Europe Summer 2016 – JT’s Journey to Europe

Katie and JT journeyed to RoboCup 2016 along different paths. This post is written by JT about his trip from Austin, TX to Oslo, Norway.

Back in August 2015, I found a great flight deal: Oslo Norway TO San Antonio Texas for $648 round-trip – in business class! I explained in an article on Travel Miles 101 about why this made sense to fly this crazy itinerary, but for now I’ll pick up where I’m flying the “return” flight from San Antonio to Oslo.

The robots had a crowd gathering to watch them practice

Friday was quite a whirlwind day. Thankfully I was able to get off of work early to run errands and head back the RoboCup lab to take photos and work on updating my RoboCup results spreadsheet. I use this spreadsheet to quickly and easily enter scores and see results – even populating the next rounds, which is helpful for our team to see who we might match-up with later in the tournament. But also, it’s nice for me to reference when updating the leagues result page (one of my tasks the last few years at RoboCup).

Test match vs. The Broken Robots
Unfortunately, it was a bit of a late night in the lab. We got home even later, and I crashed from exhaustion around 2am while Katie packed. It was a short night for me – but an even shorter night for Katie – as we woke around 6am.

Haircut and a shave. Ready for a long trip!

Saturday morning: After dropping Katie at the airport for her 8am flight, I still had plenty to do. I headed back home and packed my clothing, headed to get my haircut at 9am, and then worked on “magic Target money” for the next few hours (long story, but I found a way to generate $1000+ of Target gift cards, specific to Austin and requiring lots of debit cards). I picked up a couple of Texas-specific presents for Randi and Paul before I headed home.

All that I packed for 3.5 weeks in Europe.

Piyush was supposed to pick up his cats from our place at 3pm and take me with him back toward campus, but his flight was cancelled. So, I had to catch a Fasten (Uber replacement) from my apartment to the UT campus for the Megabus ride down to San Antonio. The Fasten driver was old and slow, but the fare was a reasonable $12. Funily enough, that’s more than the $7 I paid for the bus from Austin to San Antonio.

Our MegaBus looked a little different today!

I slept most of the ride down. We were delayed arriving due to I-35’s infamous traffic, made worse by rain along the way. Once in San Antonio, I walked through some drizzle to a nearby Asian restaurant. I say Asian as they had sushi (Japan), curries (Thai), and more. I opted for a masaman curry. While a bit expensive ($16 after tax and tip), it was quite tasty and a nice place to hang out for a bit while the rain passed.

Quite delicious dinner

The restaurant was just a couple of blocks away from the Alamo, so I headed over to take some photos. I ended up taking many more photos for other people (with their cameras) than I did myself…

Selfie in front of the Alamo posted on Snapchat
(P.S. I swear I know how to save a snap now)

I pulled up directions to the hotel and found it was just 1.5 miles. So, I lugged my ~30 lbs of backpacks along the route – which included the Riverwalk, past churches, courthouses, HEB’s corporate headquarters, all along the way to the hotel. Quite an interesting walk!

My walk to the hotel took me right down the heart of the Riverwalk

I stopped by a new mini-HEB concept store along the way to grab deodorant (hopefully the only thing that I forgot). I ended up talking with the store manager for a bit about the store, their pricing (I was trying to convince him that they could probably charge more!), the challenges of having so much variety in such a small store, etc.

Interesting concept HEB store along the way to the hotel

As I got close to the hotel, I tried again to check in for my flight through the app. It failed yet again, so I called American Airlines. The AAgent repeatedly insisted that my flight was that day (Saturday) and not the next (Sunday), so I had missed my flight. I was on my phone, and couldn’t easily pull out my printed e-ticket – but I was convinced that she was wrong. She wouldn’t relent. I had no other option but to continue to the hotel at this point. There – sure enough – I confirmed my flight was the next day. Still couldn’t check in.

Candlewood Suites San Antonio Downtown

I had booked a Candlewood Suites through a IHG Point Break promotion – just 5,000 IHG points for the night. We have a ton of IHG points from a mail-in contest (about 50k each) and IHG credit cards (80k for Katie, 75k for JT). Plus, we can re-generate points at anytime for $0.006/point. So, this hotel would cost just $30 of points in replacement cost. Easily worth it!

The Candlewood Suites bed would be small for both of us, but it was fine for me.

After setting up all of my electronics to charge and catching up on emails, I headed to bed around 11pm and got a solid 8+ hours of sleep. I woke, packed, made coffee and the free popcorn provided in the room for breakfast, and hailed an Uber.

It was a bad sign when the Uber driver went the wrong way from me after accepting the ride, but I didn’t cancel. I probably should have. He would be slow, reckless, miss lots of turns, and then drive far too fast on the highway to make up for it. While Uber rejected my fare review request (as the trip was longer for the missed turns), I ended up getting $5 when I reported that the driver was unsafe (for swerving across lanes multiple times).

One of the illegal photos of “the secure area”

I was supposed to review my American Airlines flight from Chicago to London, so I started taking photos at the check-in desk in San Antonio. An AAgent rushed over to demand I delete my photos of “the secure area”. I explained that I had corporate permission and they dismissed that as a possibility. This AAgent, cleared the way to take me over to the desk manager to explain myself. She too wouldn’t budge, even after I showed her emails I had from AA’s corporate office. It was only after she finally looked at my flight record locator notes that she suddenly dropped her case and became super nice.

“Baby plane” from San Antonio to Chicago

Security was a breeze with no one in line and TSA Pre. Since there’s no OneWorld or Priority Pass lounges, I headed to the gate to wait. Once the plane was ready, the AAgents started letting seemingly anyone board – before even making an announcement. Part way through boarding, it seems that they realized they should follow protocol and asked for first class passengers to board. I had to fight my way through the gathered crowd to board.

Everyone decided to line up and board through the Priority line.

The flight itself was quite pleasant. Although the ceiling was barely tall enough for me to stand up straight, the first class seats had enough legroom and large enough seat size to be comfortable. The service on-board was quite top-notch. I appreciated the cheerful service from one flight attendant that I handed over one of my American Airlines service recognition vouchers, while he genuinely seemed pleased to receive. I was really glad that I had this way to show my appreciation!

Excellent lunch on-board my flight to Chicago

Lunch was a choice of a cold sandwich or a pecan-encrusted chicken salad. Spoiled by toasted subs at Subway, I can’t really stomach cold sandwiches anymore. I asked and found it was cold, so I opted for the salad. I was really, really pleased with the result. Although the chicken was a bit dry, the salad was excellent.

My first class seat on-board the tiny plane

We landed nearly on-time. Since I had such a long layover, I enjoyed my seat a while longer and caught up on my phone while everyone else filed off. Since I have so many photos of planes without me in them, I asked the FA to take a photo of me to remember one of the best domestic flights I’ve had!

I got to watch many planes come and go from this gate during my time in the Admirals Club

Once in the terminal, I headed to the nearest Admirals Club. While I had been in the massive main Admirals Club a few times now, I hadn’t been in this ‘satellite’ one before. It was small, but seemingly newly remodeled. A quite-sharp appearance compared to the other lounge. I hung out here next to a window, working and watching planes arrive and depart. I ended up chatting with a “white hat hacker” while there. He was one of the hackers that recently hacked the Pentagon – at the Pentagon’s request! I shared tips about travel while he shared computer security tips. Quite an interesting conversation. We gladly swapped contact information to be able to stay in touch.

Probably my favorite part of Chicago’s O’Hare airport

Perhaps I enjoyed the lounge too much, as I had to kinda scramble to my gate. With the plug pulled on the flight review, I had no reason to arrive early. But, I was surprised to find out that they were “final boarding” when I arrived ~30 minutes to departure.

My seat for the flight across the Atlantic

At the aircraft door, they were waiting for me. After looking at my ticket, the purser (head flight attendant) said “Ah, the blogger”. While a bit strange to be “known”, at least this freed me up to take photos of my seat and some of the cabin – before the purser approached me and told me that the captain requested no more photos. Sure he did…

AA remodeled this plane, but still didn’t put IFE screens into the seat!

The flight was quite pleasant. Once the in-flight entertainment tablets were handed out (American Airlines was too cheap to build the screens into the seats when they recently remodeled this aircraft type), I watched Deadpool and the third movie in the Divergent series. Katie and I never head to the movies, so flights are always a good chance to catch up.

A nice breakfast to start the day
When I was done with the movies, I brushed my teeth and laid back to try to sleep. I didn’t have much luck, so I got up and chatted with the flight attendants in the galley. For once, they were receptive and friendly. Not sure if this was because I was in business class – or they were wary of what I would write about them. Not wanting to be a bother, I offered to head back to my seat a couple of times, but they didn’t take me up on this until it was time to serve breakfast.

AA baggage fail at London

In London, we arrived into Terminal 3. While I was trying to get a good photo of the plane and tail number, I noticed luggage was pouring off the side of the plane onto the wet ground. I got a video of the mess and posted on Twitter. AA assured me that the issue would be dealt with.

Passengers are packed onto buses for the transfer between terminals. Here we were headed through a tunnel.

I made the less-than-comfortable transfer to Terminal 5. AA had emailed me before the trip to tell me that their lounge in T3 was under renovation, but I could use the British Airways arrivals lounge outside immigration at T5. This was a very peculiar solution, especially since there are BA lounges inside immigration at T5! But, I played along and asked a BA representative at immigration for directions to the arrivals lounge – showing her the email and my connecting boarding pass. She seemed a bit stunned and told me that I shouldn’t go through the trouble to exit and re-enter when I could go to one of the BA lounges.

One of the better lounges we have been to
Can’t wait until we have the freedom to travel wherever we want whenever we want to!

So, I cleared transfer security and headed to the BA South lounge, which Katie and I had enjoyed last Christmas Day. After breakfast, I found a comfortable couch in the tv room and grabbed about 1.5 hour nap. Then I downed some water and coffee and headed toward my gate. While LHR’s T5 is quite big and has multiple terminals to it, my gate was the closest gate to the lounge!

Great view of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 on departure

My flight from London to Oslo was rather uneventful – standard British Airways Club Europe, where it was basically economy with a blocked middle seat, good service and good food.

Lunch was a meat and cheese plate with bread and fresh fruit.
In Oslo, we arrived at a “remote stand” and had to take stairs and a bus to the terminal. At immigration, the line for “other” passports was so long that they started calling country by country over to the Europe windows. I don’t remember the exact order, but Canada was definitely called before the US.
Quite an unroyal welcome in a rainy Oslo
The immigration officer was a bit surprised to see that I had just been in Norway! Rather than explaining what a “mileage run” was and getting into “cents per mile”, I just explained that I “couldn’t stay away” from wonderful Norway! She asked for a few more details about my trip, but was generally happy with the reason.
The last time I landed in Norway (a week before) I was on Norwegian
I grabbed some gum at the duty free store (which you have to walk through before you get to your bags). The store was surprisingly busy with what seemed to be Norwegians. I didn’t think the prices were reasonable, but I hadn’t been to a grocery store yet…
Back in Norway!
My bag was sitting on the packed – but stopped – baggage carousel. I checked it for any damage (see AA failing above) and cleared uneventfully through customs. My bus wasn’t for about an hour, but I scouted out the situation – figuring out the stop location, exact time, and payment methods.
OSL surprised me at how many flights it had!
I wasn’t going to be in Norway for long, so I didn’t get any money. I wandered through the entire terminal before finally finding an empty seat. There I caught up on my emails before heading to the bus.
I took the TE15 Nettbuss from OSL to Skreia
The Nettbuss had a clean but not-luxurious interior.

The Nettbuss from the airport to Skreia (in Ostre Toten) was quite pleasant. I had worried about whether or not to get my ticket online beforehand, but there was plenty of room and the price was the same in advance online as it was on the bus day-of: NK250 (about US$30). 

Wonderful views on the ride to Skreia
The bus had plenty of empty seats, so I grabbed one in the back. Since I was further away from people, I used the on-board WiFi to call my parents. We all shared in the amazement that I was traveling down a highway in a more-remote part of Norway and calling them for free! Ah, technology!
Arrival at the correct bus stop in Skreia Norway
We stopped in Skreia, but I didn’t see Paul or his old Mustang convertible there. I quickly typed “Is there another stop in Skreia?” into Google Translate and the driver nodded and pointed forward. Less than a minute later, we arrived at the right spot. And that’s where my true Norwegian adventure began!

Leave a Reply