7 May 2017

Venice Marco Polo Airport Lounge (BA & Priority Pass) - Update

Visiting the Marco Polo Lounge at Venice Airport (VCE) at the end of April (see my previous report), I was delighted to find that the new areas of the lounge were partly open after refurbishment.


Inside the Marco Polo Lounge
The most striking addition is a covered ‘winter garden’ terrace with low basket seating and greenery, with glass walls. This occupies part of the old under-used viewing terrace. There is still an outdoor terrace alongside, overlooking the runway and lagoon; this now has protective glass walls and is smaller, with no seating. The winter garden is a very pleasant place to sit and relax or work, though I should think it will need powerful air conditioning to keep it a comfortable temperature in summer.

Winter garden


The lounge's new look is smarter and more expensive than previously. Whereas before there was no attempt at anything other than functionality, there are now lots of design-y touches. This is particularly obvious in the toilets, which are now very posh with expanses of of marble and mirrors. However this was let down by a lack of hooks in the four women’s cubicles, and the fact that one had a broken lock while another was out of toilet paper. There seemed to be some gender confusion among passengers over the signs, too.

Previously there were convenient shower facilities in the lounge. These are currently listed as 'temporarily unavailable' so hopefully showers will be reinstated when the refurbishment is complete.

The lounge is now divided artfully into zones, including the winter garden, and some working areas. When I visited most of the seating was quite close packed in the 'old' lounge area, with views over the runway. This main seating area was definitely a bit too cramped for comfort, but there is apparently another seating area which I was told would open soon after my visit. There is a 'cocoon' area to hide out in - possibly. Its purpose was unclear though it looked stylish.

'Cocoon'
Food was presented on long narrow shelves and hasn’t changed since the refurbishment: small pizza squares, half rolls with cheese, tomato and aubergine, halal snacks, croissants, miniature desserts, fresh fruit. There were self-service drinks and also waiters to serve. Available drinks include water, fruit juice, hot drinks, soft drinks, beer, wine, Prosecco.
Lounge refreshments



As well as a bank of charging points by the reception desk, there were more scattered around the seating areas, though not accessible from every seat.



I found the lounge a pleasant place to site before a flight, with enough food to tide you over a mealtime if you're not too hungry. The changes are an impressive improvement, on the whole, with a few teething difficulties (the toilets) to overcome and another area to open up. The public areas airside are actually not too bad, but in summer when the airport gets very busy the lounge is a good refuge from the crowds. British Airways passengers should note that BA flights tend to start boarding a bit early, sometimes by bus, and there is still a passport security check to pass through on the way to the gate.
Main seating area


Lounge access


British Airways Club Europe passengers and Silver and Gold status BAEC members are entitled to use the Marco Polo Club Lounge. The lounge is also open to Priority Pass holders, and to anyone prepared to pay the current admission fee, a not-really-worth-it €28.


Finding your way around the airport

The lounge is airside, on the upper floor. After clearing security, take the escalators near the windows (the right-hand escalators) and follow the signs. Note that BA's lounge-entitled customers are also able to use the priority lane at security – to the left of the main security queue, close to the BA check in desks.



> Marco Polo Club Lounge (official airport website)




Outdoor terrace



2 May 2017

BLOC Hotel at Gatwick Airport - Review


Before an early flight from Gatwick Airport last year I stayed in the Yotel at Gatwick South Terminal, where I spent the night in a very clever little cabin which nevertheless left me slightly claustrophobic. This time I tried the BLOC Hotel which has a range of room and cabin types, some with windows and slightly larger, and some designed for families. I booked a standard double room without a window for £72, which was about £10 more expensive than a Yotel cabin for the same night.

The BLOC Hotel is located within Gatwick's South Terminal, the terminal which is used by British Airways and the site of the Gatwick railway station. Access from the railway station is easy - head into the concourse, straight ahead following signs to BLOC Hotel and Departures, then take a lift up to the 3rd floor reception. Reception is literally right next to the entrance to security for departures. Staff were friendly and efficient, and equipped with a card key I headed back to the lift and up to the 8th floor. I was very fortunate and had been upgraded to a room with a window.
Smaller than a normal hotel room but a good size for a cabin, the room had a big window in the wall above the long double bed. With a wide view of green woods and hills, and closer at hand the airport buildings (I couldn't see the runway), I could watch the transit rail shuttle heading off to the North Terminal, and I enjoyed a very fine sunset.

The room's minimal fittings included a cube stool under a bedside table which doubled as a small desk, hooks and a couple of clothes hangers. There was a big mirror, a TV screen over the foot of the bed and a touchscreen to control lights, air conditioning and shutters. There were several electricity sockets, though no USB charging points. Two free bottles of water were provided, and a booklet of discounts for food and drink outlets on either side of security, including 10% off in the M&S food shop.

The bathroom was decent - or so I thought, till I discovered that the toilet seat had not been thoroughly cleaned (hopefully a one-off error, as everywhere else the cleaning seemed good). Soap and shower gel were provided, and a hair drier. To make full use of the limited space, there was a huge overhead shower turning the bathroom into a wetroom, with the option of a smaller handheld shower head. Of course, this design had the consequence of leaving everything in the bathroom wet, with pools of water over the floor, which is inconvenient if you or a companion want to re-enter the bathroom. There were tinted glass panels between the bedroom and bathroom and although they'd added a kind of modesty band, it wouldn't guarantee complete privacy.

The bed was very comfortable and my room remarkably quiet, apart from a faint constant hum from extractors or machinery outside. I used earplugs, though I don't think most people would bother, and I slept very well.


I thought the BLOC Hotel was an excellent solution to an early departure or late arrival. Its position within the terminal removes any extra hassle when you're tired. If I were travelling hand-luggage-only or had checked in the night before, I could have stepped directly from the hotel entrance into the departures security lane. My upgraded room was more comfortable than the Yotel cabin I'd previously stayed in - but more expensive too. I'd have appreciated the default provision of USB chargers, a shower cap (given the ceiling-mounted shower) and an alarm feature via the touchscreen. But overall the facilities were practical and suited to purpose. Providing free water was a nice touch and the staff were friendly.

Although staying in a hotel before or after a flight does add to the cost of a journey, it saves stress and sleeplessness, can help you get the most from your time away, and may be an economic option depending on flight times and prices, and the cost of hotels in your destination. On this occasion I was up shortly after 5am, showered, checked in, headed through security, had breakfast in the lounge, took off at 7.30am and was in Venice with plenty of energy to enjoy most of a lovely sunny Sunday. I'd book either the Yotel or the BLOC Hotel again, choosing between them based on availability and budget. The range of room types at the BLOC Hotel can suit either no-nonsense budget travellers, or those looking for something closer to a traditional hotel room - many will think it's worth paying a bit more to have a window and a little more space. I quite enjoyed my short stay.

> Gatwick BLOC Hotel
> BA flights to Italy 2017

20 April 2017

British Airways flights to Italy 2017

The season for summer flights has started, and some very appealing Italian destinations are now only a short journey away. I usually travel by British Airways and it's frustratingly hard to find a comprehensive list of their flights to Italian destinations along with dates and frequency. If you know where you want to travel, you can carry out a search to find the best flights for your dates. To find the cheapest destinations, BA's Low Price Finder is a useful tool, though you can't limit your search to Italian airports only. For an overview, I've compiled this listing of British Airways flights to Italy in 2017.

Venice - photo taken during the approach to landing
Please note that I may have made errors,  BA may change their schedule, and prices will inevitably rise. However, I hope this is largely accurate and will help travellers come up with ideas for travelling to Italy - and getting off the beaten track.

All these flights are from London, as unfortunately BA operates very few direct Italy flights from non-London airports. (Bristol and Birmingham to Florence are exceptions). BA's flights to 'leisure' destinations usually operate from Gatwick, with business-oriented routes (e.g. Milan, Rome) tending to depart from Heathrow. Flight times to Italy range from under two hours to just over 3 hours.

The cheapest prices are hand-baggage only. The cost of flights can vary dramatically; some airports which are popular either for holidays or business conferences will have some extremely high prices, while other airports with frequent flights and steadier demand (including Venice) tend to have affordable flights throughout the year. If you are flexible with your dates and times, and book ahead, it is possible to find cheap flights, with returns for £100 or less. Don't forget that BA no longer provide any sustenance to standard-class passengers (Euro Traveller), so you'll need to budget for food and drink onboard, or bring your own.

British Airways destinations in Italy 2017


From London Gatwick (LGW) unless otherwise specified


Year-round
Bologna

Bologna (from Heathrow) - daily - all year round - from £42.

Florence - daily - all year round - from £47. (Flights from Gatwick and London City airport,  operated by Vueling and BA CityFlyer)

Genoa - varies, up to daily - all year round - from £39.

Milan Linate (from Heathrow and occasionally London City and Stansted) - daily - all year round - from £38.

Milan Malpensa (from Heathrow) - daily - all year round - from £38.

Naples - almost daily - all year round - from £41.

Pisa - daily - all year round - from £52.

Rome Fiumicino (from Heathrow) - daily - all year round - from £40.

Turin - daily - all year round - from £38.

Venice (from Gatwick, Heathrow and occasionally London City Airport) - daily - all year round - from £38.

Verona - almost daily - all year round - from £30.




Seasonal

Bari - 4 times a week - 27 March-22 October - from £52.

Palermo
Brindisi - twice a week - 27 May-23 Sep - from £41.

Cagliari, Sardinia - between 4 and 6 times a week - 27 April-23 October - from £52.

Catania, Sicily - daily  26 March-23 October - from £58 each way. (This flight earns double BAEC tier points)

Olbia, Sardinia - from 4 times a week - 9 April-27 September - from £50.

Palermo, Sicily (from Heathrow) - 3 times a week - 26 March-22 October - from £46.


Other routes

BA lounge at Gatwick
This year BA also operate seasonal flights:
From Birmingham to Florence on Saturdays
From Bristol to Florence on Saturdays.

I'm not aware of any other regional destinations in the UK with direct BA flights to Italy. Other airlines, of course - most notably Easyjet and Ryanair - operate many useful routes from various UK and Irish destinations to Italian airports, including some off-the-beaten track airports not reached by BA.


> Italian airports - a brief guide with suggestions for tourist destinations covered by each airport
> British Airways

3 April 2017

Bologna airport - BA lounge and general information

A quick note after my recent trip to Bologna with British Airways (£65 return, hand baggage only - a great deal).

Bologna Marconi Airport (BLQ) was very efficient and quick on landing - we had a bus connection to the terminal which was only about 30 yards away, but apart from mirnor irritation, the arrival process was smooth, with quick and efficient passport control with EU gates which worked (a world away from the previous week's experience at Napoli Capodichino).

Once you arrive land-side, there is a long mall to the right, running from arrivals towards the departure check-in desks. This is lined with car-hire kiosks, shops and eateries - not a large number, but the eating options do look good with an osteria and a pizzeria to choose from.




British Airways don't have a dedicated lounge at Bologna airport, but their departing Club Europe and BAEC Silver and Gold card-holders have access to the airport's Marconi Business Lounge (MBL).

The entrance to the lounge is land-side, to the right of the queue for security. The general queue was pretty long when I witnessed it, though I didn't see how fast it moved. Once you're in the lounge, there is a special fast-track security route for passengers - head through the lounge and around a couple of corners. This isn't open at off-peak times, but apparently an alternative fast-track lane is set up alongside the main queue when the lounge route is closed.  I was advised to allow 40 minutes between leaving the lounge and the take-off time, which seemed about right, if you want to make priority boarding and the first bus to the plane. As fast-track security only had one belt, there could be delays if all the lounge-eligible passengers from your flight get up at the same time.

The lounge was busy when I arrived - three to a sofa, though it calmed down later. There were soft drinks and beer in a fridge, and wine (choice of red or white)  available on request at the bar. The food offering consisted of snacks like nuts and crisps, plus small squares of pizza (which vanished quickly) and focaccia. There were sofas, charging points, tables with seating, and decent toilets available.

On the airport website you can pay for lounge access, at €28, though I don't think most travellers would think it worth the price. Priority Pass holders also have access.

Bologna is a good destination for a weekend trip or a foodie break. The convenience of the airport and its proximity to town adds to the practicality of the destination. I'll write more about Bologna and this week's trip soon, adding to the existing Italy Heaven info on Bologna.



Airport travel

The airport is only 20 minutes from central Bologna on the public Aerobus, which runs very frequently. The bus stop is signposted to the right from arrivals. Buy tickets before boarding in the airport for €6 each, or have them included on a tourist Bologna Welcome Card which you can pick up at the tourist information desk in the airport (head right through the airport landside mall, and the desk is on your left, opposite Carrefour). Watch out for gypsies who throng around the bus stop at Bologna's Stazione Centrale, surrounding tourists and hassling them for money. The stop before the station, Via dei Mille, is the best stop for the historic centre. It's then about a 12-15 minute walk to Piazza Maggiore, the heart of Bologna. For your return journey you can board at the same stop.

More about Bologna

21 February 2017

Venice Marco Polo Airport Lounge (BA passengers & Priority Pass)

Venice Marco Polo Airport (VCE) has a couple of business lounges. British Airways Club Europe passengers and Silver and Gold status BAEC members are entitled to use the Marco Polo Club Lounge. The lounge is also open to Priority Pass holders, and anyone can choose to pay for admission.
Inside the Marco Polo lounge, early 2017

At the time of writing the lounge is operating at about half its previous capacity while refurbishments are taking place. Staff told me that this is expected to finish by April or May 2017 (be prepared for an over-run - this is Italy). Currently the lounge is very busy; lots of chairs crammed into a small space, almost all of them occupied when I last visited. Prior to this temporary reduction in size, there was a much bigger U-shaped space including an area with workstations, and access onto a terrace with views over the runway and lagoon. There was a shower and an additional pair of toilets.

The lounge has free wifi and a fairly decent cold buffet, with rolls (meat and vegetarian), little pizza squares, fruit and tiny desserts. Not the equivalent of a proper meal, but enough to substitute a meal if you pile your plate high, which many guests do. If you want a cheap hot meal, the self-service restaurant on the upper floor of the terminal is a decent choice. Customers using the lounge can help themselves to non-alcoholic drinks including a range of fruit juices (including that delicious pear juice available in Italy). Alcohol including Prosecco is freely available on request, along with hot drinks. Staff wait behind the buffet tables to serve drinks.
Mini desserts

I've been using the lounge for years, and I'm quite fond of it. I hope the new developments return its former spaciousness - plans (below) include quiet areas, a 'winter garden' and a re-opening of the outdoor viewing terrace. While not the most lavish lounge anywhere, it's better than others I've visited in Italy. There are usually helpful staff on duty and the food for the last couple of years has been quite a good selection.
Future plans

Finding your way around the airport

The lounge is airside, on an upper floor. After clearing security, take the escalators near the windows (the right-hand escalators) and follow the signs. Note that BA's lounge-entitled customers are also able to use the priority lane at security. BA's usual check-in desks are just to the left of the security queue; the priority lane is alongside.

There is still a lot of building work taking place at the airport; the overall result should hopefully be a significant improvement. A new moving walkway connecting the terminal with the jetties for ferries and water taxis is now open, which saves a 10-minute walk.

View from the lounge: British Airways arrival
> Venice Marco Polo airport (more from Italy Heaven)
> Marco Polo Club Lounge (airport website)
> My Venice guidebook

3 January 2017

Italy ideas for 2017

If it seems that 2016 been a year of ordeals and calamities, and you're wanting to get away from it all in 2017, this is a good time to start thinking about holidays. I'm always a bit surprised at this time of year to discover how many travellers are already planning trips as far ahead as November. But, of course, the further ahead you book, the longer you have to look forward to your holiday - and the best choice of accommodation will be open to you.

Here are some suggestions for destinations in Italy for an escapist idyll in the next twelve months. If you choose, you can switch off your internet connection and forget the rest of the world while enjoying sunshine, views, peace and - naturally - hearty Italian food. These are places I've visited in the last couple of years and loved, plus one or two highlights from past research trips.

The best time to visit Italy for a sunshine holiday without crowds is outside the peak Italian season, which runs from late July to the end of August. If you can get away in June, early July or September you'll find cheaper prices and quieter destinations.


Escape to an island

I always recommend escaping to islands. I love Italian islands; they're safe, charming, authentic and picturesque. Three lesser-known destinations are:

Panarea in the Aeolian islands, which is chic and idyllic.
Panarea



Ustica, a ferry-ride from Palermo, which has a more down-to-earth charm and a lovely coastal footpath.
Ustica



Capraia, off the coast of Tuscany, where you can explore empty countryside and the ruins of a prison colony.
Capraia



Hole up by the sea

Italy has loads of lovely coastal destinations, some famous and others kept secret by their fans. For 2017, why not consider a resort which offers something a little different?

Marine del Cantone, which I visited last year, is a hidden shingle beach near Positano and Sorrento but completely different to either, with a few restaurants, a shabby-picturesque air, and some lovely footpaths nearby.

Marina del Cantone at Easter

Caorle, north of Venice, is a small, traditional beach resort (mostly Italian and German-speaking visitors) which offers a beach, access to the Veneto's art towns, plus unusual lagoon scenery and cycle rides.

Caorle

Cefalรน in Sicily is my permanent top recommendation for a beach resort, with history and art as well as seaside  - a grand Norman cathedral with famous mosaics, a small museum, ruins - and the option of excursions by train to Palermo and by sea to the Aeolian islands.


History, art and sophistication

If you're interested in history, one fascinating holiday project would be to explore the archaeological sites in and around Naples. I've only started on this myself; there is a lot to see, from the famous Roman ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum to the cave of the Cumaean Sybil and the underwater city at Baia. Naples also has one of the very best archaeological museums in the world.

Herculaneum

The classic destinations for a sophisticated city break in Italy are Rome, Venice and Florence - all three of them everything you'd expect and more - while the more adventurous might choose try Naples or Palermo for foodie experiences and a more edgy vibe.

The Pantheon by night, Rome


Stay somewhere different

It's not just trying a new destination that can offer a fresh holiday experience - why not try a different kind of accommodation? If you normally stay in hotels, try out the local life in a city centre apartment or surround yourself with art in an eccentric B&B. Holiday flats I've enjoyed include the New Venice Apartments, Sorrento Apartments, Maison Giulia apartments in Rome and Casa Vittoria in Taormina. You can wake up when you want to, shop in markets, feel like a local, and relax in privacy.
Maison Giulia studio apartment, Rome

Alternatively, if you usually stay in self-catering or budget accommodation, you could consider splashing out on a seafront hotel for a change of pace. In 2016 I upgraded myself to five-star hotels a couple of times, for a few nights of my travels, finding good places to stay with special outdoor spaces and grand views which became part of my holiday experience in the way a budget room rarely can. These hotels would be lovely for a couple or family - but they're actually very good for solo travellers too. With plenty of attentive staff and public areas where you can sit unbothered to work or read, and elegant bars where you can relax in a comfortable and safe environment without heading out, these more expensive hotels have a lot to offer. Neither the Grand Hotel La Favorita in Sorrento, nor the Miramare e Castello in Ischia were cripplingly expensive (5-star hotels, but not the astronomically-expensive kind) and I'd recommend both of them, and especially their roof terraces.
Grand Hotel La Favorita, Sorrento

Hotel Miramare e Castello, Ischia


More ideas

You can find loads more holiday ideas on www.italyheaven.co.uk, including my list of the best seaside resorts in Italy. And you can follow Italy Heaven on Facebook, and Twitter for new ideas, 2017 Italy travel photos and website updates.

Happy travels in 2017!