I wonder how this wonderful place is getting along. It’s right on the edge of the neighborhood that was a focus for the subsequent investigations.

If you can get past that, you’ll enjoy great architecture, a reasonable price and far more space than the European norm. A few other things add to the Belvue’s cool factor: It’s designed to be energy efficient, and is also used to train people for hospitality careers. I could go on about this, but the Hotel Belvue website says it best.

Best Travel Gear.

I have this Grey Ghost backpack that the company calls the “Lightweight Assault Pack.” So yeah, it’s largely aimed at the military crowd. But me? The only thing I assault is the mundane, the ho-hum, the boring. The Lightweight Assault Pack helps me in that endeavour ably.

I picked up a selection of MOLLE pouches to add to the outside of the pack for different purposes. That makes it really quick and easy to configure it for a pretty serious hike (complete with knife and fire-making materials) or as a perfect carry-on items (definitely minus the knife and fire stuff). It fits beautifully under an airline seat, it wears comfortably and it has plenty of space even before adding external pouches. Great stuff!

Best News Overall

My daughter made her first trip abroad at the age of nine months. She was just about perfect – excellent on the airplanes, willing to eat anything, constantly ready to go for a ride in her Ironman stroller. Here’s a little story about what we did and how it all worked out.

 

CategoriesTravel

My WestJet Flight Review

I flew aboard a WestJet flight to Toronto seated behind a Pomeranian whose balls are different sizes.

westjet flight review
“You brought a Pomeranian on a WestJet flight?” “I didn’t get it a Plus seat. I’m not buying it a fucking beer. It’s not eating your fucking chicken wrap, Dude.”

OK, before we go further – yes, this is an airline review. But it’s not one of those airline reviews were someone tells you the plane’s registration number, lists which taxiways the pilot used and snivels that the canapes served in business class didn’t meet his standards. That’s a smooth jazz airline review. No, this airline review is heavy metal. You won’t get the jargon and the standard avgeek formula. But I will give you a perfect idea of what to expect from flying on WestJet, a Canada-based airline that gets passengers from Hawaii to Glasgow, mainly through hubs in Toronto and Vancouver.

Alright, we have to address the Pomeranian in the cabin. First off, I did not verify the owner’s claims. See, this Pomeranian was a show dog with world-champion parents. But it didn’t reach Ma and Pop’s lofty heights because of the mismatched marbles. So the owner told me. I actually didn’t know the Pomeranian was present until the flight attendants started cooing over the creature. I grew up with a Pomeranian – the same color as this one – so I had to jump into the conversation. As you can tell, the owners were the oversharing sort.

OK, let’s take a step back to before Flight 1187 took off

Plus seats WestJet
Here’s what you’re looking at for legroom in a Plus seat on WestJet.

This was a work trip, so someone at my organization booked the flights. But I decided to create an account with Westjet, and I noticed that an upgrade into the Plus seats would cost only $35. That got me extra legroom, some free food and a few other perks.

I started off at a self check-in kiosk at Phoenix Sky Harbor (Somewhat) International Airport. It wasn’t working, so a friendly nearby WestJet employee directed me to the desk. There, an employee checked me in and said “there won’t be a ‘1’ in front of the temperature.” No doubt, my friend!

I was in the security line with what I assume to be the WestJet crew. The captain and copilot both vaguely resembled Tony Hale (They’re both going to read this and be like “I knew we should’ve kicked that jerk off the plane.” But guys, c’mon – when does Buster Bluth not steal every single scene in Arrested Development?). They were also bantering with nearby passengers and just seemed unusually outgoing.

Westjet
Bearing a resemblance to Tony Hale honestly isn’t a bad thing, am I right?

Onboard the WestJet Flight

I had an entire row to myself. We pushed back 10 minutes ahead of time and I enjoyed a funny safety briefing that included the phrase “if you get bored of me, there are six exits throughout the aircraft.” All the jocularity reminded me of flying Qantas.

OBLIGATORY AVGEEK STUFF: This flight was on a 737-700. For the non-avgeeks, this means it’s on the smallish side, but not quite the Short Bus model. It’s a flying Honda Civic – nothing special. We took off from some runway at Sky Harbor … the one next to the Air National Guard and its fleet of KC-135s. I know perfectly well which runway it is, and how to find it. But honestly, who cares? And I’m definitely not giving you the registration number of the aircraft, because that’s even less interesting than the runway number.

By the time we arrived in New Mexico, I had a cold turkey and provolone sandwich and the flight attendant was trying to talk me into a cookie. The crew passed through regularly and always seemed chipper – far more so than their counterparts on the big US-based airlines, on the average (I’ve had some wonderful crews on every airline, but most of been perfunctory to slightly grumpy and haggard). I remember one of the flight attendants being extra-patient as she grabbed a passenger’s cane from the overhead bin to help her to the lavatory.

What About the Pomeranian

You’ve probably forgotten about the Pomeranian by now. Well, so had I. It was stuffed in its carrier, which was then stuff under a seat – a perfect place for a Pomeranian (Editor’s Note: Kidding! Remember, I had a Pomeranian! And why am I saying “editor’s note”? The writer is the editor is the publisher is the IT guy.). Regardless, nary a yap did it utter. Apparently, the dog likes people, but isn’t keen on being touched by anyone but its owners. It’s a showdog … it’s [expletive delete] hair falls out.

pomeranian
This was my Pomeranian, Cujo. She’d steal the show on a WestJet flight – none of these “I’m a showdog and I don’t like being handled” diva histrionics!

Toronto Pearson International Airport is a real-deal international airport. You’ll see Cathay Pacific, China Southern Airlines, Lufthansa, Air Transat, Icelandair and many other airlines headed to places all around the globe.

Soon, I was on my way to downtown Toronto to find the Holiday Inn Toronto Downtown Center. From there, I set off on-foot to get some first impressions of Toronto.

The Return Trip: WestJet Flight 1186

westjet
Headed to Toronto on WestJet.

I was at the airport waaaaaaaaay early for this flight. I made the mistake of going through security way too soon and being cooped up behind the “Going to America” section. So I didn’t get to roam the airport the way I like to do. This whole thing of pre-checking American travelers through US Customs before the flight is kind of nice – but the unwary can get stuck in a small slice of airport. So keep that in mind. The immigration, customs, WestJet and security officials were all exceptionally articulate and friendly. Smiles and some humor were not in short supply.

Anyway, I wound up hungry and penned into the Going to the US Only section. I had a decent burger at some place whose names I forgot (it was overcooked a tiny bit for my taste) and a decent-but-forgettable IPA to go along with it.

Flight 1186 was about 10 minutes late to show up, and it took the crew a bit longer to turn the plane around. Still, we arrive only about 20 minutes late.

Another WestJet Upgrade

I ponied up 50 extra bones or clams or whatever you call them for Plus seating again; I didn’t get a whole row to myself, but we had a wonderfully empty middle seat. The flight crew was again friendly, with the two flight attendants both named Ashley making jokes about their shared name.

OBLIGATORY AVGEEK SECTION: Once again, don’t even think for a second that you’re getting a tail number or runway info. We’re keeping it top level – once again, a 737-700.

This time around, I got a chicken wrap (watch out for pieces of chicken slipping from the bottom of the wrap, those wily buggers) that was also decent. I really liked the cheese platter of brie, sliced salami and some sort of whole-wheat crackers. I had filled my infamous 32-ounce Nalgene bottle before boarding, so I was set for drinks. I noticed this place had the fuselage blister that usually means “Internet.” But I didn’t see it mentioned anywhere in the seat pocket information – so maybe it was just for the in-seat entertainment. I watched a few movies and an episode of The Simpsons during the four-hour flight.

We landed. I got off the plane as quickly as people do in the third row. I thanked the crew for another nice flight.

So will I fly WestJet again?

Oh, you betcha. I’m going somewhere served by WestJet, I’m picking them. They’re pretty punctual, the crews are friendly, the entertainment is decent, the food is slightly very good for a glorified domestic flight.

kc-135
Alright, I’ve made fun of you avgeek characters a lot in this post. Let me make it up to you with a cool shot of a KC-135 at Sky Harbor.

Here’s the thing: It seems like there’s some sort of partnership with American Airlines. I have to figure out the details of that to see if I can make future WestJet flights work well for me from an air miles standpoint. I horde miles like Smaug hordes gold. I never miss a chance to collect more.

From a pure customer experience standpoint, WestJet is a winner across the board – an easy-to-use website, great employees on the ground and in the air, shiny-clean aircraft and competitive prices.

Disclaimer: IHG provided my accommodations in Toronto.