Sunday, February 15, 2015

Arsenal Match From An Executive Box

An unfulfilled goal (pardon the pun) of living in London was to go to a football game. But over the years I realised I will never have an interest in the Premier League.

Who would have thought that when I finally see a game, it would be an Arsenal match and in an executive box! I was my girlfriend's guest when she got free tickets from a client.

It was our first football match and we were heading into one of the most rowdy places in London. 

We expected wild crowds, chanting, and possibly hooliganism. But it was a well ordered affair turning up. Police and security keep football fans in check. 

At the stadium we entered through glass doors and up an escalator and stairs like a long swanky airport lounge. We passed several service staff, dressed in smart outfits greeting us along the way. 

The executive box was impressive. It has it's own kitchen, bathroom, TV and hosting area. We were given drinks on arrival and helped ourselves to a buffet of delicious food. And I'm talking about burgers and lobster tails on the menu!

I felt spoilt by this VIP treatment and I'm not even a football fan. I was just in awe to be in one of the most desirable places to watch the game. (While munching on lobster...)

As the sign below, the blinds in the room were drawn 20 mins before kick off. The real reason unclear but alcohol is not sold in the stadium while the match is on. We took cups of tea outside in seats with us to keep our hands warm. 

I counted at least 73 security guards around the perimeter of the stands. There was hardly an empty seat in the stadium which has capacity for 60,272 people. In the first half we had some sunlight. By the second half it was dark and very cold. Sitting closest to us were the Middlesbrough fans showing relentless support for their team. I don't think any of them was sitting during the game. 

The cheering and chanting thundered throughout the stadium and watching the spectators was a show in itself. 

Arsenal won 2-nil. The stadium cleared out as quickly as it filled after the game. Catering in the executive box continued on for an hour or so. We had a selfie-overload and more wine and cheese. By the end getting home via the tube was a breeze. 

Will I go to another match in a normal spectator seat? Not after this!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Staying At JFK Airport: Days Inn Hotel

At JFK passport control, the staff to have a deadly serious demeanour until you're approved to enter the country. Then they wish you "a good stay to America" and sometimes have a friendly conversation.

The officer who served me asked how long I was staying at the Days Inn Hotel. I had put the address down on my immigration card.

"One night", I said and he was visibly relieved, relaxing his straight face. He warned: "Don't leave that hotel at night. Its not a safe place."

I took the Skytrain to Federal circle where hotel shuttle buses pick guests up. It's freezing cold and I'm exhausted. It felt like I was having the longest commute "home" from my office in Canary Wharf.

Drearily I look around and watch people on the train. Many were TSA staff chatting amongst themselves. People are different here. Mannerisms, ethnicities, accents. I feel like I've stepped into an American TV show. 

I got off the shuttle bus and walked into the Days Inn hotel. There were guests talking loudly outside and they were smoking. It smelt like pot.

I was given a room right in front of the stairs to the reception and you can hear everything through the door. But I was too tired to complain. It was a cheap hotel in an industrial area and I was checking out in 6 hours. All I wanted to do was shower and sleep.

The room had an old smell covered up with air freshener. Like was it used to be a smoking room and they tried to cover it up. I wrinkled my nose and noticed the decor is outdated, especially in the bathroom.

The heater wouldn't turn on. No matter, I thought. I wore extra clothes to bed and after feeling the cold come through the window. My back was stone cold under the covers. I made a fort of pillows to shield me from the draft. When that didn't work, I put my parka over my duvet.

I woke up a few times in the night, worried that I might have overslept. The alarm clock went off at 5.50am and I got up for breakfast. It was simple and I tried to make it as healthy as possible. A waffle (cook it yourself), banana, orange juice and coffee. I gathered my things and checked out for the shuttle bus to the airport at 6.30pm.

Overall my stay was not pleasant but it was cheap. If I was in transit for less than 12 hours I would stay here again because it's clean (aside from the smelly room but maybe it was just bad luck), and a free shuttle and breakfast is included. The hotel reception guy was friendly and even helped me print out my boarding pass for free.

Before getting on the shuttle bus to JFK, I took an eerie photo of the school bus depot outside. It was before sunrise. It was the only picture I wanted to take while staying at Days Inn.



When Nature Calls On A Plane

The morning I flew to Buffalo from JFK, I was dropped off at terminal 2 for my Delta flight to Buffalo. After passing security I had take a JFK Jitney bus to terminal 4.

I boarded the plane and buckled in. The flight took ages to depart. We were stuck in a runway queue. After reading contently for forty minutes I suddenly REALLY needed to go the bathroom. I drank a bottle of water before passing security and it's hit me like a punch in the groin.

Not sure of the etiquette as the cabin crew were seated for take off. I felt a surge of panic as I realised I might have an accident. I didn't know when we were actually going to take off and I doubt I could last another 5 minutes. We were waiting for an hour now and the plane was idle. Surely they'd let me use the bathroom? 

After a few helpless glances across the cabin I decided to take action. I didn't want to scare anyone so I told the nearest passenger I had to use the bathroom. I unbuckled my seatbelt and ran embarrassed down the other end of the cabin. Luckily the bathroom wasn't locked as they usually do this while the plane is taking off.

Ten seconds in, there was an announcement saying that "all passengers must be seated in order for the plane to take off." Obviously they were aiming it at the person in the toilet. I slunk back to my seat. It was worth it.

I had a similar event coming back from JFK to Gatwick. We waited an hour after we were supposed to take off and the pilot made only one announcement to explain there was a delay. They said there was a baggage issue that had just been resolved and we were to depart "soon".

I was skeptical. I'd seen people walk to the nearby bathroom to realise it was locked. They weren't even supposed to leave their seats. Then the flight attendant made an announcement to say "the bathrooms cannot be used at this time."

That's when I felt an inexplicable urge to go. Sods law. The flight attendants were chatting in the galley so I walked up to one and said quietly in a grave voice: "I did hear the announcement but unfortunately if I don't use the bathroom now, I will have an accident."

Either she understood my desperation or didn't want to deal with the consequences. She escorted me to a bathroom and unlocked it. There was an objection from another flight attendant who noticed what was going on, but when the word "accident" was exchanged and she backed off.

Once inside I realised I wasn't as desperate as I thought I was. In fact I didn't need to go at all. I think the announcement triggered some kind of post traumatic stress from the earlier flight.

Anyway the moral of the story if you really need to go to the bathroom, you have to tell the flight attendants that you'll have an accident. After all, planes and accidents never go well together.


Flying To New York with Norwegian Air Shuttle

It's the third time I've been to New York and I flew with Norwegian Air Shuttle. They now fly transatlantic from Gatwick.

I've flown to Stockholm and Santorini with Norwegian before but this time it was more apparent that it's a budget airline.

The 330 GBP return ticket doesn't include check in baggage. I had to pay 25 GBP extra each way to bring a suitcase. Of course this is to be expected for a super cheap flight but after stacking on the cost of baggage and food, the total is comparable with other airlines on sale at this time of year.

My backpack and handbag were weighed together at the boarding gate. I think I was let through with 11kg because I offered to put on more clothes. (The cabin luggage limit is 10kg apparently including my handbag.)

I was allocated an emergency exit seat for the first ever on a long haul flight. There was more legroom than ever needed although I had to put up with the bathroom doors slamming (and might I mention, unpleasant smells.)

Unlike on Norwegian's European flights, there was no wifi transatlantic. I watched the movie Gatsby and listened to music. There is a good choice of entertainment available, even for a fussy viewer on a not-too-long haul flight.

The in-flight entertainment system has a slot to swipe credit cards to pay for a blanket, food or earphones. They don't accept cash payments. Everything is ordered on screen and movies are interrupted by a recorded announcement that the "snack bar is now open and ready to take your orders". On a plus side, there is no awkward trolley service so there's no long queues for toilets after meals are served.

It's possible to pre-order a meal for £25 including a snack and it's served before passengers who hadn't. I brought my own food. I peeked at my neighbour's meal and it looked a bit unappetising. 

I found the US cabin crew a bit standoff-ish. I received a polite greeting when boarding but then a stoney look that seemed to move me down the aisle faster. I don't think I saw any of them smile. If you don't pay for extras or snacks, you don't have any contact with the staff unless you push the call button on the entertainment system. 

I really needed sleep given as I came from work but not even an emergency exit row can help me sleep on a plane. I have never slept on a plane but just the same, I always fly economy :(

One thing I did note was that on the way back to Gatwick, there was an hour long wait to depart and the pilot made only one announcement about that. I would have appreciated regular updates (even if there was no news). I think overall I wouldn't fly Norwegian transatlantic again as the budget level of service really shows when flying long haul.







Saturday, February 7, 2015

NYC Hotel Review: Pod 51

If you're looking for Manhattan accommodation, you might come across this hotel in your search. It's trendy, modern, and importantly for me, affordable. 

I stayed three nights in Pod 51 recently, close to my friends at the fancy Waldorf Astoria. It's called "pod" for a reason. Their rooms are small but the hotel still has a boutique feel. By downsizing on living space, guests save on accommodation costs. It even has a rooftop terrace which was closed when I stayed there but apparently it's lovely in summer. 

Since it's only me in my queen bed room, the modest floor space of 125 square feet wasn't too much of an inconvenience. There's enough space to walk around the bed and get to my suitcase without obstructions. With two people sharing, it's tight squeeze but manageable if you're not spending alot of time in the room. 

 You can also stay in a double bed room that's 100 square feet or there's smaller rooms with a shared bathroom. In the latter, there is an indicator in the room to tell you when a bathroom is free so you're not poking your head out to check.

My room was a standard room with a queen bed and private bathroom. It was room 320 which is a quiet corner room facing away from the street. I managed to sleep soundly without earplugs which is a bonus because I'm a light sleeper.

The queen bed was comfy. There is a clock radio with an iPod dock (and for charging 3G and 4G iphones), and there is a free WIFI in the room. I love free wifi in the room and it's something the Waldorf doesn't even offer.

A small but serviceable 20-inch LCD TV with local TV channels, a suitcase rack and a narrow desk. There's a place to hang clothes on the right. Note the funky Pablo Pixo lamp-probably more expensive than the TV. Very tempting not to pack it in my suitcase :)

The glass-enclosed bathroom looked like it was hidden in a closet. There's no way two people can fit unless one is in the shower. I think the bathroom would be benefit from a extractor fan. 

There's a rainfall shower head. The water pressure is OK but the shower recess was small, even for me!  

The mini stainless steel basin. I imagine this is what it's like in fancy prison. 

My stay at Pod 51 was comfortable and the staff made me feel welcome. It was like my peaceful retreat from the city. 

A tip: the hotel serves drinks and light meals downstairs, but there are plenty of places you can eat locally. I recommend having a cheap breakfast at Ess-a-Bagel around the corner. It's busy in the mornings and you might get shouted at in an amusing necessary way. They have a huge range of scrummy bagels and other baked goodies.

If you don't want to compromise on comfort, but willing forego on space, Pod 51 is definitely for you!

NB-This is not a sponsored review. I stayed at this hotel at my own expense.