The Annual Florida Jolly – 2016
Booking less than two weeks before departure, I again headed back to Florida in January, with a little bit of flying required in order to revalidate my multi-engine piston and multi-engine instrument ratings. Even with just a few hours in the air, the attraction to the States has always been the significantly cheaper cost of flying when compared to home.
Despite wanting to be close to Orlando, I opted to fly to Tampa, as, just like last year, it was much cheaper. It’s also a much more pleasant airport in my opinion and not a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of Orlando. In fact, the journey from Tampa to Orlando probably isn’t too much further than Sanford to Orlando – with Sanford being the regional airport used by the majority of the UK charter airlines.
Surprisingly, a last minute flight was cheap, but the routing was the worst! The trip would require me to catch six flights there and back, but, at just £365.00, it was definitely manageable!
- Birmingham to Paris with Air France
- Paris to New York with Air France
- New York to Tampa with Delta Airlines
- Tampa to Atlanta with Delta Airlines
- Atlanta to Amsterdam with KLM
- Amsterdam to Birmingham with KLM
On my last day of work for a week, just as I took care of the last couple of bits and pieces before signing off, I received an email from Air France. In just a few words, they explained that my flight from Paris to New York had been cancelled and that I should contact them by 8.30pm (Paris time), where their staff were waiting to help me. I was in a bit of a panic since I had planned to set off for the airport just 10 hours later. There was still washing and packing to do and I now had no idea how (and if) I would get to Florida.
I had ignorantly paid no attention to the news in the days leading up to my trip. Much of the east coast of America had been battered by a winter storm, causing a number of airports to cancel a huge number of flights.
I rushed home and used Skype to call Air France. After 45 minutes of waiting, the call unexpectedly disconnected. Still in panic mode, I frantically dialled again, and, after much more waiting, my call was answered. With the Air France employee having no luck finding me an alternative trip out to Florida, I resorted to searching for a one-way flight to Tampa, and quickly stumbled across a journey starting at Heathrow. It wasn’t ideal since I had planned to leave my car in Birmingham, but it meant that I would get to Florida. As we confirmed the new flights, the line again went dead, and it wasn’t clear whether I was booked on another flight or not.
The Air France call centre closing time was looming so I jumped on the phone and held again for a very long time! As I was holding, it was a relief to see my mobile ringing, and my iPhone told me the call was coming from France.
The flights were changed:
- Heathrow to Paris with Air France
- Paris to Minneapolis with Delta Airlines
- Minneapolis to Tampa with Delta Airlines
So close to departure, I wasn’t spoilt for seat choices on the 9 hour flight from Paris to Minneapolis and ended up getting a middle seat. Worse still, the flight was with Delta Airlines – an airline that I promised myself I would never fly with again after their smashed my suitcase to pieces a few years ago!
A little earlier than planned, I was on the road to terminal four at Heathrow, ready to catch my 6.40am flight to Paris. It was an uneventful but full flight, with a quick service thrown in on the 40-minute trip. Just a couple of minutes after a pain au chocolat and a coffee was put in front of me, we were already preparing for landing.
The two hours at Charles de Gaulle passed very quickly. There’s plenty here to keep passengers amused – from the endless numbers of Playstations and play areas to the ample seats and beds where waiting passengers can catch forty winks.
The Delta Airlines flight was completely full and hundreds of passengers were already queuing to get on board. Not too keen to take my middle seat, I was only too happy to hover at the back of the queue and to get on the aircraft at the last possibly opportunity.
I must admit, Delta surprised me. My previous experiences of the airline were surly crew delivering the most basic service. It was actually the complete opposite. All of the staff – bar one – were smiley throughout and only too happy to grab an extra drink or two for the poor chap sandwiched in the middle of the aircraft. The food too was good and there was plenty of it for the nine hour flight; lunch, a snack (breadsticks and houmous) and sandwich before landing.
Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport, in my opinion, takes the top spot for ‘worst US airport at which to clear immigration’. I stood in line for around an hour before arriving first of all at a self service machine and then being ushered into another line to have my passport stamped by immigration staff.
With immigration and customs cleared, my already tagged bag was thrown back onto the belt and sent on the last leg of it’s journey to Tampa. I spent the next couple of hours looking out of the window and eating pizza.
The 2 hour 30 minute flight to Tampa was uneventful, apart from me feeling sick and filling the contents of the sick bag with the pizza that I had eaten only a couple of hours before. The not very sympathetic staff on the flight refused to move their trolley, allowing me to get to the toilet, even after I waved my heavy looking paper bag in their faces. I had been sick and I was going to be sick again. “You’ll have to go to the front, honey” they told me.
One thing that did surprise me about Delta was the ability to stream TV shows and films to your own mobile device at no cost. Flying into Tampa on an old and beat up McDonnell Douglas MD-90 and flying out on another beat up (but not as old) Boeing 757, neither were equipped with individual screens, so being able to watch a variety of shows on your own iPad, phone etc was a real bonus.
18 hours after leaving Heathrow, the third and final flight came to an end.
I waited for my courtesy shuttle to transport me to the Sixt car rental, where I would pick up my ‘luxury/premium’ vehicle, which, according to Argus Car Hire, was a ‘Mercedes CLA or equivalent’.
I arrived at the counter to be told that I was being given an Audi A3. Whilst I loved the idea of a quality German car, I had something a little more ‘premium’ in mind e.g. the Mercedes CLA or a BMW. After paying for a premium category of car, I was disappointed with the far from premium Audi offering.
After much arguing with the man at the car rental counter, who told me again and again that “it isn’t our fault”, I had to give in. I was exhausted from travelling and I still had an hour long drive ahead of me. But I feel that actually Sixt should be held accountable here. They might not have been the ones to tell me what car to expect but they do allow Argus Car Hire (or Car Trawler) to sell their vehicles. If they put a stop to this, I and other customers would not feel cheated!
At an additional cost of $7 per day, I took a BMW 3 Series with just 4,000 miles on the clock. Over the following days, I added a further 800 miles to odometer. I have raised my concerns to Argus Car Hire and insisted that they reimburse me for the additional fees that I incurred.
The next (and final) stop was Davenport, about an hour to east of Tampa (just down the I-4), where I arrived at my accommodation for the week. This was a villa with four bedrooms and a swimming pool, just off of the US27 (south of the I-4). Villas in Florida are, in my opinion, the best way to holiday. They cost not very much more than a middle of the road hotel but they generally offer a much better standard of living and the added bonus of a kitchen means that money can be saved by cooking at home from time to time. There’s also a management company on hand around the clock, even if the property owner lives overseas, and they will deal with any problems that arise during the stay.
The villa offered two twin bedrooms, two double bedrooms (one with en-suite), an additional family bathroom, a large living area and kitchen, and a garage converted into a games room. Also available was high speed internet, a television (with cable) and a DVD player. DVDs could be picked up from the Red Box machines at a cost of $1.50 a night. Look out for them in the entrance lobbies at just about every Walmart and outside most Walgreens stores.
With a Sunday at leisure, I took a drive to see how the most frequently visited places during my 15 month stay in 2009-2010 had changed including at the now defunct flying school and the two houses in which I lived.
On the Monday, I flew out of Orlando Apopka (Xo4) in a Beechcraft Duchess 76 in order to revalidate my EASA multi-engine piston and instrument ratings. I flew out of the same airport in the very same aircraft in January 2014. During the 2 hour 12 minute flight, I did a number of touch-and-goes at Winter Haven (KGIF) including some on just one engine with some manoeuvres and holds on the way to Kissimmee (KISM), where I flew the ILS for runway 15. This ticked the box for a precision approach. On the return to Apopka, I flew the non-precision GPS approach back onto runway 33.
There’s not much more to say about the flying for now. It’s likely I will be writing a bit more about this in the coming days. Watch this space.
Despite the exchange rate being pretty bad at the time of travelling, things in America were still fairly cheap, including eating out, with a meal at one of my favourite restaurants – Steak ‘n’ Shake – still possible for a little over £3.00. This table service restaurant chain cooks everything to order in a traditional diner setting. They do some pretty amazing shakes too, which are offered at half price during the 14:00hrs to 17:00hrs (and 02:00hrs to 05:00hrs) happy hours. Did I mention that these places are open 24 hours?
On one occasion, I ate at Denny’s and was served by one of the most peculiar servers imaginable. I don’t know if she was on something she creeped me out each time she approached the table. She thought nothing of interrupting a conversation that I was having to ask “are you on vacation?” A simple “yes” didn’t send her on her way. She continued to talk and to warn me to “watch your money” as she had apparently had $300 stolen from her the previous day. I’ve never been the sort of person to flash my cash – what little of it that I have – so I thanked you and assumed the conversation was over. The server walked away, mumbling about the stolen money. Of course, I didn’t buy the story. This was just an attempt to defraud a tourist, who happens to know Orlando like the back of his hand, out of extra tip money! It didn’t work.
With a slightly better exchange rate, shopping in Orlando can be fun and cheap. Forget the likes of the Florida Mall and the Mall at Millennia, and instead head for the Premium Outlets on International Drive. Even with a rate of less than 1.4 to the pound, purchases here are still much cheaper than home and there’s discount stores offered by every big name imaginable. A stop at the Yankee Candle shop and Bath & Body Works were a must to stock up bits and pieces for my mum back at home, who acquired a liking for both on previous trips to Florida.
I also bought myself a GoPro Hero 4 Session camera for the bike, which, despite the far from brilliant exchange rate, still offered a saving compared to home.
Also in Orlando are two Tommy Hilfiger shops, which are both worth a mention – one on the 192 in Kissimmee and another in a slightly empty looking retail complex at the end of International Drive, opposite Wonderworks (the upside down building). The prices here can change every day, as can the stock, and it’s possible to come away with something for practically nothing. I paid around £11.00 for a long sleeve shirt. In previous years, I have come away with hooded tops and shirts for around £7.00. It’s a must for anybody wanting to grab a bargain whilst in Florida.
On Friday, I met an old Florida friend and spent the day at Disneyworld. We spent quite a few hours at the Magic Kingdom on what was by far the best day for weather of the entire trip. It was a reasonably warm day with the most perfect blue sky and not a cloud in it. Disney parks, which are generally rammed with visitors year round, wasn’t too busy this time and the queues for the rides were much shorter than expected; The appalling Great Movie Ride at around 5 minutes, Muppet*Vision 3D about the same (and also terrible), Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster was around 15 minutes in the single rider queue, Star Tours at around 20 minutes and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror also about 20 minutes. I had high hopes for the Great Movie Ride, believing it to be a tour of actual film sets. In fact, it was recreated sets (so not the real things) with some pretty dire animatronics trying to bring them to life.
I left Disneyworld and headed home. Unfortunately, there was no time left to do anything else. It was late by the time I reached the villa and with packing to do and an early departure on the Saturday, I had to get cracking.
At around 8.30am on the Saturday morning, I hit the road, driving the 60 or so miles to Tampa. By lunchtime, I was on the first of three flights, and, soon enough, crossing the Atlantic with KLM – flying through the night to Amsterdam Schiphol in the Netherlands. KLM were of the same high standard that I remembered from flying to/from Korea with them a few years ago. Whilst I am not a fan of 10-abreast seating on a 777, it was comfortable, the service and entertainment were good, and the food were also very tasty too. After 2 hours 30 minutes hanging around in an airport Starbucks, I was soon on the final leg of this long journey – on the one hour flight to Birmingham.
If there’s one thing that I learnt from this trip, it’s that a flight to Florida should never consist of more than two flights! For direct flights to Orlando, you are limited to only British Airways and Virgin Atlantic (or the charter airlines, if you can bear to travel that way), or, in the case of Tampa, there’s only British Airways. Direct travel always comes at a greater cost but it’s sometimes worth paying a little more for the sake of comfort and saving time.
For details of the Florida villa used on this trip, click here