David J. Danto
Business travel thoughts in my own, personal opinion
Barcelona For The Business Traveler – May 2022
I searched high and low but couldn’t find an article or blog explaining what the experience of Barcelona is like for a business trip. Sure, there are literally hundreds of posts on what the architecture is like, and the stores, and places to visit etc., but none of the nuts and bolts of what to expect for the first time business traveler. So, before I left, Joe Brancatelli asked me to write the report I’d wanted to find – for future travelers. OK, good idea. Here goes a string of (hopefully) useful comments and notes for the first time Barcelona business visitor.
When I booked this trip I wanted to land in Barcelona Monday, attend the conference Tuesday to Thursday and fly back Friday. That itinerary – in coach – was (over)priced by United at a little over $3k. When I changed the departure to Friday evening (adding a Saturday night stay) the coach fare dropped – it was $2k less expensive. That move required me to add a weekend hotel stay, but it was still less expensive than the airfare. As it worked-out for me, I reserved two different hotels – one for the arrival weekend, and one for attending the conference.
· I flew on a United 767 non-stop from EWR to BCN. That plane had first class (Polaris), Economy Plus and Economy – none of United’s “Premium Economy” so no comfier seats for a reasonable price. I played the United upgrade lottery – 20K miles and ~$500 (and lost – turning-out to be 14th on the upgrade list. It didn’t clear of course, and then requiring me to go after United for the refund of the money and miles. (United promptly issued a refund when the entire trip was over – so if one wanted to put in those same miles for an upgrade for the return trip you’d be out of luck.)
· Personally, if I can’t lie-flat on a plane I can’t sleep, so it wasn’t an issue for me being in E+. What was an issue was the absolutely inedible food they served on the flight. The chicken was in some sort of stew that I swear was the scraps of all the other meals they had lying around – plus some plus inedible spices. I took one bite and spit it out, and sadly I can still remember the vile taste. For breakfast they served yogurt and a cookie. As I don’t eat yogurt the meals were a clean-sweep into the trash. Luckily I packed a sandwich, so I didn’t starve – packing some back-up food is probably a good idea for this flight.
· When we landed in Barcelona we pulled into gate 221. The Jetway was full of windows and bright – which was a nice touch. There was a seemingly endless walk to passport control, and there were no bathrooms along the way (so be sure to go on the plane if you have to upon landing.) The passport line took about 45 minutes at ~9am, but it was constantly moving. I was surprised that there was no paperwork to fill-out – just the presentation of a passport. (I’ve had too many years of flying into LHR and filling-out landing cards I suppose.) After clearing that line (and finally going to the bathroom) we entered a hall where you had to show your COVID health-check QR code. If you had one you just had to scan it, if you didn’t you’d have to go through a health screening. (It’s urgent while COVID precautions are still in effect that anyone flying to Spain take the time days before departing to go to their website – SPTH.GOB.ES – and upload the needed information to get the QR code.) After that, one grabs any checked bags and goes out the “nothing to declare” exit. Taxis are one level down, and this airport uses inclined moving walkways to go between levels, so hold your rollaboards tightly or they’ll go for an unwanted ride. There were plenty of taxis waiting.
· It pays to be a Hilton Diamond VIP. Big kudos to the Hilton hotel at Diagonal Mar. Instead of the standard, European ‘but sir, zee check in is not till zee afternoon, so go away’ the Hilton team saw a (tired) Diamond VIP and pulled-out all the stops. They said ‘of course’ they have a room ready for me for early check-in, and it was an upgrade from the least expensive room I booked to a large one above their executive floor. Breakfast was included – even for that day – either in their restaurant in the lobby or in the executive lounge on the 15th floor (which overlooked the beach.) The diamond level still really seems to mean something in Europe if this is any indication. After landing at 8:45am I was in-bed napping at 10:30am – which was really awesome. The room had a beautiful view of the beach, a comfortable king bed, and a large bathroom with both a tub and a separate stall shower.
· The Hilton is across the street from a modern shopping mall (Diagonal Mar https://www.diagonalmarcentre.es/en/ ) which has many US recognizable stores as well as local ones, and has a store called Alcampo – which is like a Target on steroids. Everything from groceries to big-box items are available. I was able to purchase the small, re-sealable bottles of water that are a staple for any trip such as this – as well as some food items to keep in the room (which had both a refrigerator and a kettle.) I could eat from any of the local restaurants, or, if I wasn’t so experimentally inclined, get some take-away from McDonalds or Five Guys.
· I had planned to take Sunday to tour the city (as my only free day) but it also happened to be the day of the Barcelona Marathon – so those plans were … trampled. (People more adventurous than I would have worked-out using the subways to get around, but, with no functional knowledge of Spanish, that was more work than I wanted to do.) I rested in my hotel room until about 3pm when the streets started to open again and did some slightly lesser touring then. The lesson: don’t arrive to Barcelona for a conference the day before it begins when that happens to be the day of their marathon.
· My company travel agent recommended that I download an app called “Free Now” as the local taxi hailing service (because they don’t use Uber or Lyft here.) During the trip I found it to be useless. Every time I called for a taxi when the app said there were plenty available they couldn’t find one for me. They made me do two step verification with a text from my bank to reserve the funds, but then didn’t have a car. It was better off to either just street hail a taxi or walk to one of the many Taxi loading zones and wait for one there. Taxis that are available have little green lights on the side of their roof’s sign (and red on the other side and/or a number of passengers means not available.) As I write this, masks are optional all over town and at the airport, but are still required on public transportation including busses, trains and taxis. Not all the taxi drivers speak English, so I found it very helpful to type out cards with my frequent destinations and have them available as pictures on my phone. I used PowerPoint to make them, but you can use any text app that you can take a picture of – even the notes app on your phone via screen-capture. Also – taxi drivers here do not expect to be tipped. The metered amount is what you pay unless you’ve had really, really exceptional service.
· Every taxi, every store, every merchant, and every vending machine takes contactless credit cards. Don’t even try to use the insert-chip as it will ask you for a PIN that US cards don’t have. Contactless is the way to go.
· After the weekend it was time to change hotels to the one closer to the convention center. The Leonardo Gran Via is a clean, newly renovated property about 15 minutes closer to the Fira Barcelona than the Hilton. (It however is the typical European hotel I referred to above that did say to me ‘but sir, zee check in is not till zee afternoon, so go away.’) Because I was not coming off an overnight flight this time it was not really an issue, I just checked my bag with them and headed to the Fira de Barcelona. When I came back around 3pm I was able to get into my room. As opposed to my experience at the Hilton, I received a tiny room (two twin beds pushed together) with all the things one would expect at such a property. There was a “master switch” just inside the entrance that required me to insert the room key for the electricity to turn on. (I remembered the trick of putting one of my hotel loyalty cards to work there in case I wanted things left on when I wasn’t going to be gone very long from the room.) The environmental control however was one I’d never seen before. My total choices were 0, I, II or III. I surmised that the property determined if hot or cold air was required and all I could control was the fan speed. As silly at that lack of controls seemed, it oddly was not an issue to be comfortable for the four nights there.
The bathroom was also what I expected – a shower over a tub with only a partial splash shield. (I don’t understand how this is still in use in Europe – are wet bathrooms preferred?) What was unexpected was the hotel didn’t provide any facial tissues. If I had not brought my own I’d have had to use toilet paper to blow my nose – or buy some locally. The only bathroom amenities were slippers, soaps, and the items shown above. The “included breakfast” rate I had apparently was only “included” if one paid additionally for it. There was a terrific bakery/restaurant across the street which was a much better option.
· The conference I attended (ISE 2022) took place at the Fira de Barcelona Gran Via. It is an enormous set of halls, connected with closed-walkways above and open-air spaces between. I was lucky that the majority of things I went to see were in Hall 2 – the first one you hit after you enter. There are plenty of places to eat on site, and here again the contactless credit card is the way to go. There are also a number of vending machines with instructions typically only in Spanish. To use them with a credit card one has to first press the white button, make a numeric selection, then put your contactless card in front of the reader next to the buttons. (I wound up explaining that to about a dozen people over the course of three days.) People sat down to eat outdoors between halls – which was far safer than eating indoors during these weird hopefully-end-of-pandemic days, but would certainly be an issue if one was attending a conference during colder months. Here in May, on the days I wore a sports jacket, that was sufficient to keep me comfortable. On the days I didn’t wear one I brought a light jacket to wear while I was outside.
· In order to travel back into the US (at least at this time) one needs to get a third-party verified COVID test the day before travel. Most conferences arrange for these to take place on-site, but the conference I attended sadly didn’t. They instead provided a list of facilities one could go to to get a test. Instead of going on that hunt, my employer arranged for a testing company to come to my hotel room and test me there in the morning before my departure day. I received the results by email at ~6pm in the evening, and I needed to upload that document to check-in for my flight. (Most hotels should also know testing firms they can call and arrange to visit you, but don’t wait until the last minute – make the arrangement as soon as you arrive at your hotel.) Whichever option you use for testing, BRING / HAVE YOUR PASSPORT. Some people I know forgot that this was needed to verify your test and had to make a second trip to get tested. One receives an official document with the results as a PDF with a QR code on it. I didn’t need to print that document – United let me upload it as part of the “Travel Ready” check-in process, and then I showed it on my phone to the airport agent when asked.
· My return flight home (on a Friday the 13th no less) was scheduled to depart at around 11am, so (dad rules in place) I figured I’d leave my hotel at 7am, get to the airport at 8am and have three hours to calmly breeze through the security and passport lines, buy some food for the flight, peek at the duty free, and then board with plenty of time. The hotel clerk assured me that taxis would be waiting outside at 7am (which I knew likely had to be BS) so I did everything I needed to hit the hotel lobby early at 6:30am. Of course there were no taxis and they had to call for a car. It came in about ten minutes and we arrived at the airport at 7am. (I didn’t care that I was an extra hour early. Every smart business traveler plans for the worst experience they ever had and is thankful when it doesn’t materialize.) So, the next step was finding the United desks and checking in. Good freaking luck with that. There were –ZERO– signs for United Airlines in the terminal. None. (American, Delta, and many other non-US airlines had assigned desks, but for United there was not even a hint of where it would be.) That was the case for at least a half-hour until the chronological departures board finally showed my flight at the bottom and listed desks 201-210. When I went there it was as dead as the dinosaurs. No people, no signs, no open lines, just nothing. I used the United app’s new feature to message customer service but they were as clueless and unhelpful as possible. They had no idea why there’d be nothing in the way of people or signage. At that point we were up to about 60 people in a sort-of line / mob when – finally – six or so agents came out and were milling about, talking about who knows what with each other. They still made no contact with those waiting. Finally at about 8:20 they dragged out signs that said United and lit-up the video monitors with the logo. They are obviously contracted workers, not United staff, and they are obviously only paid to be there three hours before the flight. But the fact that there was no indication of where to go or where to stand was just ridiculous. I won’t even try to detail the multiple shift left – no, go right – no, go to the end movements these idiots made us make to put the line into the spots they wanted us in. I finally got through the document check and bag check process at about 8:45 – almost two hours of wasted time I could have been using to get through the process at a leisurely pace.
· One of the few remaining benefits of my United Million Miler status is lifetime Premier Access. It was nice to find out that that entitled me to use the fast-track security entrance. Of course, no one told me that, and there were no signs to indicate that. I just tried it, honestly telling the security agent that I didn’t know if I qualified. She didn’t either, but tried my boarding pass on the scanner and the reader turned green. That’s a ‘good to know’ for the future. There was no equivalent of Pre-Check that I’m aware of, so I removed my liquids, computer, and belt (that always seems to set-off the detector) but not my shoes, and put everything is a separate bin. It all went through smoothly, and I was on the other side re-packing pretty quickly.
· If I had had no bags to check I now realize I could have just used the boarding pass on my phone to go to the gate as early as I had wanted. The gate agents had a special line for people who had not had their passport confirmed in advance.
· The Barcelona airport / BCN can best be described as seeming like a human version of one of those hamster habitats. Passengers have to go up, down, up again, over, around, all in constant circles to get through everything needed. I found it odd that after security I was in a huge duty-free area, but then as I went to approach my gate area and had to go through another passport check, I then found – you guessed it – another duty-free store. This time one had to walk through the store to get to the gates.
· When we went to board the aircraft we were lined-up by group so each line could follow the last. It was actually very organized compared to the rest of the day. Boarding was smooth.
· Arriving back at EWR we were assigned a gate in terminal B, so we had to go through the old international arrivals space. It’s stunning how much Global Entry has improved since I first joined the program. No more placing your passport and scanning your palm print. It just asks you to line-up your face for a picture, recognizes you from facial ID, and prints your exit receipt. The only painful part of the return was earlier while we were waiting for our assigned gate to be cleared by an empty aircraft that had to be towed to terminal C. That process turned a 35 minute early arrival into a 10 minute late arrival.
Had I been aware of all of the information in this blog prior to my first trip to Barcelona I’d have had a more enjoyable, better prepared trip. For one, I’d likely have stayed at the Hilton all week – the extra fifteen minute taxi ride was ultimately meaningless. I also would have exchanged far less currency before leaving the US – there isn’t a single opportunity to pay where cards were not accepted. I hope these notes help you if you have to travel there.
This article was written by David Danto and contains solely his own, personal opinions.
All image and links provided above as reference under prevailing fair use statutes.
Copyright 2022 David Danto
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