Day 15/15 2034 Viking Ve Grand European Christmas Markets River cruise. On the way home to Plant City, Florida from Amsterdam, via London Heathrow.
Man that alarm went off way too soon this morning! 2:30am is an godly time to get up especially when the day is going to be very long anyway! We have to shuttle to the airport, then catch two flights and a Lyft to get home to our house in Plant City! Today will be a very LONG…day!
Viking’s Guest Services buzzed us around 2:45am to let us know the private van and driver was already waiting for us and to let them know when our luggage was ready, since we did not leave it out overnight. We did not want our luggage to be piled up with everyone else’s luggage in the foyer of the Ve when we knew we were first off and didn’t need the aggravation of searching through everyone’s bags that early in the morning. First off the ship meant a bit of priority assistance with our bags.
We packed our toiletry kits into the last large, hard sided suitcase along with the rest of our dirty clothes. Richard tried to use the luggage scale and it said LOW BATTERY. Great! Now we couldn’t weigh that last suitcase. I left room in my rollerboard which we were bringing on the flights (since it had my camera equipment) in case the hard sided large Samsonite suitcase was overweight.
The crew helped load our suitcases into the minivan for us and we met our driver who told us it was a good thing we were leaving early for the airport as they were expecting protests on the road to the airport today around 8am. Lucky for us we would not have to deal with that!
After about a no traffic, 15 minute drive, we arrived at the airport and we were far too early to check in our bags. We got luggage carts and found a bench to sit on and wait.
I wandered down to the Global Blue duty free checkpoint to try and get my paperwork stamped. only to find the office was not open until 7am. There was no way I was getting a refund on my VAT unless I had that stamp on the paperwork. so I guess that was a waste of time for all the effort we made in Vienna to go back to the store with my passport. to be able to claim the VAT on the purchase! Yeesh!!
Finally at 4:30am the Sky priority check in desk opened and we could check our 3 bags to Tampa. The soft sided large suitcase was under 50 lbs. Good packing! The AWAY roller board was full of dirty clothes and the bottle of rum for my friend Bob’s mother. It was under 50 lbs too. Then Richard lifted the large Samsonite hard sided suitcase that I had Delta airlines buy me when I was in Moloy, Norway in September (when they lost my suitcase and I needed a suitcase to bring back the clothes and toiletries I was bought on that trip).
OVERWEIGHT! By 2.5 lbs! Yeesh! We had the bag of Linder chocolates in that suitcase and Richard’s new Reika walking shoes, as well as my Rockport ballet flats. We moved these 3 things to my roller board and Richard’s knapsack and we were perfectly within our weight limit. Having a functioning luggage scale with an extra battery (just in case) is really advantageous to avoid the embarrassing pack and repack at the Delta Sky priority check in counter! We weren’t off by much on the weight, but enough to make it an annoyance.
We decided to walk to our gate which was D52 and about a 20 minute walk from the check in counter. Our shuttle driver told us that SCHIPHOL was now the busiest airport in continental Europe. Fact checking that he was not correct as it is the biggest airport in the Netherlands, but only the 4th largest in Europe after: Istanbul. Turkey; Heathrow, London, U.K.; Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, France and Schiphol in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Well on this journey we have hit 3 out of the top 4 busiest airports in Europe in the busy Christmas and New Year’s holiday season!
The walk to the departure gate only took about 12 minutes the way we walk. The gate was the second last gate in the D terminal though and anyone with mobility issues would definitely have needed a shuttle ride to get them to the gate.
There was a few people in the boarding area, but since it was still before 5am, we had quite a long wait before our 7:20am departure to Heathrow. We know why Viking transfers people early to the airport, to avoid any possibility of missing a flight, but we could have had a couple of hours more sleep at this rate in the arrival and check in process!
We boarded with the SKY Priority boarding group 3 for our flight to Heathrow. Luckily we had emergency exit seats which Richard had paid extra for, but based on a 45 minute flight time, we could have sat in regular economy instead.
The flight attendants came through the cabin and gave us a nice big warm oatmeal breakfast cookie and a small bottle of water. Perfect for the short flight to Heathrow.
With only 1 carry on roller board and Richard’s large knapsack we finally disembarked the plane in London. The gangway was freezing, and the weather was grey and rainy. Welcome to Britain in the winter! I’m glad I had warm layers with me and that we weren’t planning on staying in the U.K. for long!
We saw the sign for Connections and started walking down the moving sidewalk to where the Connections were supposed to go. We both needed the WC and then after we exited the WC we kept on walking. We noticed a pictorial sign on the wall as we were walking which showed that after going through Customs people should claim they bags and proceed onwards with their journey. The onwards part of the journey depicted trains, cars and buses. Oh oh! We had missed the turn to where the Connections people were supposed to turn because of course our onwards journey involved a plane, not a bus, car or train! Pictures truly do simplify things don’t they?
We backtracked for 3 minutes and then found an escalator which took us to a waiting bus. Our gate for our upcoming flight would be located in Terminal 3 according to the signboard.
The bus was pretty packed but I was able to get a seat. We saw signs for DEVIATION as we were riding the bus and the next thing we knew were where driving right by the decommissioned British Airways Concord which was sitting outside a British Airways hangar. No pics as I was on the wrong side of the bus to capture it. We were on this bus for about 15 minutes slowly winding through taxi ways and aprons until we finally reached a terminal building.
We arrived at what we thought was our correct terminal only to be told that we now had to walk a bit, and wait at least 10 minutes for another shuttle bus to terminal 3. What a mess Heathrow! No wonder people do not like connecting in Heathrow! Luckily we had about 3 hours for our connection or I would have been getting worried with all of this shuttling between terminals and buses.
The shuttle bus finally showed up and I boarded and got a seat. Richard stood with the roller board and knapsack on his back.
After about another 10 minutes of driving the shuttle bus arrived at Terminal 3. We exited the bus and then had to go through passport control. Luckily as Canadians passport control is an automated process, followed by a stamp in the passport by a customs person.
We then had to go through security which at Heathrow is a pain since all iPads have to come out of the bag. I made it through security ok because I didn’t have the iPads. Richard also had my roller board so he got pulled over because my foundation was not in a small compliant security plastic bag. Anyway, the security guy was not happy that he had to stop us for one small container of makeup, but he ran his tests and then we were on our way.
We then had to check in with Delta/Virgin for our flight at the connections desk. Richard had been bidding on an upgrade for us to Economy Plus, and had even bumped up his bid prior to 48 hours before check in. No luck. The plane was completely full and we would have to sit in our originally assigned Economy seats for 9.5 hours!
Terminal 3 at Heathrow is a human zoo! There seems to be only one WC near where we were sitting in the terminal and every person in that terminal was making a bee line for the WC. The terminal had lots of expensive stores including Louis Vuitton, Coach and others as well as an amazing Duty Free shop that sold Fortnum and Mason jams, teas and Harrods bags and chocolates. I bought some peppermint tea from Fortnum and Mason just to try it out and see if it really was that much better than any other peppermint tea I’ve tried before.
I also brought us some ‘real’ food to eat since the oatmeal cookie had been the only thing we had eaten today. I got Richard a bowl of ‘proper oatmeal’ and I had a vegetarian egg, mushroom and pepper omelet on a nice warm bun. We also shared a fresh fruit cocktail with mangoes, kiwis and pomegranates.
Our Delta/Virgin check in lady had said we would not see our gate posted on the sign board until about 10 minutes before the flight was to board. We could see that some of the gates were a 20 minute walk from where we were sitting in Terminal 3 and of course you guessed it; our gate when it was posted at 11am was a 20 minute walk away from where we were sitting, with boarding to commence at 11:10am.
We quickly grabbed all of our belongings and started hoofing it to the gate. With Richard’s Sky Priority status we boarded as soon as we arrived at the gate. I finally have my Sky Priority status back for 2024! Yeah!
We easily found our seats on the Airbus A330-300 and when we did I was in utter astonishment that we would have to sit in such small, bad seat pitch seats for 9.5 hours to Tampa. OMG! What a mess! The overhead bins were also not very big so we couldn’t even put our coats up with our roller board and Richard’s knapsack. Instead we had to store the coats underneath the window, next to the window seat. I initially was to sit in the aisle seat, but the window seat actually gave me more room because of the little extra space between the seat and the window.
A crew member came and draped 2 Virgin Atlantic blankets on the two seats in front of us with a sign that said “Reserved for crew breaks”. At least the crew would not be in those seats, with the seat back hitting my knees, the entire 9.5 hour flight!
I was fuming over how bad the seat pitch was and how uncomfortable the seats were. The pocket on the seat in front of me hit my right knee exactly where I have a plate and screws in my leg after having broke my femur in 2020. With all of the stairs and walking we had been doing on this trip my knee was already swollen and I had been actively icing it at the end of every day to try and get the swelling down before getting on the long flight home, but having the seat hit my knee was really a horribly uncomfortable situation.
We took off on time and I had started to read my 48th book of the year on my Kindle. My goal was 50 books for the year, so I knew I would have to find a short book to read on New Year’s Eve day.
We were served a really tasty meal of mashed potatoes, vegetables and some kind of chicken casserole with a Kaiser, butter, crackers, cheese and a really nice chocolate. Orange mousse parfait.
I ordered red wine, which came in a can and so did Richard so I could give him my red wine after I had a sip of it. The food was pretty good actually. No complaints and the service was great too. Now if only the seat pitch and leg room matched the quality of the food on Virgin!
Our reasoning for taking this KLM/Virgin flight combination was to get home to Tampa airport when there was still some daylight instead of prolonging the long, inevitable journey home. The direct Heathrow to Tampa flight is great if we are sitting up front, but not if sitting in the back!.When flying back from Europe it’s a long day regardless, so we may as well make it start early, to get home before midnight!
After dinner our flight attendant came through the cabin with ‘frozen lollies’ as he called them. We call them popsicles. It was a nice way to stay hydrated on the plane and I’ve never, ever had a popsicle served to me on a flight before.
I finished my book and then I think I may have dozed off a bit; face forward, before deciding to watch a movie. We still had over 4 hours of uncomfortable flying left before we reached Tampa.
I had started the latest Indiana Jones movie on another flight somewhere, so I decided to fast forward to where I had left off and finish that movie. Next I watched a James Herriot ‘All Creatures Great and Small” before watching the movie “Allelujah’” about a British seniors hospital that had Judy Densch in it. The movie was quite good, but sad. I won’t spoil the plot.
Two sets of crew came and used the seats in front of us to sleep and fully reclined their seats. I was even more uncomfortable with their seats reclined and the kicker was once they got up to go back to work, they both left the seats down in the reclined position! Richard had to ask them to please move the seat up as I was dying with no leg room and was trying to straddle the seat in front of me, not very well, to try and eek out some more leg room for the time the crew had the seat reclined. You would think the crew would understand how little leg room we had and the considerate thing to do would be to move the seat up when they were finished with the seat? Never again I kept saying. Never again!
Next up was ‘High Tea’ which was served in beautiful burgundy boxes and had the story of how High Tea originated written inside the box. We had two little sandwiches in our box. One had ham and cheese and the other was cream cheese and cucumber. Each of us was also given a very hot scone and in the tea box we had Bonne Maman strawberry jam and Clotted Cream to eat on our scone! A proper High Tea in the sky! The food and service have been wonderful on the flight, but if Virgin could only provide a better seating situation we might consider flying them again!
We arrived a bit early into TPA and with Global Entry we were through customs and immigration in less than 2 minutes.
The luggage at TPA was another story though. We waited almost 30 minutes for luggage and I was getting worried it was not going to show up. We finally got our luggage and proceeded to walk to the elevators outside of customs with our loaded luggage carts. We then continued walking to the plane train at TPA from Terminal C, got to the main terminal building where we following the signs to the Blue Uber/Lyft Ride share area. Total time since arriving at TPA was about 40 minutes.
Our LYFT driver arrived within 5 minutes and Richard had to sit in the front seat with the driver because we had so much luggage to fit into his rather small Toyota Camry. Richard kept telling the driver the right way to go to our house instead of following his GPS which would have brought him in a longer convolutes way.
Our dear friend and neighbour Ray was waiting for us in our house and had put the furnace on because the temperature was dropping to 8C overnight. The Dallas Cowboys were also playing the Lions so Richard and Ray arranged to watch the game at 8pm, while I finished up the blog from Kinderdijk.
About 9pm was all Richard could manage to stay awake. I made it to 10:30pm, but I fell into a deep sleep shortly after hitting the hay.
We have made a resolution that we will never fly Economy again on a long haul flight from Europe. We will pay the freight whatever it is and enjoy the last part of our vacation, instead of resenting the last part of our trip home. Another option for us would have been to fly Delta equipment from Amsterdam to Atlanta and change planes in Atlanta. Having status does sometimes get us upgrades on Delta which we do not get on their Sky Alliance partners, who also have their own prestige flying clubs.
Our Christmas Markets River Cruise on Viking was good and bad. We really enjoyed the places we visited in Germany and we learned so much about the history of the places we visited. The Christmas markets were wonderful, and the food was excellent on the Viking River cruise. Of course the 3 ship swaps was very tiring; packing and unpacking and so were the long bus rides for excursions where we should have been able to walk to the town instead. If not for high water levels, I think the Christmas Markets cruise would have been near perfect. We of course still had some obnoxious people on the cruise who wanted to talk U.S. politics which is never an appropriate thing to do and we did have a ‘Karen’ on the cruise who was simply all about herself and tried to ruin our cruise, but we chose to ignore her. People sometimes really just need to get over themselves. They really aren’t that important!
I will also do a 2023 ‘Reflections’ blog since we travelled a lot this year with the Viking World Cruise and all of the other personal and business trips we did along the way in 2023. I think next year will still be a ‘Go, Go’ year, but with not as much long distance travel or going around the world of course!
Happy New Year everyone from Ruth and Richard, back home cozy in Plant City, Florida!