Tim Foolery

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Embassy Suites O’Hare

I am not really a Hilton guy, I much prefer Stawrood Properties. I was speaking at a conference being held at the Embassy Suites near O’Hare. I had stayed at this property a few years ago when I had a 12 hour overnight layover at ORD – I didn’t want to deal with heading home for just a few hours.

This stay was two midweek nights. I checked in around 17h00 and was given a room on the fourth floor. Since I was on some bulk conference rate, my Gold Status didn’t get me any welcome amenity. I had to nearly beg for a couple bottles of water.

One of the elevators was out of service during our stay, which made the trek to and from your rooms very long. I asked about taking the stairs, but was told the doors were locked and I couldn’t enter the floors once I walked up. I try it – I’d have been very frustrated if I walked up four flights only to find a locked door.

My rooms was immediately across from the elevators. The glass doors to the rooms didn’t seal fully and the noise from the elevators and atrium really carried into my room.

Entering the room, you find the sitting and office area, with a TV.

The utilitarian couch in the front room served it’s purpose.

The work and dining table combo allowed me to be very productive when in the room.

The wet bar area was a surprisingly nice touch – no minibar though.

Continuing on, you pass the bathroom and the closet. The bathroom was large, but dated. I always forget how annoying the low bathroom vanities are. When brushing teeth or shaving, I end up with some back pain. The toilet had almost no power and when I attempted to flush a single Kleenex, it floated, swirled and barely went down the drain…and that was just a Kleenex- I was nervous about other things that needed flushing! Gross, I know.

The single vanity in the bathroom wasn’t an issue considering there were two other sinks in the rest of the suite.

I was surprised by the tile design in the shower – the water never got hotter than tepid though.

The sleeping area was at the very back of the room, with two full sized beds (Hilton calls these queen beds, but the measurements sure don’t add up). This area had another TV plus a chair in the corner. The corner windows provided a ton of natural light.

These sure aren’t queen sized beds, despite what the hotel says.

The small seating area in the bedroom was showered with natural light.

The bed was surprisingly comfortable, albeit very small – I was afraid I’d roll out. Luckily, I remained securely tucked in.

I wrote about my interactions with hotel maintenance immediately upon checking in, which still surprises and confuses me – no one else I spoke with had the “Clock and Peephole Check.”

The internet was fast and I didn’t find any Wi-Fi deadspots – which is surprising in hotel conference spaces. The water pressure was light and the water never got hotter than tepid, which starts to wear on you after a few days.

Despite the rooms being dated and a little loud (hallway and atrium noises) I’d likely stay again…assuming I needed a quick stay near ORD. I wouldn’t spend multiple days here though.

Have you stayed here before? Was your room loud and your water lukewarm? Where is your favorite hotel near O’Hare?

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Hotel Bristol Vienna – A Luxury Collection Hotel

My flight on Austrian Airlines landed a little late, but since I couldn’t be guaranteed check-in at the hotel until 15h00, I didn’t mind.  I hopped on the City Airport Train (CAT) and made my way from the Airport through Wien Mitte to Oper/Karlsplatz U-Bahn Station.  Last time I visited, I left the underground from the wrong exit and wandered aimlessly trying to find the hotel. This time I followed the signs to the Opera House and emerged exactly where I needed to be.

I’ve stayed at the Hotel Bristol before and really enjoyed it. I knew I wanted to stay again and I found that the price was a bit more than I wanted to pay, so I used Starwood Preferred Guest Cash+Points for the two nights – which cost 110USD+6,000 points each night.  The value was there for me on this stay.  I also used two Platinum Suite Night Upgrades to move us from a standard room to an Opera Suite – the same room type I had last time.

I walk into the hotel lobby at around 10h15 and was greeted with a cheery “Good Morning.”  After my relative success on the Austrian Airlines flight, I attempted to continue my German language practice.  I was tired and it fell apart pretty quickly.  The folks working at reception did try to play along, but my mind just wasn’t in it.  We finished the check-in process in English.

I was surprised that my room was ready for me immediately. So often, when landing early in the morning in Europe your room isn’t ready for hours – which just makes that first day a struggle. I want a shower, I want to take a quick nap – I don’t want to sit in the lobby and wait and I don’t want to go exploring while feeling all dingy.  I was escorted to my room by the bellman and the receptionist.  I didn’t need two staffers helping me – I had just a briefcase and a roller bag, but the service was a nice touch.

Our Opera Suite was on the fourth floor of the hotel, looking directly out onto the beautiful Opera building.  The huge suite is perfectly appointed to entertain before the opera.  As you walk in, you encounter various hallways, leading to the bedroom or the salon.

Bristol Hotel Vienna – The main seating area was enormous and filled with classical music our entire stay.

Bristol Hotel Vienna – Main Seating Area in Suite

The salon is large with multiple seating areas, including a small dining area, perfect for a morning breakfast or an afternoon tea.  The fireplaces were all faux, but still gave the warmth (both because they hid a radiator and the style) of a bygone era.

When we entered the salon, a Mozart CD was playing.  A fitting accompaniment to the room, the view and the overall vibe of the hotel.

The salon has a small, but full bathroom attached (sans bathtub, but with a full shower).  This is excellent design when hosting a pre-Opera party, no need for your guests to traipse through your bedroom.  It is truly a luxury to have a hotel room with two bathrooms – I love it.

Bristol Hotel Vienna – The second smaller bathroom

Moving back through the salon to the bedroom, you immediately see how grand the sleeping quarters are. The king sized bed does not dwarf the room itself.  An additional sitting area, writing desk and huge closet system also fill this room – but with ample space to maneuver – and to try on various outfits before the opera.

Bristol Hotel Vienna – The Bedroom with King Bed and seating areas

Bristol Hotel Vienna – faux fireplace in the bedroom

Bristol Hotel Vienna – Bedroom Desk

The main bathroom, off the sleeping area, was quite large with double vanities, a walk-in shower, a large separate tub and the requisite toilet and bidet.

Bristol Hotel Vienna – The Main Bathroom with double vanity

Bristol Hotel Vienna – The Main Bathroom with separate shower

Bristol Hotel Vienna – The Main Bathroom, with toilet and bidet plus a huge bathtub

There was also another hallway and closet area – you can never have enough closet space when you are hosting a pre-opera party, I guess.

Bristol Hotel Vienna – The Hall Closet

The Hotel Bristol is truly a five-star luxury hotel and one of my favorite Starwood properties in the world.  I sure wouldn’t want my home decorated like these amazing Opera Suites, but I do love the opulence and splendor whilst on vacation.  The Hotel has quite the history too – as it was first constructed at the end of the 19th Century and hosted many of the world’s most famous people, including Teddy Roosevelt and George Gershwin – who was working on “An American in Paris” while staying here.  Most famously the Prince of Wales and Wallis Simpson stayed in 1936 during their affair.

It wasn’t always sunshine and luxury at the Bristol though.  In the early 20th century, Samuel Schallinger, a Jewish businessman, owned a stake in the hotel, but was forced to sell in 1938. He was then deported from Austria to Germany where he died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.  A horribly dark part of the rich history of this magnificent hotel.

Vienna is an incredibly easy city to get around – with so many things within walking distance, and a really great transit system – this hotel couldn’t be situated in a better spot.  Being just meters from the Vienna State Opera, the U-Bahn, Streetcars, the City Park and countless museums, you’d be hard pressed to find a better hotel.

Hotel Bristol – View from our Opera Suite

Hotel Bristol – View from the Opera Suite. The State Opera is a magnificent building.

When I return to Vienna – I don’t know when that will happen, but I know it will soon – I will definitely stay at the Hotel Bristol again.  The space is beautiful, the service team is truly stellar and it feels like my home in Vienna.

Where do you stay while visiting Vienna?  Which Starwood Property is your favorite in the world?

Austrian Airlines ORD-VIE (OS 66)

After being disappointed by both the United Polaris Lounge and the Swiss Lounge at O’hare, I was really looking forward to my time aboard Austrian Airlines flight from Chicago to Vienna. I find Austrian has a truly wonderful Business Class product, with fully flat seats, top notch food and a nicely curated selection of Austrian wines – along with options from other regions as well.

A few weeks before, I had called Austrian Airlines to reserve the exact seats I wanted. Austrian’s Business Class is in a 1-2-1 seating configuration. These seats are staggered and when your seat is reclined into a bed, your feet actual have slid under the side table of the seat in front of you. This means the seats alternate where the side table is – either right next to the aisle or next to the window. If you select properly, you can have a much more private seat and if not, you’ll be sitting directly on the aisle, likely getting bumped by passengers and crew as they pass your seat. I’ve been fortunate enough to have selected the single seats closest to the window and farthest from the aisle each time I’ve flow with Austrian.

Boarding began about 20 minutes late at 16h55 through door 1L. Once onboard, I immediately turned right down the first aisle, as I was seated in 5A.

Flight: Austrian Airlines OS66 (Business Class)
Aircraft: Boeing 767-300
Seat: 5A
Departure: 17h20 (17h30)
Arrival: 08h35 (09h01)

I quickly found my seat, unpacked my tablet and power cables and stowed my briefcase. I ended up checking my roller bag – Austrian (well, their contract employees at O’hare) are real sticklers for the rules and often will not let you (or at least try) bring your bigger carryon bags on board – even though there is ample space in the overhead bins – especially in business class. I decided to skip the drama and just check the bag initially.

My Thrown – 5A from ORD to VIE

As I was getting settled, the flight attendant came by with a tray with cups of water, orange juice and apple juice. Alcoholic beverages were not available – a fellow passenger was quite upset about this, so the flight service manager came over and explained it was because Cook County has high taxes on booze opened on the ground, so she’d have to wait until we were airborne. That’s another thing I like about Austrian Airlines – they are polite, but very direct. They are not going to bend the rules, but they will explain why the rules are there and give you an alternate.

I opted for a water. I had also decided that I would endeavor to speak German this entire flight. I took about 2 years of German in college, but haven’t had much of an opportunity to practice – this was the perfect time.

About 10 minutes after I sat down, the menus were delivered by the chef, who introduced herself and said she’d be back to answer any questions about the menu and to take our final orders.

At this time, the Business Class Amenity kit was delivered – and unlike previous versions of this kit, which is billed as a carrying case for a tablet (a tiny tablet, I guess), this kit was reusable as a shoe bag. I don’t think you can ever have too many shoe bags when you travel, they are critical for keeping dirt from your shoes from getting on your clothes.

The kit contained the standard items including socks, an eye shade, toothbrush and paste, lip balm, hand cream and ear plugs.

Austrian Airlines Business Class Amenity Kit with Contents – Dig the Shoe Bag

The chef came back by to finalize dinner selections and to collect our breakfast choices as well – I opted not to be woken up – I’d rather just get a few extra minutes of sleep and grab a bite in the City.

As we wait for boarding to finish, I polished off my still water (Wasser ohne Gas) and scrolled through the In-Flight Entertainment (IFE). I was surprised at the number of films I actually wanted to watch. I bookmarked (which is a fabulous feature on this system) six films, including The Shape of Water, Kingsmen: The Secret Service, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Suburbicon, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and Murder on the Orient Express (which frustrated me, because I rented Murder through Amazon Prime – I could have just saved a few bucks, if I had checked the film options before renting). Despite having several films in the queue, I only watched Murder on the Orient Express, then put the Kingsmen on while I slept. There were a total of 61 films and 87 episodes of TV shows. The diversity of the TV programs was a bit disappointing, but for a nine hour overnight flight, it worked well for me.

The door closed at 17h25 and we pushed back from the gate at 17h30. After a relatively short taxi, we were in the air at 17h50. It was a smooth roll and right on queue the flight attendants jumped into action. The Flight Services Coordinator made her way through the Business Class Cabin, introducing herself, confirming our beverage choices and making it clear that if we needed anything, find her and she’d handle it.

Sunset over Canada as we make our way ever closer to the Atlantic.

I switched on the movie and enjoyed the nicely timed dinner service. I didn’t feel rushed in the slightest, but it moved along at a nice clip, so I wasn’t frustrated with losing quality sleep time onboard.

The table is set with DO&CO branded items – Love this Catering Company.

Prawns Andaluz with a great Truffled Celeriac Cream Soup / Crevetten Andaluz mit Gretruffelte Sellerieschaumsuppe

Buffalo Mozzarella Ravioli / Buffelmozzarella Ravioli

Selection of Desserts: Chocolate Raspberry Trifle, Chocolate Ice Cream, plus a nice glass of Port

The final dinner service was collected at 19h55 and I was sufficiently tired that I actually fell into a pretty solid sleep at 21h15. I woke up several times throughout the flight, but was able to drift back asleep quickly. I didn’t wake up at all for the breakfast service – usually the clanging of plates and dishes wakes me up, but not today. I did get up about 50 minutes before we were landing and everyone else had already made a big dent in their breakfasts. Once the crew noticed I was awake the hurried over asking if I wanted juice – but said that I had slept too long and breakfast wasn’t available – fair enough. The omelet looked pretty good, to my surprise. Looks like I would indeed be grabbing breakfast in the City.

We landed about 25 minutes late. I made my way through immigrations and customs with nary a question. My checked bag was the second off the belt and I was off very quickly into the City Center.

I really do enjoy flying Austrian Airlines. For 70,000 United MileagePlus miles for a one way ticket to Vienna, you really can’t beat it. The service was quite nice – efficient, friendly, but not too friendly. The ultimate goal is for a pleasant flight, but with ample time to sleep as we land at a reasonable hour in Vienna – you’ve got things to do. I look forward to flying Austrian again – and I’m quite confident that I will again soon.

Have you flown Austrian Airlines before? What do you think about them – is my love irrational or are you in the same boat? What other products should I try when I’m off to Vienna again?

Swiss International Lounge

After leaving the Polaris Lounge in Terminal 1, I made my way to the International Terminal at O’hare, T5. No one was in the Business Class queue for check in, and the only hiccup I had was that I couldn’t remember if my last trip to Europe was within the past 6 months. Since I couldn’t answer, they just let me go.

The Security line was immense – full of dozens of college students heading off to Europe for Spring Break. It reminded me of my first international trip – to Europe for Spring Break. I skipped the line, thanks to the Business Class Boarding Pass. This time, I didn’t have to go through the nude-o-scope, just a standard metal detector. It was basically like Pre-Check, except I had to take off my shoes.

I was through Security and on my way to the Swiss International Lounge – Austrian uses this as their lounge for Business Class and Star Gold Passengers. I’ve visited this lounge before and I’m disappointed in it for sure.

Multilingual Travel Guidance

This lounge is pretty small, always crowded and surprisingly hot. For some reason the sun just bakes in on this lounge and makes it so steamy. This time, the lounge was basically standing room only. As I walked through, the stars aligned and a lady stood up to leave, so I grabbed her seat (well, the seat she was sitting in, I didn’t grab her butt).

The lounge was full of people on the Austrian flight as well as people waiting for the SAS Lounge to open. I saw a couple of people waiting for the Turkish flight (leaves around 22h00) and even a family on EVA (00h20 departure). It was packed. I couldn’t snap any photos of the food spread because people were leaning against the serving areas. I wasn’t in the mood for any mediocre lounge food but I did want a drink.

The wine options are pretty rough. They serve Mirassou Pinot Noir a d Chardonnay. I don’t loathe this wine, but it sells at the grocery store for $8 a bottle. We will serve it at a dinner party….at the end of the night when everyone is drunk with destroyed taste buds. It’s not something I wanted to drink at 16h00 in the afternoon. I did grab a glass of Pinot though. There were not bottles of bubbles to be found.

My rough red wine, with soft gummies.

I grabbed a small ramekin of gummy bears, that because of the heat in the lounge were quite soft, nearly melty. They were pretty damn tasty, I must say.

I bolted from the lounge after I finished my snack – I was too hot and just generally uncomfortable. I visit the lounge to relax and escape the mayhem of the general airport chaos. This lounge provider none of the benefits I was seeking.

Each time I return to this lounge I am expecting a big improvement and I am consistently disappointed. O’hare really needs to up the lounge options in T5. That being said, I have never visited the British Lounge, but the Swiss and Air France lounges are utterly abysmal. Where do you hang out when you have time to kill at T5?

United Polaris Lounge (ORD)

On my way to Vienna I stopped off at United’s Premium Lounge, Polaris. Chicago O’hare currently has the only Polaris Lounge in the world. This is my second visit. I was a bit disappointed during my first visit (en route to Rio) and was so excited to see it after the expansion. One of my biggest complaints the first visit was the overcrowding and how loud the space was.

I arrived 3.5 hours before my Austrian flight to Vienna. I arrived so early because Austrian flies out if the International Terminal (Terminal 5) and Polaris is in Terminal 1. I would have to leave the secured area and go back through security in a different terminal, so I needed lots of time to enjoy this space and make my flight.

Polaris Lounge – The only one worldwide.

I arrived and check in was smooth and painless. Everyone I encountered reminded me about the terminal change and the need to deal with security again – which I appreciated. It is not a quick and easy transfer from this lounge to T5.

I walked into the lounge and I was shocked at how crowded it was. I managed to find a single seat at a small dining table. I dropped anchor, grabbed a glass of champagne (they serve Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label, which is a perfectly acceptable wine that we drink and serve at home).

Veuve Clicquot is always a lovely way to kick off a trip, don’t you agree?

My first plan was to take a look at the expanded space (they took space from the old United Club in C Concourse to expand Polaris). This new area is the designated a la carte dining area. Before the seats near the bar (where I was sitting) were the designated dining area. Every table was full in the recently expanded area. People were either actively eating or they had dirty plates on their tables next to their laptops. I had no place to eat, nor could I order anything. I asked a United employee if I could be put on a reservation list and he looked confused and said it was just first come seating only. OK.

Every 10 minutes or so I would walk back to see if space had opened up. Nothing. After waiting for about 45 minutes, I see a table of four leave the dining area, so I grab my glass of bubbles and walk back to get a seat. The recently vacated table now had a “Reserved” sign and when I asked the server, he said that it was reserved for another guest – this was the same server who told me that I couldn’t reserve a space. He did confirm that it was just a single guest and I asked if I could share the four-top table – I just wanted to try out the menu. I was shot down. The server was pretty snippy too – I was obviously distracting him from his duties.

I slink back to my cafe table near the bar – and request a refill on my Veuve before heading over to the buffet. Both times I’ve been in Polaris there has been a louder, highly energetic woman staffing the buffet area. She loves the food and she loves her job. She greets the guests, offers (unsolicited) recommendations on the food items and will even come find you if something new comes out onto the buffet that she wants you to try. She’s not that polished, but she’s a hoot.

Back at my bar table, I sampled a couple of buffet items and was flipping through a magazine when a man came up to bus the table next to me. Talk about unpolished. This guy kept mumbling something to the man at the table next to me, who had no idea what he was saying. Eventually the United employee just started taking the plates and glasses away from the table – evidently he was asking if the table should be cleared. To properly clear this table, he set the tray of dirty dishes on my table – and about 10 seconds after I snapped this picture (and he told me not to take pictures in the lounge), the plates and glasses fell off his tray, spilling other people’s half eaten food on my table. Not to worry, this guy did a great job of cleaning up the mess – by using the soiled napkins he’d just collected from my neighbor’s table. It was gross. The people at both tables next to me (the one being bused and the one watching) were frustrated and angry. I was disappointed.

You won’t get many award by stacking dirty dishes on a customer’s table.

At this point, I just decided to leave. It wasn’t going to get any better. I still had more than two hours until my flight to Vienna left, but I just couldn’t sit here any longer. I say you can build a beautiful airline lounge, but if you train and supervise the employees poorly, what’s the point?

That being said, I did need assistance with another flight issue (I had some travel plans change and I needed help rebooking) and the customer service reps (who were doing actual airline business, not wait staff) were phenomenal. The woman I was working with pulled up at least half a dozen alternates for my travel issues and she was just so lovely to work with.

Will I go back to Polaris? Yes. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. The space is very nice and with the remodel, it is much less loud than it was before. The alcohol selection is quite nice and some of the staff are competent, some are even great, alas, most in my encounters were not. It sure isn’t a world class airline lounge. I find the American Express Centurion Lounges to be far superior – and extremely consistent – relative to Polaris. I guess us United flyers just can’t have nice things. I do hear American’s Flagship Lounges are pretty nice.

What do you think about Polaris? Am I just finding bad times to visit? Do I just have too high of standards? How do you get to enjoy the a la carte dining if the tables are full and your can’t reserve a seat?