#5nights5cities Part 7: Back to reality

It's time to leave London for the long (very long) journey back to Canada.

You can catch up by Reading Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, and Part 6 first.

The alarm went off and I was groggy. It was 6am, just three hours after I had turned off the lights. I had clearly slept soundly because the sheets on the bed still looked relatively undisturbed.

I rolled out of bed for a quick shower. The sun was already streaming through the windows, so I knew it was going to be a beautiful day following the previous night’s rain storm. I packed up my things and was in the lobby by 6:45, where I checked out and got a taxi back out to Heathrow.

I must now provide a little bit of background about the art of flying standby. I mentioned in Part 1 that I got the travel bug thanks to my dad’s employment with Air Canada, which allows its employees and their families to travel on a standby ticket for a small service charge. This sounds romantic, but the reality is anything but. When you arrive at the airport with a standby ticket, there is no guarantee you will get on the flight – it’s entirely dependent on whether there is an open seat, and even if there is, it might not be filled because the airplane might already be at maximum weight thanks to heavy luggage or other cargo. Many times over the years we had packed for a Hawaiian vacation, only to have our excitement smothered by being turned away at the boarding gate. There’s nothing quite like the experience of unpacking your suitcase back at home, knowing your holiday plans will never happen.

Then there’s the small issue if you do get a seat: as a non-paying customer you are almost guaranteed to get the worst seat on the plane. That means if there are two George Foreman-sized guys sitting in the back row, chances are you’ll get the seat between them for that 12 hour flight. This. Is. Not. Fun.

Despite the largesse on this #5nights5cities tour, I’ve kept my costs extremely low by cashing in points for hotels and airfares. I wasn’t about to break the bank for a full-fare ticket from London to Vancouver, so figured I’d return to my roots and give standby the ol’ college try. I hadn’t done it in years, and was psyching myself up for it.

The other drawback is purely psychological: when you purchase a ticket, you can check in and select your seat. You have some certainty about where you are going, when, and the seat you will be sitting in. That means you can wonder around the duty free shops or get a burrito — basically be carefree — until boarding time. But with standby, nothing is certain, which puts a black cloud over you until you get that final boarding pass at the gate. And it means you should sit at the gate and wait for your name to be called, lest you miss your chance.

 Good (very early) morning, Heathrow Terminal 2. Good (very early) morning, Heathrow Terminal 2.

I hopped out of the taxi at Heathrow Terminal 2, where Air Canada departs from, unsure about what was to transpire. I walked inside and saw massive crowds at nearly all the check-in counters. As a standby passenger I wandered around to Air Canada’s premium economy check-in, and used the opportunity to chat with the agent about how the flight loads were looking and whether I’d get a seat. “Oh, and can I check this bag in?” Fortunately he took my bag, but didn’t give me a seat, instead instructing me to go to the gate and wait.

I mentioned in Part 6 that Heathrow is an atrocious airport, and it lived up to it once again. Pure chaos in the departure areas, with thousands of people going in multiple directions, long queues at security, and a general sense of staff and passengers not knowing what’s going on. The best way to handle these situations is be as patient as possible, and basically tune out – if you start getting frustrated, chances are that anger will boil over. In short, Heathrow is a total s*** show.

I got through security by 8:30am and the flight was to depart at 10:05, so I had time to try a Plaza Premium lounge. I have no status on Air Canada or Star Alliance, so my lounge options were limited. I only had Plaza Premium through an American Express card I have, which included a Priority Pass subscription.

 The Plaza Premium Lounge at Terminal 2 is right underneath the security clearance. The Plaza Premium Lounge at Terminal 2 is right underneath the security clearance.

Plaza Premium lounges are found around the world and are quite hit-and-miss. I don’t like the one in Hong Kong at all, finding it way overcrowded with simple and cheap food options. Oh, and alcohol costs extra. Plaza Premium in Vancouver, though, is excellent, with a wide range of food and alcohol options and a huge beautiful lounge airside. So the quality varies.

 This was better than the Plaza Premium at HKG. I nibbled on bacon, sausages and scrambled eggs before heading to the gate. This was better than the Plaza Premium at HKG. I nibbled on bacon, sausages and scrambled eggs before heading to the gate.

London Terminal 2 Plaza Premium fits somewhere in the middle. It’s a tastefully done lounge with comfortable seating, but it wasn’t very big. I was there at breakfast, and the spread included toast, rolls, sausage, bacon, tomatoes, baked beans and scrambled eggs, along with deli meats and cheeses and fruit and yoghurt. When I arrived, the scrambled eggs were already gone and I couldn’t wait around for a refill, so I nibbled on everything else available and poured myself a latte. Then not wanting to miss being handed a seat, took off for gate B38, which was a 15-minute walk away.

It didn’t take long to hear my name called over the intercom. I wandered up to the counter and was handed a boarding pass: seat 19H. I immediately scrambled to see what that was, and found it was an economy seat on the aisle. Perfect. Considering what I could’ve gotten, I was happy. Aisle seats are always my favorite, because they provide a bit more room and easy access in and out (I always get uncomfortable asking people to stand up so I can get out if I have a window or middle seat).

 Ahhh... this is what I'm used to. Ahhh… this is what I’m used to.

Sure enough the Air Canada flight was full. I had a large guy sitting next to me, but  we were able to reach a detente on using the arm rest. After takeoff we were offered chicken or a tomato and mozzarella pasta, but I wasn’t hungry and just wanted to sleep, so I skipped it.

I didn’t wake up until we were about halfway to Vancouver, so decided to spend some time reading until the pilot announced our descent into the city. About 90 minutes out the harried flight attendants passed out either a veggie or meatball wrap.

 A meatball wrap. Small, but hit the spot in that moment. A meatball wrap. Small, but hit the spot in that moment.

Then it was time to land in beautiful Vancouver.

I clearly hadn’t been home in a while, because I wondered why flight attendants didn’t hand out a customs and immigration form. When I got to the immigration hall at Vancouver Airport, I asked a guard where to find the forms, and he informed me they aren’t used anymore. “Everything is digital,” he said.

Sure enough I was able to clear myself through immigration. Terminals, kind of resembling ATMs, are now scattered throughout the arrivals hall for people to answer questions on screen and scan their passports. The machines print out the results and you pass these to agents as you leave the hall. Convenient and surprising, only because when it comes to government services my expectations are extremely low!

 A spectacular day in Vancouver.  A spectacular day in Vancouver.

A friend was waiting in arrivals and we hit the road to an old haunt for launch.

I can’t begin to explain the sheer elation of landing in Vancouver in summertime. I’ve traveled around the world, and no place compares to Vancouver in the summer. The sky is a clear blue, the ocean is a deep blue, the greenery, the sunshine, the mountains, the breeze, the clean water and clean air. It is absolutely spectacular. It is heaven.

 An old hangout directly behind a radio station I used to work at in my Vancouver days. Many a-happy hour has been celebrated here. An old hangout directly behind a radio station I used to work at in my Vancouver days. Many a-happy hour has been celebrated here.

We stopped at a Cactus Club, a well-known local chain in Vancouver that serves up fusion food and great locally-brewed beers. Oh, and delicious yam fries with garlic aioli.

While I love spending time in Vancouver and have so many friends in the city, this trip back home was to visit with my parents, who live on Vancouver Island. Vancouver Island is a 90 minute ferry ride from Vancouver, or a 10 minute flight (yes, there are multiple flights a day). The biggest city on Vancouver Island is Victoria, the capital of the Province of British Columbia, and where I grew up. It’s got a population of about half a million people in the Greater Victoria area, which is a decent-size for a Canadian city but many times smaller than a suburb of Shanghai.

 I missed these. I missed these.

After wrapping up lunch, we headed out to Tsawassen, where the ferry terminal is found. With such great weather and so many people on summer break, the ferries were busy and severely delayed. I waited in a holding room for about 90 minutes before we were finally able to board.

 The view from the ferry. The view from the ferry.

At this point, in the final leg of my journey, and with a couple of beers in me, exhaustion started to seep into my bones. I sprawled out on a couple of seats near a coffee bar and watched the beautiful scenery go by. If I would’ve fallen asleep, I’m not sure anyone could’ve shook me hard enough to wake me up.

 One of the Queen-class ferries that plies the route between Tsawassen (near Vancouver) and Swartz Bay (near Victoria). One of the Queen-class ferries that plies the route between Tsawassen (near Vancouver) and Swartz Bay (near Victoria).

After docking I walked off the ferry, was picked up by my dad, and went home for a quick shower. Unbeknownst to me, my parents were attending a barbecue with many of their friends and insisted I join them. “It won’t be long,” I was told. So despite the exhaustion I went out to sit on a patio, surrounded by people I didn’t know, celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday (the actual national day is July 1, but celebrations have continued throughout the year). A live band even serenaded guests with show tunes after dinner.

Despite the exhaustion and not knowing anybody at the barbecue, there was something peaceful about just sitting there and decompressing. And being home.

Cam Macmurchy

Hi! My name is Cam MacMurchy. I was born and raised in Canada and worked as a journalist before moving to China in 2004.

Today I work in Hong Kong as the Vice President of Corporate Communications of a listed company. I write about marketing, communications, and journalism, as well as technology and productivity, and anything else on my mind! I also occasionally contribute to 9to5Mac, one of the top Apple websites in the world, and run Executive Productivity. Contact me anytime.