Following up on our initial post, Iberia did honor their amazing 90K Avios promotion for as little as €243 (or lower). All you had to do was to book and buy 10 cheapest one way tickets, and you do not even have to show up for the flights.
As of yesterday (03-JUL-2018), all valid Iberia Plus accounts have received their 9K Avios per ticket. They were the lucky ones because being first off the mark, they can now go off and pick their preferred award flights. But for those who created a new Iberia Plus account for the purpose of this promotion have more hurdles to cross. Most new accounts, if not all, have been blocked. They either cannot login due to invalid PIN or the account does not exist (the site says that there is a mismatch between the IB account and PIN). Resetting the PIN, even if you are successful in doing it, does not unblock the account.
After a long delay, Iberia sent out an email today to all those with blocked accounts. There are two versions of email. One was to ask for proof of ID and tickets bought.
This above is relatively straight forward. Just email in the ID and e-tickets, and wait for the outcome.
The other version of the email is for suspected duplicate accounts, as below:
My other half received the above email. She never had an Iberia Plus account before and opened this specifically for the Avios promotion. The contents in the email is confusing. It says the duplicated account has been closed, but the original account remains. In her case, she never had an account before, so there is no original account to be associated.
Next best course of action is to reply the email, deny politely a duplicate existence, enclose proof of ID and all the e-tickets, and insist on the Avios points, instead of opting for the refund.
Iberia has been inundated with communications; it will be of no big surprise if things do not get concluded for another two weeks or so.
This means your picking for the award flight spaces will get slimmer. If you do get the Avios, it is our opinion that the best value for the points is to redeem for a long haul business class flights.
My other half received 90,000 Avios this morning. Her account has the same email address as mine and this has been corrected by Iberia. I received an email yesterday informing me that my ID information does not match the account and invited me to ask for a refund. I am standing my ground here as the information I have given do match the account. I have replied and insisted on the points. Let’s see how this pans out.
After my email to Iberia Plus that painstakingly explained why my ID matches the Iberia Plus profile, I received an email giving me my new PIN. After logging in, my account still showed a big fat zero.
To my surprise, an email came in in the morning, congratulated me for the award of 90K new Avios points. I checked the account, lo and behold, the 90,000 points appears magically! To top it all, I received another 200 bonus points for opening the new account. Now, how to spend them to get the best value!
Istanbul has a rich history with interesting cultures. It has a large population of 15 million, dwarfing London (8.8m) and Los Angeles (4m). It is the only city that is in both Europe and Asia. The Bosphorus Strait that divides the city offers outstanding views.
Getting There and Arrival
We flew from London Heathrow to Istanbul Ataturk via Frankfurt with Lufthansa. We snagged a relatively good fare in business class for £297 return. The arrival time was not so friendly though. After delays in London and then in Frankfurt due to bad weather, we finally arrived Istanbul Ataturk at about 2.30 am. In our transit in Frankfurt, due to late arrival of the aircraft for over 1.5 hours, we were bussed directly from the aircraft, bypassing immigration and security. It did not really matter in the end, because after boarding was completed, the onward flight was also delayed by another hour. The flight from Frankfurt to Istanbul was only fractionally full – a rare sight indeed in today’s travels. The front cabin had only three passengers, and the economy cabin had about thirty people. The Lufthansa Airbus 320neo capacity is about 154 passengers.
When we arrived, Ataturk Airport was relatively quiet at that time in the morning. We were the first to get to the immigration and cleared the process in less than three minutes. We applied and obtained our e-visa in advance, although we were entitled to get a visa on arrival. If you qualify for visa on arrival, you have to use an ATM-like kiosk to complete the process. I would advise, for convenience and speed, to get an e-visa before arrival. You can apply directly on Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Ministry website. The visa fee varies according to your citizenship. For instance, Canadian passport holders pay US$60, while UK and USA passport holders pay only US$20 for multiple entry visa, valid for 180 days but your stay must not exceed 90 days. Citizens of some countries such as Malaysia, Japan and France can enter Turkey visa-free.
While waiting for our bags, we changed a small amount of Euro into Turkish lira so that we had sufficient cash to pay for our taxi ride. There are several money exchange bureaus in the baggage hall. Several ATM machines are also available. We received a rate of 5.22 Turkish lira to one Euro. There was a hidden charge of 4.2%, presumably as a commission, which I was not fully aware of. You will undoubtedly get a better rate in downtown Istanbul, especially in the Grand Bazaar area. As comparison, we received 5.43 from a changer in Grand Bazaar versus 5.22 at the airport, about 4% better before commission. The money changers in downtown do not charge commission. The rate displayed is the net rate you get. Unless you are changing many thousands, it really matters little. (But if saving a tenner or two does make you feel good, I can totally empathise with that.)
Getting from Airport to City
Upon exit of the arrival hall, we headed to the taxi stand, which is located just outside the arrival terminal. There were many orange and yellow taxis waiting for fares despite the ungodly hour. From our research, we knew that 60-65 liras was the range to pay for a taxi ride to city centre and there should be no night surcharges. We jumped on an orange taxi without much deliberation after the driver agreed to use the meter. The vehicle was relatively new and clean. The fare was 56 liras from Ataturk Airport to Istanbul Marriott Sisli which was about 21 km apart. We rounded up and gave him 60 liras.
Hotel and Location Hotels are plentiful in Istanbul, from budget to luxurious range. First was to decide which area to stay. Old Istanbul or modern Istanbul? We chose modern Istanbul. Then, which area of the modern Istanbul? The main zones are Sisli, Beyoglu, Taksim and Besiktas. We opted for Sisli in the end, primarily because of the location of our preferred hotel, i.e. Istanbul Marriott Sisli. The only reason we did not favour the old Istanbul was because it lacks recognised international hotel chains. The international names are almost exclusively located in the modern side of Istanbul, leading to an impression that the modern Istanbul is the centre and life of the city, and is the place to be.
All the hotels in Istanbul maintain a high security stance. Before entering the lobby, all bags are scanned through an x-ray machine and guests have to walk through metal detectors. The front external perimeter is secured with vehicle access barriers in the form of retractable road blockers. The need for high security is understandable as Istanbul has had its fair share of undesirable terrorist activities.
Going back to the location, after four days in Istanbul, we concluded that Sisli is a little out from most attractions. It is central alright, and easily accessible by metro, but it was an effort to get to and from the places we visited. Our walk from Sisli to Taksim Square itself took 40 minutes. Under the hot sun, it seemed like an eternity; needless to say, a feat we did not repeat. In the end, we found ourselves drawn to the charms of old Istanbul where most of the main attractions and food places are. We spent a lot of time in the Eminonu and Galata Bridge areas. All the attractions in Sultanahmet are easily accessible by foot from here. If we were to visit Istanbul again, we would favour staying in or near Eminonu which is located in the old city.
Language and People The prime language is, of course, Turkish. English is also widely spoken and written. Menus and instructions are also widely available in English. We found the people in Istanbul were neither friendly nor unfriendly. When approached for help, they would happily assist. They tend to dress in modern western attire and are secular in their religious practice. We were in Istanbul during Ramadhan (fasting) month. We did not see religious police enforcing rules. Restaurants and cafes were opened and were not short of happy patrons.
Istanbul is a very large city. Where walking is not practical, Istanbul Metro and taxis are the best methods for getting around the city. We mostly used the metro for our travels. The metro is modern, clean and reliable, but always busy. Regardless of the time and day of travel, we always ended up having to stand all the way to our destinations.
When travelling with the metro, you cannot buy individual tickets with cash, except for very few destinations. You need to buy the IstanbulKart. It costs 10 liras; 6 for the card (non-refundable, unless you want to go through hoops to get this back) and 4 as the initial top up. You can buy IstanbulKart at the dispensing machine in major metro stations or stalls/shops that advertise the IstanbulKart. At the Metro stations, they have two types of machines; one for just topping up the card, and one for buying the card (also doubles up as a topper machine). Make sure it is the one that dispenses the card. I have to say, it was not the friendliest machine to operate, I managed somehow after some struggles. I topped up 20 liras each time, and when it got down to 5 liras, I repeated the top up, but be mindful that you do not want to end up with more than you need by the end of your trip. Each trip costs 2.60 liras.
The IstanbulKart can be used for multiple passengers, up to five people. For convenience sake, 2-3 people is an ideal number. To use the card for multiple people, at the ticket barrier, tap the card once and the barrier will open. The first passenger walks through. Then, pass on the card to the second passenger. He taps the card and walks in. Or alternatively, the first passenger taps the card and let his fellow passenger to pass though. Then he taps again, and he walks through himself. At the destination side (exit), the card is not required. Just walk through the barrier. The card can be used on buses, trams, Metrobus and some ferries. The card is valid for two years, and if you return before then, you can use the same card, saving you the initial 6 liras.
Main Places to See
There are plenty to see and do in Istanbul. For a first timer like myself, the obvious top attractions would not go amiss.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also popularly known as Blue Mosque
Nearest metro station is Sultanahmet on the T1 line. It is still a functioning mosque. If you are entering the mosque, please be respectful of your dressing. Females must cover the head and shoulder, and must not expose the legs. The mosque loans out complimentary head and leg covers if needed. This magnificent mosque has six minarets and is dubbed the Blue Mosque because the interior is adorned by blue Iznik tiles. No disrespect to anyone, I did not see much ‘blueness’ inside, although the interior is pretty majestic.
About 30 metres away from Sultan Ahmet Mosque is the Hagia Sophia, known for its massive dome. Built during the Byzantine era, it was used as a patriarchal church. Later, when the Ottoman Empire took over Constantinople (historic Istanbul), it was converted into an imperial mosque. Converted into a museum in 1935, it is now one of the top attractions in Turkey.
A stroll away from the Blue Mosque is the Topkapi Palace. Built in 1478, the palace was home to the Ottoman sultans until the middle of 19th century. It is now open to public as a museum. Entrance fee is 40 liras, excluding the Harem.
Located in Beyoglu, Taksim Square is the focal point for parades, social events and gatherings. The nearest metro station is Taksim on the green T5 line. We visited Taksim in the afternoon and there was not much happening. However, it has lots of cafes and eateries overlooking the expansive square. Perfect for people watching and letting time pass by.
From Sihane metro station, you can easily walk downhill to Galata Tower. Cafes and boutique shops lined the cobbled streets around the tower. The queue was a bit too long when we visited Galata Tower, so we passed up the opportunity to see Istanbul from the tower.
Continue walking downhill from Galata Tower to reach the Galata Bridge. It is one of the five bridges that spans over the Golden Horn (an estuary). You can’t miss this – it is an iconic bridge famed for locals casting their fishing lines. The catches, from what I could see, were mostly small fish measuring no more than 12-15 cm. The locals called them ‘istavrit’, commonly known as Atlantic horse mackerels. Under the bridge itself, there are many restaurants, mostly plying for the tourist business. The Galata Bridge connects the Karakoy neighbourhood with Eminonu.
After crossing Galata Bridge, you will reach Eminonu which is in the Fatih district. Eminonu Pier, located on the left hand side, buzzed with activities, but still exuded a calming effect because of the water. Eminonu has the busiest ferry crossings for the Bosphorus and Marmara Sea (you catch the Bosphorus cruise here). Many of the old city landmarks are just a stroll away from here. There are also many restaurants serving local cuisines. You will also notice that on the right hand side of the bridge, there are three attractively decorated boats. They are famous for the Balik Ekmek – essentially, a grilled filet of mackerel garnished with sliced vegetables in a bread roll. It was cheap at 10 liras. Watch our short video here – theatrically dressed to entertain the tourists. The taste of the balik ekmek? I will let you decide.
Not too far away from the Blue Mosque is one of the world’s most visited sites – the Grand Bazaar, walkable in 10 minutes. This is a colourful and bustling dry market place. It is also the world’s largest and oldest covered market. Traders ply their wares here, from hand-painted ceramics, intricately woven carpets, jewelries, leather goods, lanterns, copperware to food and drinks. There are also numerous money changers here – inside and outside of the Grand Bazaar. Here, you can most definitely get better rates than the airport.
Spice Bazaar (Market)
Just a short stroll from Eminonu metro station or Galata Bridge is the Spice Bazaar, also commonly referred as Egyptian Bazaar. It is actually part of the New Mosque (Yeni Cami) complex. It is not as big as the Grand Bazaar, but it is so vivid with colours. Definitely is a gastronomic paradise. All kind of spices, olives, cheeses, dates, dried fruits, nuts and Turkish Delights are stacked to the brim here.
Cruise on the Bosphorus Strait
The visit to Istanbul won’t be complete without seeing Istanbul from the Bosphorus Strait. We took a full cruise from Eminonu Pier to Anadolu Kavagi and back, lasting six hours. The word ‘cruise’ was too flattering. It should be more appropriately described as a ferry ride. There was nothing luxurious about this cruise; you sit on hard benches or mildly padded polystyrene cushion. But it was a snip at 25 liras. The ferry was clean, organised and cheap, not to mention, very punctual too. It was operated by Sehir Hatlari, an approved operator by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipal. The ticket counter opens about one hour before departure.
We departed at 10.35 am, zig-zagged the busy Bosphorus waters and made five stops (at Besiktas, Uskudar, Kanlica, Sariyer and Rumeli Kavagi) along the route. The route was very scenic and beautiful. We passed some stunning landmarks including the impressive Dolmabahċe Palace, Rumeli Fortress and the Bosphorus Bridge.
The Bosphorus Bridge is the first bridge that connects Europe and Asia. It is a suspension, completed in 1973, spanning a touch over 1 km long. It is officially named as 15 July Martyrs Bridge, and unofficially known as the First Bridge. We also passed the other two suspension bridges that span the Bosphorus Strait (Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge and Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge).
Just before arriving our final stop at Anadolu Kavagi, we were lucky enough to be treated by a small pod of dolphins porpoising in the Bosphorus!
After almost 2 hours in the ferry, we alighted at Anadolu Kavagi pier at 12.25 pm. The ferry berthed here for about 2.5 hours before sailing back to Eminonu at 3 pm. Do not miss this because there is practically no or few alternatives to get back to Istanbul.
Anadolu Kavagi is a very small town. Most of its focus is at the pier. Here was where we had our lunch at Ismailin Yeri. I had the grilled calimari and red mullets from the Bosphorus. They were OK, but I wished I had gone for the bigger grilled fish – such as sea bream or sea bass.
Anadolu Kavagi has another attraction – the ruins of Yoros Castle. It is less than 1 km uphill from the pier. As it was midday and the sun was scorching hot, we did not make an attempt to scale the hill. Instead, we passed the time in a cafe by the breezy pier, sipping Turkish coffee and savouring a few local cakes while soaking in the views of Bosphorus.
The ferry departed promptly at 3 pm. The return journey was much of the same, but in reverse order.
The Turkish Bath (Hamam)
You have to try the Hamam – at least once. We decided to have the Hamam in our hotel at a hefty price of 210 liras. It involved a quick sit in a hot room, then moved to another hot room with raised central platform that is made of marble. While lying down, warm water was flooded on the body, then lathered with a soapy solution. The attendant then scrubbed the body in an up-and-down motion to remove the dead skin, followed by a short massage. Finally, it was rinsed off with cooler water.
I felt the experience was average, maybe would have been better if I had went for one at the historical or traditional hamam institution. But without the experience, I was not in a good position to offer a comment.
Turkey is world famous for its kebab, sish and Ottoman cuisine. We were truly excited at the prospect of savouring Turkish meals here in Istanbul. Restaurants and cafes are numerous, available at almost every turn of the city.
Our culinary indulgence included:
All sorts of kebabs – in wrap, roll and plate.
The most common sight in the streets of Istanbul is the doner kebab stations. Doner is made of lamb, chicken or beef, slowly roasted over a rotating vertical spit and is served on a plate with salad and rice or potatoes. It is also available as a wrap or as a sandwich roll.
◄ Doner Kebab Grill - Taksim Square
Pide – Turkish pizza with thick dough, shaped like a boat
◄ Turkish pide - thick pizza
Lahmacun – a Turkish pizza with very thin and crispy crust
◄ Lahmacun - Turkish thin crusted pizza
Simit – ring-shaped bread covered with sesame seeds
◄ Turkish simit
Balik Ekmek – grilled mackerel with fresh chopped vegetables in a crusty roll. See our short video here.
◄ Balik Ekmek from the Derya boat - located at the end of Galata Bridge, over on Eminonu side
Testi Vegetables – interesting take on vegetables cooked in a claypot over a fire. Meat versions available. See our short video here. Delicious!
◄ Testi vegetarian - lunch at Old Ottoman Cafe & Restaurant in Fatih
Sac Tava – lamb and vegetables cooked in convex shaped pan
◄ Quick dinner at Urfalim in Fatih - a helping of Sac Tava
Freshly grilled seafood from the Bosphorus
◄ Grilled Sea Bass - lunch at Old Ottoman Cafe & Restaurant in Fatih
Turkish tea – brewed in teapot, resulting in deep red colour
◄ Turkish Tea
Turkish coffee – smooth, slightly sweetish, sipped lightly so as not to disturb the coffee grounds at the bottom
◄ Turkish Coffee
Turkish Delight (Lokum) – many varieties, and oh…so sweet!
◄ Turkish Delight
Baklava – delicious filo pastry with nuts and bathed in sweet syrup
◄ Turkish Baklava
A typical sit-in dinner would set you back by 100-130 liras, dishes dependent. We enjoyed our culinary experience in Istanbul but to be brutally honest, I would say it was just average at best in terms of the taste. I have tasted and eaten better Turkish food in London and Frankfurt.
If you are not into the local foods, fear not. There are many outlets of McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC.
Getting from City to Airport
This one left me really baffled. The taxi fare from Ataturk Airport to Marriott Sisli was 56 liras, but the return journey in the morning ran up to 95 liras. There was no traffic jam or diversions. Either the route from Sisli to Ataturk Airport was substantially longer or I was taken for a ride. I did not care to argue – I was leaving Istanbul with an impression.
Istanbul is a relatively cheap city to spend a good long weekend or for a nice long week. The luxury hotels are affordable, food outlets are plentiful, and there are many things to see and do.
Amazing offer from Iberia! If you book a flight on this Iberia’s offer page, you will get 9,000 Avios points FREE. What makes it so good is that you do not have to do the actual flying in order to earn the 9,000 points. All you have to do is book the absolutely cheapest one way flight operated by Iberia, Iberia Express or Iberia Regional Air Nostrum, and within 10 days of booking, you will receive 9,000 Avios points. It goes without saying, you have to be a member of Iberia Plus frequent flyer programme. Register here if you are not already a member.
If you book 10 one way flights separately, from Santander (SDR) to Madrid (MAD) on Iberia for €24.27 each, your total investment is €242.70. This will get you a total of 90,000 Avios points.
Let us explore on how attractive this can be. What can 90,000 points get you?
10 return flights London-Amsterdam-London or London-Paris-London
(10 x 9,000 = 90,0000)
6 return flights Dublin-Madrid-Dublin (6 x 15,000 = 90,000)
If you have a little Avios lying around to help out, you can get:
7 return flights London-Madrid-London (7 x 13,000 = 91,000)
2 return flights Madrid-Lima-Madrid (2 x 46,250 = 92,500)
These are award tickets. Do not forget to add taxes (always choose destinations that attract low taxes when doing award redemption).
But the above are small change. The real bonanza is when you fly business class!
To explore further, let us consider this example:
Dublin-Madrid-Dublin, depart 19-OCT-2018, return 22-OCT-2018
Cost = 15,000 Avios plus €42.31 total (see below)
Now, how much will it cost to fly by buying with cash for the exact flights, taking the cheapest option? Using Iberia website, I ran the search and this worked out to €224.31 total in cash for one return trip.
To get enough points by way of this offer, you have to buy two tickets SDR-MAD for €24.27 each; total is €48.54, with a leftover points of 5,000.
Total air fare with cash
Buy 2 tickets SDR-MAD €24.27 each
- get 18,000 points; use 13,000, leftover 5,000
Tax/fee for award ticket
Total award redemption cost
But the best use for this promotion is to use the Avios points for business class travel.
You can fly Madrid-Lima-Madrid business class on Iberia for 85,000 points plus about €204 in fees/taxes. The cost of acquiring 85,000 points using this promotion is €243 (10 trips x €24.27 : gives 90,000 points) with 5,000 leftover. So, the total cost is €447. For exactly the same flights, the cash fare is €2,807, giving a massive saving of €2,360! In other words, you are getting a €2,807 ticket for €447. Business class!
It makes a lot of sense to grab this Iberia Avios offer! And if you can actually use the booked flights (SDR-MAD), that would be a nice bonus.
Beware of the fine prints:
1. Bookings must be done by 24-JUN-2018 on this link.
2. Flight must operated by Iberia, Iberia Express or Iberia Regional Air Nostrum.
3. You can only redeem the Avios awarded through this promotion through the Iberia Plus programme.
4. You cannot transfer these Avios to your BA Executive Club account; you will have negative balance.
5. You will be able to earn up to 90,000 Avios during the promotion period.
6. These promotional Avios points must be redeemed by the 1st December 2018. You can redeem for flight tickets, hotel bookings and car rentals.
7. Although you must redeem by 1st December 2018, the flights or other products can be used for 2019 dates.
Finally, it states that tickets must be bought in the following countries: Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Russia, United Kingdom, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Mexico and USA, regardless of the origin of the flight.
On June 11th 2018, British Airways had London to Tel Aviv return fare available for £187 in economy class, apparently in B class which would have yielded 140 BA tier points. Dubai was available for £215 return. The next day, BA removed the fares because they were ‘mistake’ fares. Well, someone botched something somewhere.
In my view, taking Tel Aviv for instance, £187 was not really a screaming bargain or error. It could easily have been a one day ‘flash sale’. You could get Whizzair at around £212, or an indirect flight on Aegean via Athens for £185, or Turkish Airlines via Istanbul for £224.
Four days later, BA started cancelling the bookings, citing it was a mistake fare. BA offered a full refund and £100 voucher as a goodwill for its misstep to affected passengers.
Virgin, a long time competitor to BA in the UK, seized the opportunity and took a jab at BA. I think the marketing banner on Virgin’s website is pretty amusing and creative.
BA received a lot of negative mainstream media publicity for this. BBC reported it here. It should have just honoured the ‘mitsake’ fare. The first reason – it was not exceedingly a cheap fare when compared to the other airlines. Secondly, only 2,000 passengers were affected. BA flew 42.8 million passengers in 2017, so 2,000 was a mere drop in the ocean.
I have not flown before with low cost carriers on long haul routes. I have done a few short hauls on the intra-Asia routes with Air Asia, but none lasting over three hours. It was an opportune time to experience one and make comparisons. I was very interested to deduce an arbitrary judgment whether the savings in air fare outweighed the overall benefits of a full service airline.
WestJet is a scheduled airline based in Canada. It really is a second fiddle to Air Canada. Historically, it claims to be a low cost airline, but in reality, prices between WestJet and Air Canada are closely comparable. For what it’s worth, WestJet is now aspiring to become a full service airline with its recent announcement to acquire 10 Boeing 787 jets, to be configured with economy, premium economy and lie-flat business classes. It is launching a new version of its low-cost airline, to be called ‘Swoop’. (Low cost and low fare are not mutually exclusive, in real life.)
I managed to steal a bargain with WestJet for an economy return flight from Vancouver to London Gatwick. I paid C$360 for a legitimate return fare, bought from an European based online travel agency, GoToGate. I said it was ‘legitimate’ because this was no mistake fare. This fare was a barebone – just the basic. It did not include seat selection and baggage fee. It also did not include meals despite this being a nine hour non-stop flight one way.
To make things more bearable, I bought a few options.
Firstly, for a trip lasting over two weeks, it was quite impossible or impractical to travel with just a carry-on. One check-in bag was deemed a necessity. The cost was C$25 per bag not exceeding 23kg. I had only 15kg. Too bad, there was no discount for this.
Next, since there were two of us travelling and the flight was a long one, for added comfort, it was quite desirable to be seated next to your travelling buddy. Seat selection set us back by C$25 each.
As the flight was a lengthy nine hour, it was natural to expect a couple helpings of food. I had the option, feed myself at the airport and go onboard with a loaded stomach, or just buy a meal on-board. Either way, I had to buy. The first meal was a chicken wrap that costed C$9.49, while the second meal was a cheese pizza, also costing C$9.49. Total food cost was C$18.98. Let’s round that up to C$19. Soft drinks, coffee and tea were complimentary.
In-flight entertainment was also complementary. As long as you have an iPhone or iPad and that you have downloaded the WestJet app beforehand, you can view the latest movies. It did not work on laptops although WestJet’s website claimed otherwise. The movie choices were limited, but adequate if you do not mind repeats. If you do not have an iPad, it is available for rental at C$6.95. I had mine with me, so the in-flight entertainment did not cost me anything.
Tabulating the cost for one person, return trip:
C$25 outbound, £14.42 inbound (C$25.11)
C$25 outbound, C$25 inbound
C$19 outbound, C$19 inbound
Using Google Flights, I captured a fare comparison for the same itinerary on the very day I booked my WestJet flights. Snapshot as below:
As you can see, through the standard distribution channel, Google Flights was pricing the same WestJet’s flights at C$769. I went directly on WestJet website – it priced the same as Google Flights. But using the European based online travel agent, I was also able to grab the flights for C$360 (yes, under half the price!). Bear in mind, even at C$769, I would still have to pay for bags, seats and food. Lesson learned here was that never assume the airline’s website would automatically give you the best deal. Air fares are not created equal; some channels may offer better deals.
From the snapshot, it was clear that Air Canada’s price (C$835) was comparable to WestJet (C$769). Add seat, food and bag, WestJet’s total came to C$839. At this price, I would vote to go with Air Canada – anytime. It is a full service airline, in the Star Alliance, have more flights to choose from, and if you have frequent flyer elite status with Air Canada or Star Alliance, you can enjoy a multitude of benefits (priority check-in, priority boarding, use of airport lounge, amongst others). But at C$498 all in, it was hard to ignore WestJet, and I would still favour Westjet, purely for the 40% savings over Air Canada. For a family of four, this would add up pretty nicely (a handsome total savings of C$1,348).
Apart from the price perspective, there are other tangible and intangible factors to consider. Flight schedules, non-stop versus connecting flights, frequent flyer programmes, aircraft types and choice of airports can also influence the decision. WestJet flies an older version of the Boeing 767-300, while with Air Canada, you can fly on the newer Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The 787 is much more comfortable to fly in; its fresh air intake and optimal cabin pressure do result in less jet lag. WestJet flies into Gatwick Airport, London’s secondary airport while Air Canada terminates in Heathrow. Heathrow is the second busiest airport in the world and has extensive flight connections. If you have a connecting flight, it is highly probable that you will have to get from Gatwick to Heathrow to catch your connection. The land transfer between the two airports is not cheap. One way National Express coach trip is £27 (C$47) and it takes a minimum of 70 minutes, and that is, during off peak hours without traffic jam on the M25 motorway. If you have frequent flyer’s elite status (for example Star Alliance Gold or One World Emerald/Sapphire), you would lose out on priority check-in, priority boarding, free check-in bags, free seat selection, free airline’s lounge use and frequent flyer points and/or status points. This is because WestJet is not a member of Star Alliance or One World or Skyteam (the three largest airlines’ alliances).
My conclusion is that the fares available at time of making the booking is paramount. If a low cost airline is substantially cheaper (eg 30%-50%), there is a strong case to favour the low cost carrier. If the difference is a mere 5%-15%, I would favour the full service airline, especially if you have frequent flyer elite status. I am also not a great fan of airlines that nickel-and-dime their customers.
Hilton has launched its Summer Sale. For South East Asia, you can get up to 30% off. For India, you can get up to 25% off.
South East Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, Philippines, Vietnam)
Booking period: 8am GMT, 16 May 2018 to 8am GMT, 08 June 2018
Stays: Between 23 May 2018 and 31 December 2018
Advance reservation: 7 to 21 days required
You can access the Hilton link for the sale here.
Booking period: 9am GMT, 30 Apr 2018 to 9am GMT, 17 June 2018
Stays: Between 3 May 2018 and 31 December 2018
Advance reservation: 3 days required
You can access the Hilton link for the Indian sale here.
Sri Lanka and Maldives are also on sale at 25% and 30% respectively. Limited choices.
Vancouver to London Gatwick for C$365 return economy.
Various dates in May 2018, June 2018
Possibly other months too
Various dates in Jun 2018, July 2018
Possibly other months too
Sample/Specific dates: Vancouver to London Gatwick 30MAY WS22 non-stop
London Gatwick to Vancouver 13JUN WS23 non-stop
Fare: GBP £210.43 or C$375.50 (inclusive foreign exchange charges)
To get this fantastic fare, you have to head to a UK online travel agent.
Link: GoToGate website Disclosure: We have no personal or commercial relationship whatsoever.
I tried WestJet website directly, but the fares are considerably more. For the exact dates and flights above, it is pricing at C$695.91. (Mind you, still a brilliant fare for non-stop flights on a Boeing 767.)
This incredible fare won’t last long. Grab it now!
I have travelled to several countries in southern Africa and thoroughly enjoyed the views and wild animals. Having previously visited Egypt, this was my second trip to further my exploration in North Africa and experience the differences between the regions. In this trip, I covered the city of Tunis in Tunisia and a few of its suburbs.
Getting There and Arrival
We flew in from Doha to Tunis with Qatar Airways. It was on an older Airbus A330-300 aircraft with outdated business class cabin and seats. The flight was uneventful and not as pleasurable compared to flying in the front cabin of Qatar Airways’ Boeing 787,Airbus A350, or even on a Boeing 777.
Tunis Carthage Airport is small and basic. It did not take much walking for us to get from the aircraft to Passport Control. As we were the first to disembark the aircraft, we were the first to reach the immigration control. It was straightforward – no visa on arrival for Canadian passport holders, no landing forms to fill, and no questions asked by the immigration officer.
While waiting for the bags, we gave ourselves a head start by changing some Euro into Tunisian Dinars. Tunisian currency is a closed currency, meaning that it can only be obtained in the country of arrival, and has strict import and export restrictions. Inside the baggage hall, there were two money exchange booths and an ATM machine nearby. We exchanged the currency with Banque de L’Habitat and received a rate of 2.924 Tunisian dinars for one Euro. (Typically, we use xe.com app to check the closing rate, and if it is a difference of a few points, i.e. 1%-3%, we are happy to make the transaction. The dealers have to make money too!) If you forget to change your money in the baggage hall, do not worry as there are more money changers after exiting the baggage area. The rates were about the same as the ones inside the baggage hall. Several ATM machines were also available.
As Tunisian Dinars are a closed currency, it is advisable not to have an excess of Tunisian dinars leftover after your trip. If you have dinars upon leaving, you have to make a declaration. Make sure you have your original receipt of exchange, go to the booth of the same bank that you originally exchanged with on the departure level before your flight and do the exchange. Upon arrival, we were told that we would get the same rate as we initially changed, but in our case, it was not so. We were given 2.973. The amount to be converted back was small, so we did not bother making an argument but this is something to keep in mind.
Getting from Airport to City
Before exiting the airport, we stopped by the Tourist Information counter to ask about the cost of taxi so that we know the top end of the fare. We were told that 15 dinars was the maximum we should be paying. Our hotel was not that far from the airport, about 7-8 km away. We took the yellow taxi and pre-negotiated a fare of 12 dinars. In the end, we still gave our taxi driver 15 dinars, inclusive of tips. The taxis in Tunis have meters, but we were told that they do not like using them.
Hotel and Location
Tunis does not have many international hotel chains. At time of writing, there was no Hilton or Marriott, although these are being built. The accommodation in Tunis is overpriced by Tunisian local standard, in my opinion. Accor Hotels is the dominant chain with Novotel and Ibis available for stays. We stayed at Ibis because we thought that Novotel was unreasonably priced. These two hotels are adjacent to each other. Location wise, they are not in the city centre. They are about 1.5 km away to Habib Bourguiba Avenue, which is considered as the city centre. Having said that, it is a leisurely 20 minutes’ walk on Mohammed V Avenue to Habib Bourguiba Avenue. If you want a central location, pick a hotel at or very near to Habib Bourguiba Avenue. There were a few hotels that we noticed on our walks – which, at least from the exterior, looked pretty decent (for example, Africa Hotel) but the reviews in Trip Advisor can put you off. If you are at Habib Bourguiba Avenue, you are also very near to the Medina which is where most of the city attractions are located.
The hotels here maintain a high security stance. Before entering the lobby, your bags have to be scanned through x-ray machine and guests have to be screened by metal detectors. The front external perimeter is secured with vehicle access barriers using retractable bollards. The security measures are perhaps understandable considering the terrorist attacks three years ago.
Language and People The prime languages here are Arabic and French. The local Arabic language here is known as Darija. Although it is a derivative of Classical Arabic, many of its words are of French, Turkish, Italian, Spanish and Berber origin. These were the cultures that had influenced Tunisia many hundred years ago.
French is widely spoken and written. Virtually, all the menus are written in French and Arabic. English, on the other hand, is not widely spoken. If you do not speak French, you will struggle to communicate, but a few hand gestures will get you through the basic stuff.
The people in Tunis are very friendly. They really do not bother you and let you get on with your things. They tend to dress in stylish modern western attire, much to our surprise. They appear to be more secular than we expected. We hardly saw anyone with the niqab (head covering and scarf that conceals the face), but many women do wear the hijab (scarf covering the head and neck).
Yellow taxis were plentiful, and they lingered around the hotel premises. As soon as you exit the hotel, the drivers will approach you for a fare. Our main mode of transport was by foot. We prefer walking as we can learn more and be more immersed in the local culture. As it was April, the temperature ranged from 18°C to 22°C during day time – just ideal for walking.
On our second day, we set out to discover the ruins of ancient Tunis and its coastal lines located outside the city centre. Taxi was deemed the best mode for this purpose as it involved multiple sites that were not particularly close to each other. We negotiated an hourly rate with the taxi driver. He wanted 25 dinars per hour, but we countered at 20 dinars with a promise of a generous tip, which he accepted. His taxi was very clean. He spoke moderately good English and was friendly and respectful. We ventured from Tunis to the archaeological sites of Carthage (six different places), Sidi Bou Said, La Marsa and Gammarth, and then back to Tunis.
The whole excursion took 5 hours to complete including stops and lunch. It costed us 100 dinars and we gave him 50 dinars as tip (as he doubled up as our unofficial guide due to his proficiency in English).
We somehow missed out on La Goulette during our day trip excursion but decided to check it out independently the next day. We took the TGM train from Tunis Marine (at the water end of Habib Bourguiba Avenue) to La Casino station (one of the stations in La Goulette). The ticket was only 1 dinar one way. Buy the ticket from the ticket counter at the respective station. The TGM trains were quite regular and took only 15 minutes point to point. The physical conditions of the train were quite poor; they were in a state of decline and had definitely seen better days.
Main Places to See
My first impression of this city was that it was a dusty little city. Many vehicles and roads were enveloped with layers of dust. Tunis has interesting culture and history, evidenced by its charming and decently maintained colonial buildings and its ancient Medina.
Medina of Tunis
This was clearly our favourite. The Medina became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. This area houses many mosques, palaces and monuments. Its buildings have distinctive and interesting facades with giant traditional doors. A maze of narrow but colourful souks (market places) populate the area. The souks trade in a plethora of goods – baskets, pottery, jewellery, carved ornaments, clothing, spices of every kind, and delicious sweets and cakes. The traders do not hassle you, and if you are approached but not interested, just smile and walk on.
Habib Bourguiba Avenue
This is the Tunisian version of the Champs-Elysees in Paris. This broad avenue runs in east-west direction and is lined with trees and shops on both sides. To the east is the marine area, and to the west is the Medina of Tunis. By all accounts, Habib Bourguiba Avenue is considered as the city centre and the happening place. There are many cafes, restaurants and stores. The Tunis city folks, mainly the males, love to hang out at the street cafes, watching people pass by while sipping their strong coffee in small cups.
At the time of our visit, there were many armed police patrolling here, many in full military fatigues. Steel barriers were erected, diminishing the views of the street. At Place de l’Indépendance, we could see a defensive battle post, complete with sandbanks and rolls of barbed wires. Despite the heavy police presence, the people of Tunis seemed unbothered and went about their business as usual. With all this security, we still did not feel threatened or unsafe at any point during our stay.
Carthage Ancient Ruins
These ancient ruins are located about 20 minutes’ drive from Tunis city centre. It is possible to take the TGM local train to Carthage but once you get there, it is difficult to hop over from one site to another, and other public transport including taxis are not readily available. The Roman ruins dominate the ancient ruins in Carthage. We had the opportunity to explore Carthage Museum in Byrsa, Carthage Mohamed Ali, La Romain Amphitheatre, Les villas Romaines (Roman residences) and Les Thermes D’Antonin (Antonine Baths). If you start your visit at Carthage Museum, you can buy a ticket that allows you to visit 8 ancient sites and it costs only 10 dinars per person. You also have to pay 1 dinar to use your own camera.
Neighbouring the Les villas Romaines is the grand Mosque of Mâlik ibn Anas (originally called El Abidine Mosque). We did not have the opportunity to venture inside due to prayer time, but it looks quite majestic from the outside.
Sidi Bou Said
We love this charming little town, characterised by its distinctive blue and white buildings which lined the cobblestone streets of Sidi Bou Said. It rests on a hilltop with cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, and the ocean views are simply gorgeous. This was where we had our lunch stop at Cafe des Delices, recommended by our driver, after we told him that we wanted authentic Tunisian food. The café overlooked the ocean and presidential palace. The views were stunning but the food was mediocre, and that was to put it kindly. The couscous was bland, and the grilled fish was nothing special. Sadly, it was not worth the money we paid for and it was really a tourist trap.
After Sidi Bou Said, we continued to La Marsa, which was just a couple of minutes’ drive away. We did not spend much time here but did stop at the waterfront promenade that offers an expansive view of the Mediterranean Sea.
Adjacent to La Marsa is the upmarket seaside resort of Gammarth. At the viewpoint, as with La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said, Gammarth offers breathtaking views of the ocean. We also had the opportunity to set foot on the beach. The sand is light brown in colour, and the beach was very clean and uncrowded. Although we did not see anyone swimming in the sea, probably due to the season of the year, it feels comfortable enough to go for a dip here.
We took the local TGM train to this port town. As frank as we can be, we did not find this place very appealing. We arrived at dusk and the place was pretty much deserted.
Tunis City of Culture Centre
If you have time, drop in to see this cultural centre which was built to showcase the cultural wealth of the Tunisian people. Apparently, they spent 130 million dinars (€44m) to build this. It is free to enter and was only opened recently (21-MAR-2018). It is located on Mohamed V Avenue, just across the street from Novotel. It is an impressive modern building but retains some of the customary Tunisian architectural feel. When we visited this complex, there was barely anything happening. However, there was a small cinematic exhibition depicting the old 1960’s / 1970’s movies, prominently featuring Claudia Cardinale, the Tunis-born Italian movie star. Apart from that, there was nothing much else to do, see or even to eat or drink but since our hotel was just across the road, we thought we should check it out.
It is our unwritten rule to eat local cuisine wherever we travel. However, in Tunis, this somewhat eluded us. We were looking forward to having a daily helping of Tunisan tanjine, lamb a la gargoulette, Tunisian couscous, kefta and brik, amongst others, but they were hard to locate. There was virtually no eatery around our hotel and we had to head to Habib Bourguiba Avenue for our food. The restaurants on the side streets were not very inviting or appealing so we ended up eating in the cafes by the main thoroughfare of Habib Bourguiba Avenue. The local bread, khobz tabouna, was quite delicious. When stuffed with shawarma fillings, you get a sandwich. The fillings consisted of shavings of meat that was roasted in vertical spit, chopped vegetables, pickles and various condiments. Pizzas are popular here, along with various variants of kebab. Generous helping of olives and olive oil are also common. Meals were relatively inexpensive.
Try the bambalouni – a Tunisian doughnut with light dough sprinkled with sugar. A perfect sweet companion while walking and exploring the Medina.
If you are a western fast food lover, it is bad news for you. There is absolutely no McDonald, Burger King, Pizza Hut or similar but I have been reliably told that KFC now has an outlet in La Marsa.
Summary This secular city inherits centuries of history with blend of Arabic, Ottoman and European cultures. The relaxed approach of the Tunisian people to daily life makes Tunis an easy and pleasurable place to navigate around and sightsee. The city is also blessed with the beautiful Mediterranean coastline. Unlike Algeria, Tunisia does not require visa to enter (for citizens of many countries)– one more reason to include Tunis for a quick layover or a long weekend.