Friday, September 13, 2013


CONSIDER YOURSELVES WARNED: These posts will be wordy and very picture heavy.

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Normally I do a day-by-day breakdown of our big vacations, but I'm lumping days 1 and 2 together since Day 1 was pretty much a non-starter for us. I need to sit down this weekend and put together a letter to Virgin Atlantic voicing my extreme displeasure with their customer service and communication during the duration of our trip. (I contacted them by email on 8/31 after their phone line was closed and I got a response yesterday letting me know that my message had been received and they'd get back to me soon.)

Day One

Because we needed to be at home on Friday night - my birthday - to check in online and reserve our seats, we celebrated my birthday on Thursday night instead. It was lovely. So anyhow, on Friday I spoke with a customer service representative who told me that we should have been able to choose our seats within 90 days of the flight. I told him that I went to website multiple times to do so and that was never an option. So he told me I'd need to log on at 7:45 p.m. that night to choose my seats. I logged in at 8 p.m. and again that was not an option. I entered all the traveler information, only to be told that I'd need to check in at the airport in order to confirm seat selection. Given this, we left for the airport super early on Saturday. Because the Bay Bridge was closed we decided to take BART. The BART ride itself was fine. We got to the airport and our early departure worked out in our favor because we were given the emergency exit rows in Premium Economy.

Now, before I continue, I should say this is the first time we've upgraded our flights like this. We've flown first class on Alaska Airlines before to Hawaii, but that was done using our miles to upgrade. This was a flat out purchase and it was not cheap. We bought the tickets right after our house sold so we were feeling quite giddy with our return, so we decided to splurge to see if it was worth it. We've had mixed results with Coach on international flights: British Airways was HORRIBLE, NWA (when it still existed) was fine, and KLM was very good. In May when I flew to Ireland for work on United, I had an excellent seat in Coach, but on the way back my Economy Plus seat wasn't much of an upgrade. Truthfully, I would never pay for the upgrade on United given my experience. The service was fine, but for the cost the "extra" legroom was the only perk I could see over Coach - we were served the same meals and had to pay for our drinks.

So we were excited to see what Virgin Atlantic had to offer. After telling us about our seats, the ticketing agent told us that our plane was delayed an hour but that we would be fine for our connection at Heathrow to Edinburgh as we still had two hours to get through customs and security. Fine, whatever. An hour is no big deal. So we ate dinner and then made our way to the gate to wait. And to wait, and to wait. The updates we received from the gate agent were worthless. He may as well not have spoken. At one point they announced that the problem was a part was broken on the plane but that engineers were onboard to fix it and they were confident. An hour later he announced that the fix didn't work, and so they were going to try a different, more in-depth fix but they were confident that it would work. A bit later he came back and announced that things were going well and we'd likely start boarding at 11 p.m. You see where this is going, right? Eleven came and went and nothing. No announcement, just a couple hundred angry people sitting around trying to figure out WTF was going on. At this point, Alan said that we weren't going to leave tonight. I agreed, but you still have to stick around to find out what's going on, you know?

So at 11:50, he comes over the loudspeaker and tells us that the On Duty Manager (or something like that) would be coming to make an unfortunate announcement. So then a few more minutes pass (maybe 15) and no extra special manager. Our guy gets back on the loudspeaker and tells us that the flight is canceled. You think? So people rush the desk because yeah. After awhile, the head flight attendant gets on the loud speaker and announces that because of the Labor Day holiday there aren't enough hotel rooms for all passengers and that they will only be accommodating travelers with kids. So you know, Virgin Atlantic discriminates against the child free and the elderly. They seriously made old people en route to London sleep in the terminal. They announced that locals should go home and that we'd be reimbursed for "reasonable" transportation fees. Remember how I mentioned that the Bay Bridge was closed? Yeah, our cab home at 1 a.m. cost $220. I have a sneaking suspicion that they're going to say that isn't a reasonable fee, but since they weren't going to pay for us to sleep in a hotel there was no way I was hanging out in the terminal. I've done that once before and it was TERRIBLE.

At this point the crowd went bananas. There were some VERY angry old men. Then a lady thought it was her place to become the polite police and started telling some rightfully enraged people that they needed to calm down. That went over well. Then she started lecturing them about how she had to be at work on Monday morning but you didn't see her throwing a fit. Last I heard she was arguing with a few young men who had very little respect for women, much less the situation they were in (they cut me off in line a few times).

So the head flight attendant announced that the plane part would need to be flown in from London and that we'd be rebooked for a flight tomorrow. He wouldn't say when. Remember those angry old men? Yeah, that really set them off. I'm talking red faces and spittle flying. I don't know why he couldn't at least give us an estimate since he was asking many of us to leave the airport. He'd have to know when the part was supposed to leave London and given the flight duration, the approximate arrival time of the part at SFO. Alas, he wasn't really thinking big picture at this point so we left. When we got home we called the 1.800 number and were told that there wasn't a new time yet and to keep checking. At 3 a.m. I looked online and it said our flight was at 6:50 p.m. on Sunday. There was some weirdness with our connecting flight to Edinburgh but I figured I'd take care of it at the airport since once again, the reservation system wouldn't let me check seats.

Day Two

We decided to make the most of our first day of vacation even though it wasn't what we wanted to be doing. Alan got the haircut he meant to get before we left and I got a mani/pedi. Then we went to brunch before coming home and getting ready to go back to the airport via BART, again.

Scotland Trip, Take Two

We stood in line at the Virgin Atlantic ticketing desk for about 20 minutes only to get to the front of the line and be told that we had to go to a different Virgin Atlantic desk in the bowels of the terminal.

We got there and learned that we'd have our same seats so that was cool. Unfortunately they booked us on a 7:50 p.m. flight out of Heathrow to Edinburgh, which would put us at our flat in Old Town after 10 p.m. We'd basically miss two days of our vacation, including the Literary Pub Crawl we bought tickets for on Monday. I turned into one of those angry old men and just started saying, "No. No. No." anytime he tried to give me an excuse. I told him, "you will get us on the 4:50 p.m. flight to Edinburgh." I had to walk away because he was so lame. He was acting like it was a huge problem to make this change. His supervisor came over and tried to explain why they put us on the later flight. Again: no, no, no. Totally unacceptable. So then he makes a huge showing of getting us seats on the 4:50 p.m. flight and we go to dinner with our multiple vouchers. (If you're ever in SFO, need to eat, and haven't gone through security yet, the Ebisu restaurant is pretty decent. And they sell sake!)

Back at the gate we sat down to wait. We learned our flight would be delayed about an hour. After that hour, we were told we were good to fly. HOORAY!

And we're off!

Coming in to English airspace

Going through customs in Heathrow was fine, and we made it to our gate with plenty of time before boarding so my instincts to push for the 4:50 p.m. flight was completely justified. And remember how that guy at SFO was making a big old deal about trying to get us seats on that flight? Yeah, including us there were like 30 passengers! Ridiculous.

So, we landed in Edinburgh and made our way to get our luggage. We were done and grabbing a cab within a matter of minutes. We had heard the drive from the airport to Old Town would take an hour, but it was really more like 30 minutes. And you never get on the highway. Almost immediately you're greeted by green fields and then you're in town. Alan was so happy. He just kept commenting how green everything was. Compared to our trip to Ireland in 2009, it definitely was.

Approaching Old Town was great. It's a slow transition, but within a matter of minutes you're surrounded by buildings that were built hundreds of years ago. And then out of nowhere, there's the castle! I was so excited to see the street our flat was on. It's one of the most photographed streets in Edinburgh, but it's so different seeing something in pictures and then being there in person.

We met up with the representative from the rental company, got directions about how to use the shower (it was weird!), and then we changed and were off to the pub tour. We made it! The pub crawl started at The Beehive which was located right around the corner from our flat in an area of town called The Grassmarket, where a lot of the popular pubs are located. We had our first "real ale" which is a lot different from what you get here in the U.S. First of all, it's not cold. And it's hand pumped. I had the Caledonian Flying Scotsman Premium Bitter, and it was among my favorite real ales of the entire trip. 

The actors on the pub crawl were really quite good in their roles - they had a nice sense of camaraderie (even though they were playing at being in an argument for the duration of the tour), and they never broke character. 

During the tour we learned about Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Burns. We toured four different pubs (The Beehive Inn, The Jolly Judge, The Ensign Stewart, and The Kenilworth), drank many beers, and visited many courtyards. I'm not sure the last pub was worth the walk given that it had no real tie to the authors (except being named after one of their works), but it was probably the most beautiful pub we saw. There was one courtyard outside of our second pub that was simply gorgeous and I took like 50 pictures there. I promise not to bombard you with all of them, but you'll see what I mean.


We were starving by the time the tour was done, and with a limited number of eateries still opened, we popped in to the Indian restaurant across the street from The Kenilworth. Normally, I would NOT go for Indian food while on vacation, but it was late, I was hungry, and India was a colony Britain so I figured why not. It was an interesting experience, to say the least. We checked out the menu, figured out what we wanted and went to order. We asked for water and were told that we had to buy our water. Okay, fine. Then we told the waiter what we wanted to eat. Before we could finish he started asking us what we like. Um, we like what we're ordering? Apparently not. So after our Q&A session - during which time I'm looking at Alan like, "what did you sign me up for?" - he goes away and we get our food in a couple of minutes. And you know, I gotta hand it to him. It was GOOD. I don't know that it was any better than the best Indian food we've had here in Oakland or Berkeley, but we ate it all and was happy to do so before walking back up the hill to Old Town.

I gotta say, we definitely had a very rough start to our trip, and I was quite dejected to be missing an entire day. But that first night in Edinburgh was great and it really set the right tone for the rest of the trip, which you'll hear about later.