For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved three things: planes, trains, and automobiles (specifically Porsche). So, when I crunched the numbers in March and figured that I’d be able to make a mad dash through Germany and Switzerland for a few days in May that combined all three elements, I geeked out.
As a relatively new miles enthusiast, my supply of points is not as considerable as others – for this trip I had about 180,000 points/miles between my Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Ink Business Preferred, and United MileagePlus accounts, plus 20,000 Marriott Rewards Points. I decided to use 70,000 points to fly United and Lufthansa to Frankfurt, bum around Switzerland for the better part of three days, tour Porsche’s factory in Stuttgart, and make my home in Lufthansa First Class (plan A), Lufthansa Business Class (plan B), or United’s awful 8-across Business Class (plan Z). As I laid out back in March when I first started planning this trip, my plan was to transfer my Ultimate Rewards points to my United account to book Lufthansa business class on the outbound, and (hopefully) Lufthansa first class on the return. Because Lufthansa doesn’t typically release first class award space until two weeks before travel, there was some degree of flying by the seat of my pants.
Once the magical 14 day window opened, I checked United’s website for Saver First Class fares on Lufthansa, and voila there it was. FRA to ORD in First Class, and ORD to RDU in Economy for 110,000 points plus taxes. I immediately transferred the requisite number of miles from Chase to United and booked the trip – holding my breath until I received email confirmation from United that it had been ticketed.
Crossing the Pond
From Raleigh, I flew into Newark, hopped onto the Air Train to the Amtrak station, boarded a New Jersey Transit train for Penn Station, switched to the Long Island Railroad to Jamaica, and finally boarded the Air Train to JFK. If that sounds like a lot of connections – it was. All told, it was about two hours from exiting the plane until I got to security at JFK. That’s how much I wanted to fly in an A380!
This was my first time flying out of JFK, and I’m not eager to repeat the experience. The ticketing area was, in a word, rough. Lots of confusion, a mass of bodies, and a general sense of depression. I mean, nobody seemed happy. Perhaps 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon is not a good time? Who knows. For me, getting through security turned out to be a non-issue thanks to Pre✓. Though for some reason I did have to remove my shoes and take my laptop out.
Once past TSA, the fun really began. I headed to the Lufthansa Lounge and was checked in immediately. The room was crowded, but I was able to find an empty table at which to sit, unburden my belongings, and snack on a late lunch. I guessed dinner would be two hours later, so I noshed a bit lighter than I otherwise might have. The food was standard lounge fare – much better than other airport options, but not out of this world and certainly not to the level of the First Class and HON Circle lounge one floor above us. I ended up killing about 90 minutes in the lounge before leaving 10 minutes before boarding commenced since I wanted to be first in line and get a picture of the cabin.
I loitered at the gate for a few minutes, trying in vain to get a good shot of the behemoth A380 while avoiding the crowds from our flight and a nearby flight departing for Shanghai. Having failed on both counts, I took my place at the head of the business class line and waited another 10 minutes before my turn to show my passport and board.
Having flown Lufthansa business class five months earlier, albeit on the 747-8, I was familiar with the product and my expectations were in line with what greeted me: consistent excellence, though nothing about the hard product was mind blowing. The seat/bed was adequate for my 6’3″ frame, the bedding was comfortable, storage was ample, the IFE screen was decent size, and best of all – I didn’t have a seat opponent next to me.
I was served a nice glass of pinot noir prior to takeoff and had a great view from the window seat as we climbed VERY slowly heading southeast. I actually got slightly concerned when I looked out and saw water 50 feet below the plane on the climb out. The business class cabin was only half full, but the rest of the plane must have been at capacity because we gained altitude alarmingly slowly.
Once we reached cruising altitude and the service portion of the flight began, I’m pleased to say that both the food and the flight attendants serving it were great.
I opted to start with a prawn appetizer (and another glass of wine), skipped the salad offering, and finished with a pairing of beef filet with lamb chop. Though I’ve never had these two in the same meal, I enjoyed the combination. It was cooked closer to medium than rare, which was perfectly acceptable in my book even if not right on the nose temperature-wise (it’s a cramped galley at 40,000 feet after all). I’m not usually a fan of sauce on my steaks or chops, but in this case the sauce paired with the potato au gratin very nicely.
Knowing I had several long days of “training” ahead, I notified the flight attendant that I needed no further service and wanted to sleep as long as possible. I’m able to sleep fitfully on planes in lie flat beds – not a deep, restful sleep, but certainly better than leaning my head against the cabin for five hours trying to nod off. This flight was no exception – thanks to an eye mask and ear plugs, I was able to sleep until about 40 minutes before we landed.
Being one of the first passengers to depart the plane, I was able to whisk through Deutschland’s immigration control with Teutonic efficiency and head straight to the Welcome Lounge since I had no carry-on luggage. I love arrival lounges – even more than departure lounges because a chance to use a real bathroom, take a hot shower, and have a relaxed meal definitely helps start off the day in your destination and lessen the impact of jet lag.
If you look at the time on the picture, you’ll see it was quite early in the day and I was literally one of the first passengers in the welcome lounge. There was no wait for a shower and I proceeded to take advantage.
Having had breakfast in this lounge several months earlier as part of my daughter’s graduation trip, I was familiar with the setup and menu choices. The food service area was clean and well stocked – and served the same cafeteria-style fare I’d eaten back in December. A pleasant way to start the day and kill two hours before my first train.
Because I was traveling exclusively by train (except for a very special three hour window – more on that later), I purchased a Rail Europe pass allowing me unlimited travel on participating rail providers in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. For $503, I could hop on virtually any train in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy for the next five days. First up, was my trip to Switzerland.
Frankfurt Airport actually has two train stations – one for local trains, and one for long distance international trains. I headed to the international departure hall, got my pass validated, and hopped aboard a series of trains to Zermatt, via Basel, Bern, and Visp. All of the trains ran (roughly) on time, and were very clean and comfortable. As an adult Rail Europe pass holder, my tickets were automatically first class.
After about three and a half hours, I noticed the views started getting progressively more dramatic. Plowed fields and industrial parks gave way to foothills, and later, towering peaks. By the time I changed trains for the last time at Visp, our last train into Zermatt needed a cogwheel to ascend the steeper portions of the journey.
Around every bend, a new landscape would emerge – remote villages, farms, and unbelievably green meadows were towered over by mountains still covered in snow despite being May. Waterfalls and rivers were constant companions on this phase of the journey.
Zermatt is a lovely ski resort town in the Alps – most famous for being in the shadow of Matterhorn (and also the setting for a great documentary series on Netflix called The Horn). Matterhorn has been attempted tens of thousands of times in the last 150 years, and more than 500 people have died – making it one of the world’s deadliest ascents.
Even though the Swiss Franc was equivalent to the dollar, I was shocked by the prices in Zermatt – even though the town was mostly deserted. My room at the Hotel Pollux was reasonably priced, clean, and very comfortable. But every restaurant in town seemed locked into a struggle for who could gouge tourists the most – for food that wasn’t special. In the end, I settled for a simple burger and fries, which came to more than $40. You read that right.
All Aboard (Part Zwei)
After a fantastic night’s sleep, I woke up the next morning, took a stroll around the empty streets of town, and made my way to the train station to catch the 8:52 Glacier Express bound for St. Moritz. Though co-operated by two Swiss full service railways, the Glacier Express is dedicated to the tourist trade – with modern rail cars featuring panoramic windows for an unobstructed view of the Swiss countryside. It’s a narrow gauge train with a cogwheel that averaged just over 20 miles per hour for the seven and a half hour journey – billed as the “world’s slowest express train”. The train fare was covered as part of my rail pass, but I did need to make a seat reservation the trip. The Man in Seat 61 recommends sitting on the right side of the train, so that’s where I booked my seat.
To say the scenery was beautiful would be an understatement. If I thought the views of the prior day were amazing, day two’s vistas were jaw dropping. We skirted lush green valleys dotted with charming villages likely populated by more cattle than people, plodded along in the shadows of 12,000 ft peaks, and paralleled chalky streams carrying spring runoff. We gradually made our way up and over the Oberalp Pass – one of Europe’s highest rail crossings at 6,700 feet – all while eating lunch and drinking fantastic wine.
Lunch was a passable stroganoff with salad and bread, made better by some free glasses of wine I scored from the train staff by volunteering to move so another couple could escape a faulty window that was covered in condensation (you can see exactly how it spoiled the view in one of the photos above). We picked up the alpine portion of the Rhine River and followed it down to Chur – the oldest city in Switzerland and located at “just” 1900 feet – including a lovely stretch along what the Swiss call the “Swiss Grand Canyon” (it’s indeed beautiful, but pales in comparison to the real thing).
I got off in Chur, opting to sleep there for the night rather than St. Moritz. With apologies to the fine people of Grisons, I had no plans in Chur other than a night’s stay at the ABC Swiss Quality Hotel before my next train ride the next morning. Despite the slightly sketchy name and website that looks more like what you’d expect from a Super 8, I was very pleased with my stay. The room was clean, comfortable, and quiet – checking off the three boxes that matter to me most on solo trips.
I wandered around for an hour halfheartedly looking for a house of horology (aka watch shop) that I never came across, grabbed a $15 Big Mac meal at McDonalds, and retreated to my room for some light work and reading before falling asleep. Breakfast was included the next morning as part of a half board rate, and I found a nice selection of “continental” items paired with some hot items like eggs, sausage, and bacon.
All Aboard (Part Drei)
After breakfast, I made quick work of the quarter mile walk to the train station, bought some train snacks (Europeans, at least the ones I know, are obsessed with train snacks) for what would be a LONG day on the rails, and made my way to the Bernina Express. The other half of the Swiss tourist train duopoly along with Glacier Express, it’s a four hour journey to Tirano, Italy. By now, I was onto the plot and knew that today’s views would be even more spectacular than yesterday’s. Spoiler alert – they were.
Like the Glacier Express, train fare was included in my Rail Pass. Also like the Glacier Express, I had to pay a supplemental seat reservation fee. Words don’t do much justice to this leg of the journey, so let me just post a few photographs:
The first train ride of the day terminated in Tirano – half a mile across the Italian border (now I’ve been to 14 countries), where I got off the train and right back on another (non-tourist) train headed back to Chur. Surprisingly, I enjoyed this trip much more since it was far less crowded, and had old fashioned windows that slid down (as opposed to the fixed panoramic windows on the Bernina Express) so I could capture pictures without window glare. Even after this second train ride of the day, I had three more trains on tap: A switch at Samedan, a tight connection in Chur for a late afternoon train to Zurich, and then an evening ride to …
Stuttgart (the city of dreams)
The city of my dreams, at least. Stuttgart is home to two of the finest automobile manufacturers in the world – including my favorite. And since it was roughly located between Switzerland and my flight back home from Frankfurt, I knew I’d take advantage. I booked a night at Aloft Stuttgart – earning more than 1900 Marriott Rewards Points thanks to my Marriott Gold status (about to be significantly devalued, but that’s another story for another day) and Ritz Carlton Rewards card.
For $107, I was pleased. The hotel was new, priced right, and convenient – a short 10 minute walk from the main train station. There were no dining options to speak of, other than a bar menu, so after arriving around 9:30 in the evening, I had to turn back around and walk back to the train station to find something to eat. In the end, I picked a non-de script market selling packaged sandwiches and “fresh” fruit.
I woke up early the next morning, if you count 7am as early, and prepared for my pilgrimage to Zuffenhausen – a must see destination for all Porsche fanboys. The Porsche Plaza had its own stop on the S-Line and took about 7 minutes from the station nearest the hotel. I toured the factory-adjacent dealership to drool over European spec cars and booked a two hour factory tour that would show off Porsche’s logistical supply chain, handmade upholstery, and assembly line operations.
As it happened, our tour group was not charged for admission, because Porsche was sending a prototype of the new 911 through the assembly line and we would not be allowed in the section where the car was during our tour. In our case, that was the critical step where the engine is married to the chassis. I was disappointed, but gained new appreciation for the intricacies of auto manufacturing: Porsche knew exactly where that very special 911 would be three hours before it got there and was able to institute a rolling cordon to keep unauthorized eyes from the area.
After my tour, I headed back to the hotel to retrieve my bag and walked back to the train station – where I boarded a very hot and very crowded Deutsche Bahn train for Frankfurt. Thankfully, the trip was a short 90 minutes and we arrived on time at the very same platform I had departed from 72 hours earlier.
One Night in Frankfurt
With a limited supply of Marriott Rewards Points (from a mega-redemption at the Grand Cayman Ritz Carlton two months earlier), I opted to burn 15,000 for a night at the Moxy Frankfurt Airport. I waited approximately 40 minutes for the airport shuttle, and then another 20 minutes to check in. Burning an hour was not the best way to start the stay, so perhaps my “meh” feeling about this property owes to that. It was clean but noisy and cramped – and I got the feeling that it was trying to hard to be a youthfully oriented brand. The mattress was very thin, and the “desk” was really just a glass shelf that made working really uncomfortable. Then again, I’m in my 40s so its entirely possible I’m the one who doesn’t get it.
Thankfully, I was only in this tiny room for about four waking hours, and then on to…
The Car of My Dreams
With so much packed into such a short trip, you might think it would be difficult for me to choose my favorite part of the journey. No such luck. Without a doubt, my favorite part of the trip was the last day. Three hours spent driving the Autobahn and the Rhine River valley in a Porsche 911 Carerra 4 GTS, followed by two hours in Lufthansa’s First Class Terminal, and nine incredible hours in Lufthansa First Class.
Up first was my very first experience behind the wheel of a Porsche – or any rear engine car for that matter. At the time, Lufthansa had a special arrangement with Avis wherein First Class customers could rent a 911 for 99 euro during their layover. I jumped at the chance.
After spending about 40 minutes in line at the Avis counter (poorly timed on my part, arriving just after a number of overseas flights had landed), my contract and damage waiver was processed, and I was on my way for a rather lengthy walk to where my car was garaged. The black 911 waiting for me was everything I hoped for. Before getting in, I took photos and a video of the car to note the condition – specifically several instances of minor curb rash on the black matte wheels (more on that later).
Getting in and out of the car was easier than expected given my frame and the typical garage parking stall dimensions. Once seated inside, the car offered a warm embrace and invited me to turn over the twin turbo six cylinder engine. A refined growl arose from behind me, and the car’s infotainment systems sprung to life. I (very, very, very carefully) exited the parking garage and headed to the A3 Autobahn, where I planned to head west to Weisbaden and then parallel the Rhine River. You won’t see any pictures of my drive that day, but it was spectacular. To say the car was responsive was an understatement. To say it was fast would be ridiculously underselling it. I mixed in high speed driving (120 mph with other cars around you can be downright terrifying) and lazy meandering along roads meant for sightseeing. I had the car for three hours, so I set a timer for 75 minutes on the outbound leg, and then turned around and headed back to the airport. Specifically to Lufthansa’s dedicated First Class Terminal (FCT) for my …
First Class Experience
Lufthansa’s FCT is a short distance away from the main terminal – but worlds apart in terms of experience. If more travelers were aware a place like this existed, there’d be trouble.
I pulled the 911 right up to the door, where an attendant appeared and informed me he would return the car. He also asked if I had taken photos of the car because, in his words, that particular Avis Branch “likes to invent damage”. After telling him that I had, he took my bag, passed me off to another handler, and zoomed off. I may have shed a tear watching the car disappear down the ramp.
My attendant asked if I had flown Lufthansa First Class before, and seemed genuinely delighted that it was my first time. She gathered my passport and walked me through the security procedures, how the FCT operated, what amenities I could look forward to, and how boarding would be handled. We entered through a private security area with no line and officers who seemed almost apologetic. Including the time it took to remove my shoes and laptop from my bag, I was through security in less than a minute.
She took a few minutes to walk me through the terminal, pointing out the shower facility, sleeping rooms, dining area, bar, and work areas. I thanked her for her time, marveled at the serenity, and headed straight for the showers to freshen up (and get my hands on the coveted First Class Duck – who is looking at me from my desk as I type this).
It’s hard for me to get excited about a bathroom (and I don’t get as breathlessly excited about bathroom soap as some others) but this was hands-down the nicest public bathroom I’ve ever set foot in. With all the space you could want and nicely separating the vanity, shower, and toilet areas – this bathroom invited you to stay a while.
30 minutes later, I emerged from my refuge freshly showered, shaved, and in a new change of clothes for the flight(s) ahead. I took a seat in the dining area with my new fowl friend and was immediately greeted by name (seriously – how did they do that? Did they pass around a picture with my name on it?) by my server. He explained how the dining options worked, and I opted for buffet lunch with what turned out to be an excellent glass of tempranillo red wine.
Once I finished snacking, I meandered around the terminal for a bit before settling down in one of the work rooms. It was bigger than my office at home – equipped with a very comfortable chair and a just-the-right-height desk outfitted with computer, telephone, and writing pad. I sat down to reply to some pet sitting business emails, but discovered that I had some more urgent business that demanded my attention: I had an email from Avis stating that there was $551 worth of damage to the Porsche that I was responsible for. Even more remarkable, they had inspected the car and carefully assessed the damage within 23 minutes of my turning it over to the attendant! Now, that’s German efficiency. I replied, with photo evidence, and would find out a week later that they had dropped their bogus claim. +1 for always photographing your rental car when you pick it up and drop it off.
After battling Avis and updating some client bookings, I made my way to the bar area where I was yet again greeted by name – this time by an outgoing and friendly young gentleman from Iraq. He took my order, offered to vacate his post so I could get an unobstructed photo, and generally talked my ear off (he was very welcome to do so) as we eventually got around to comparing impoverished upbringings. Having grown up in abject poverty, I usually win the day with these sort of stories, but his tale of woe and personal tragedy easily bested mine.
Finally, I was summoned by an attendant who informed me it was time to go through immigration and board the plane. We took an elevator ride down one level, where my passport was returned to me, already stamped and ready to go. The attendant took my backpack and ushered me into the back of a Mercedes S550 (I was hoping for another Porsche ride, but that’s just being greedy).
The car was incredibly spacious – more than comfortable for the two minute ride to the plane even though there was another passenger being taken to the plane. I didn’t have time to admire the Benz, though, since I was getting to see the airport from a whole new perspective. Don’t get me wrong, the luxury car aspect was nice, but as an aviation geek the ramp experience was much, much cooler.
Pulling up next to a 747 at ground level was incredible. Sure, you can see how large the plane is from any terminal window, but you can’t truly appreciate it until you’re standing next to it. For reference, I could do an impression of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man inside one of the engines – without being able to touch the sides of the cowling. I pondered the plane for a moment and snapped a few photos until our elevator up to the jet bridge arrived.
I’ll admit – I was in awe from the moment I stepped on the plane. In retrospect, maybe I should have played it cool since it was “just a flight”. Then again, I was crossing one of the top bucket list items off my list! Johan, the lead flight attendant, instantly picked up on my vibe – offering to pose for photos and even take a few of me in my seat.
I was escorted to my seat, 3A, at the rear of the cabin. I worried that noise from the galley might be disturbing, but that was not the case. The seat itself was very nice – but not the most luxurious or private. Think of it like a favorite old recliner – a bit dated, but exactly what you’re wanting and expecting. There was a single rose in my suite, and I had a glass of Veuve Clicquot champagne waiting for me before I could even finish stowing my backpack in the ottoman.
Having boarded first, it was a rather lengthy wait until we pushed back on time, taxied for about 10 minutes, and then took off to the northeast from runway 07R. I passed the time looking at the menu, conversing with Johan, and soaking in the experience.
On the climb out, I had a great view of Frankfurt and especially the Commerzbank Arena (affectionately known as the Waldstadion).
The purser came by to welcome me to the flight, made small talk about North Carolina (she had traveled to the NC mountains once to view fall foliage and loved the trip), and reiterated a plea to let the crew know if there was anything I wanted, no matter how small.
Shortly after takeoff, and even before reaching cruising altitude, meal service began. I started with a lovely amuse bouche and a Diet Coke. Don’t judge me.
Johan prepared for my dinner by unfurling, draping, and setting my tray table, along with some delicious bread. Knowing it was my first time in first class, he winked at me and whispered that I was in for a treat. He wasn’t wrong.
I got excited when I saw the famous Lufthansa caviar cart. I’ve read so many reviews of the Lufthansa first class experience, and was looking forward to this part of the meal. It didn’t disappoint – a truly delicious (and generous) portion of sturgeon roe with assorted accoutrements.
Next up was the appetizer course. I opted for tart of halibut and duck tartare. Neither disappointed and I enjoyed both.
For the main course, I selected the saddle of lamb with cream cheese ravioli. The lamb was perfectly cooked, though the ravioli were a bit on the tough side. I didn’t care much for the spicy chickpeas. Not pictured were the two glasses of 2011 Rioja Reserva I had with my meal.
I finished everything off with a lovely combination of strawberries and vanilla ice cream.
With only six passengers in first class for our flight, meal service went quickly and within two hours the lights were dimmed. As it was early May at high latitude, the sun was still shining bring at this point on our journey, so one gentleman had to be asked to lower his shade. He did so without fuss, but the entire cabin would flare with bright light anytime he sneaked a peek out the window.
I asked Johan to make up the bed, and he was happy to oblige while I changed in the bathroom. I found it to be clean – and huge by airplane standards. Large enough for me to change without contorting myself into unnatural positions.
At this point, after five days of virtually nonstop travel, I was tired. Even though it was roughly 6:30pm, I fell right asleep and stayed asleep until Johan woke me up an hour before we landed in Chicago. Some of you may consider this to be sleeping though the first class experience, but this is EXACTLY the first class experience I wanted. All in all, it was magical.
The final schlep home
I was dreading the last leg of the trip – I had to go through immigration, change terminals, and would be flying in Economy. Thankfully, my immigration experience and terminal change took all of 25 minutes (thanks to Global Entry and Pre✓). And, I was upgraded to Economy Plus for the ride home – thanks in part to a little persistence on my part (as an authorized user on my wife’s MileagePlus Club Card I wasn’t technically eligible for an upgrade on my award ticket) and the fact that the flight was 60% empty.
Summing it all up
Bottom line – I ditched responsibilities and bummed around Europe for five days like a college student. I used 70,000 miles for business class from Frankfurt to Raleigh, 110,000 miles for first class from Frankfurt to Chicago and then economy back to Raleigh, 15,000 points for a one-night stay at Moxy Frankfurt Airport, $107 for a night at the Stuttgart Aloft (earning me 1953 Marriott Rewards Points), $280 for two nights non-points hotel in Switzerland, $503 for a three country rail pass, $80 for seat reservations on sightseeing trains, and roughly $300 on food. Of course I paid for everything except the Marriott/Starwood hotels with my Chase Sapphire Reserve – earning 3X points on just about everything.