London to Riyadh: Saudia (SV) J, Holiday Inn Izdihar

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  1. mtkeller
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    mtkeller Silver Member

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    Given the dearth of trip reports on SV (Saudi Arabian Airlines), I figured I'd write one for a work trip I recently took. Honestly, if I'd had my druthers, I would have booked on the BA non-stop rather than SV, but I was visiting a Saudi university and they were paying, so I didn't have much say. This is my first TR, so please be gentle [​IMG] You should be able to click any photograph to embiggen.

    Advance work: Getting a visa to enter KSA

    In case you're not aware, most people cannot just say "Hey, I'd like to go to Saudi Arabia." and file for a visa. If you're not doing the hajj, you need an invitation from a business, the government, or a friend/relative. I was invited to run a week's worth of teaching workshops at King Saud University, so I needed to apply for a government visit visa. As a US Citizen living in London, I was pleased to learn that I could apply through the consular section of the KSA embassy in London. However, they were not terribly helpful at figuring out the forms. There's no form on their site for a government visit visa, so you use the business visit form. Then there's the painful process of uploading a photo to the Enjaz website. In the end, I decided to hire Regent Visas for about £70 to take care of this for me. There were too many areas in which I could make a mistake, and they clearly had experience. With their assistance, I had my passport back, visa attached, within a week of posting it off. Given the confusing nature of the KSA visa application process, I suggest others do the same.

    Flight #1 SV106, LHR-RUH

    Check-in:

    SV has recently (from 31 March 2011) moved from LHR T3 to LHR T4. I believe this was planned before SV's impending move to join SkyTeam was announced (and since the other Middle Eastern carriers are in T4, it would have made sense), but now it's totally logical. Check-in was in the A zone, and I was a little confused to walk up and see the boards showing an SV106 to DMM instead of RUH. The greeters noticed my perplexed look and asked if I was flying Saudia to Riyadh. I confirmed and they said I was in the right place. They then asked if I was flying First or Business class and directed me to the appropriate check-in. One person checked my passport for the mandatory visa and then passed me on to the luggage check. I had pre-selected 16D, an aisle seat in the second row of J, which is configured in an offset 2-3-2 so that 16AC and 16JL are not aligned with 16DEF. (The Saudia website's fleet page finally has seat plans for some aircraft.) The agent confirmed I was OK with an aisle seat and printed my BP and tagged my bag. He then gave me an invitation to the SkyTeam lounge with a very detailed map of how to get to the lounge. I didn't need the map, since I usually fly ST out of LHR. I made my way to FastTrack security, where I was simply asked if I was flying F or J and breezed through. (There's been some confusion about what can get you into FastTrack security at LHR. I think answering "Yes" when asked about F/J will work pretty much any time, as I wasn't asked to show my BP there.) I got behind a family with an infant at security, but they kept waving those of us who were prepared around, which I appreciated.

    After clearing security, I went to the T4 IRIS enrolment station to try to sign up for IRIS. (One too many long, long, long queue for non-EU passport holders had me motivated to sign up.) Alas, the door was locked with a number shown to call. I tried calling it, and I got a busy/engaged signal. Thus, it was off to the SkyTeam lounge for a late lunch.

    Lounge:

    Despite being a ST FF, this would be my first time into the much-hyped ST LHR lounge, as my previous flights had all been flying Y and without the ST Elite Plus status that gets you in. I got to the lounge around 1350 for a 1600 departure. (I'd arrived at LHR to allow for IRIS.) They still had hot lunch out, so I grabbed some spice-rubbed chicken (juicy and tasty), some sandwiches, and some pasta with vegetables. (Sorry, don't recall the precise name.) The lounge had plenty of space, so I grabbed a seat and pulled out my laptop to get on the free WiFi. After a second helping of food and an adult beverage, I shifted to the upper level of the lounge to get some work
    done. No announcements are made in the ST Lounge except for delayed flights, as best as I could tell. (They said they wouldn't announce my flight and the only announcements I heard were for delayed flights.) I kept an eye on the board and left for Gate 12 about 35 minutes prior to scheduled departure.

    Boarding:

    I got to the gate about 1530, and there was already a mass of gate lice. No indication that boarding had started yet. I had just enough time to identify the aircraft as HZ-AKA, a 777-268ER, before they announced boarding. They announced F and J could board at their leisure, so I headed straight through to avoid spending any more time with the gate lice than was necessary.

    Pre-departure:

    I was travelling sans jacket, but the J FAs were swiftly hanging jackets for passengers with them. I found my way to 16D and unpacked a book (Watching the English, which I was just starting and now highly recommend). I had booked into the middle section in hopes of having an empty seat next to me, but EF had suggested that J would be full, and it was. My neighbor didn't speak much English, but when all you need is to get in and out, it's pretty easy to gesture for that. (He did at one point offer me
    some paper since I was taking notes for this TR on the back of a receipt.) Most of my experience with IFE comes from DL, which basically just shows you AmEx ads pre-departure. However, the SV system had many features enabled during boarding. You could check out the maps and check the view from the cameras (forward and underneath). However, the movies and music selections were not available. They were showing some images of one of their destinations on the main screen at the front of the cabin.

    No pre-departure beverages were offered prior to the door closing. However, once the door was secured, the FAs made it through the cabin with hot towels, Arabian coffee, and dates. I declined the coffee, since I don't do caffeine, but enjoyed the others. Newspapers (English and Arabic) were offered. Since I had a book, I didn't notice what the English-language paper(s) were.

    The safety instructions were provided via video, shown both on our IFE screens and the large screen at the front of the J cabin. First the video was played in Arabic, featuring Arabic subtitles and sign language. Both male and female crew were used in the video to demonstrate the safety features. Then the video was played in English, this time with English subtitles and sign language. After pushback, a prayer for safe travels was played over the PA. (It was introduced in both Arabic and English, but being a Muslim prayer, it was only said in Arabic.)

    Some of the features of the IFE system (notably the moving map, flight info, and downward/forward cameras) worked during taxi and take-off. However, movies, television, and audio were not enabled at this time. We pushed back roughly on-time (1600) and took off at 1625. The temperature at LHR was 17C.

    In-flight:

    Shortly after take-off, the seatbelt sign was turned off and all the features of the IFE were enabled. The FAs also distributed SV-branded (couldn't see any indication as to the actual manufacturer) noise-cancelling headphones. They use a THREE-prong connector, with the connection socket being between elbow and shoulder level on the seat's plastic shell. I wanted to read a bit, so I put my seat into a semi-reclined mode and found it reasonably comfortable. I should note that the seat (an angled-lie flat) is not terribly comfortable in the full upright position required for take-off and landing; the seat seems rather hard when in that position. Important warning: The D seats in the J cabin do not have a power socket. All other seats have a universal (US/UK/European) socket, but D does not. If E isn't using
    his/her socket, it would be readily acceptable for the passenger in D. However, if you're flying J on an SV 777 and need a power socket, stay out of the D seats.

    The flight attendants distributed an assortment of chilled fruit juices. No indication was given as to what each one was, but the one I had was tasty. Before too long, the FAs began dinner service. The cabin crew was a mixture of men and women (probably 50/50 for F and J, from what I observed). The men wore uniforms similar to what you'd expect to see a pilot wearing for a US carrier (sans jacket), while the women were dressed in a manner similar to what I'd seen for other Middle Eastern carriers (small hats, head scarves covering all hair but leaving the face exposed, and long-sleeved blouses with
    trousers). Dinner service was excruciatingly slow on my side of the aircraft. The FAs hadn't even finished serving the starter by the time the ones working the other aisle were serving mains. No menus were provided, unfortunately, so I really have no clue what I was eating. In flight photos are from my mobile, so I apologize for the quality.

    Starter:

    [​IMG]

    Both options were some sort of fish with a green salad (three types of dressing were offered for the salad). The other option appeared to be maybe some tuna salad accompanied with a half tomato filled with a dairy item (a creamy cheese of some sort?). The starters were served from a cart and were pre-loaded on the trays with cutlery. The FAs didn't even know what they were serving and just said "You can have this or that." The FAs came around with a bread basket featuring a variety of breads, and I selected two items. The starter was fairly tasty. Water was served with dinner. I don't recall seeing anyone with even a second glass of fruit juice, so it may have been the only beverage offering.

    Main:

    [​IMG]

    Long after I'd completed my starter, the FAs finally started coming down my aisle with mains. (Those who'd ordered a special meal were served their mains almost immediately after getting their starters.) On offer were fish (salmon?), chicken, pasta (veg lasagna?), and "beef". The photograph above is of the "beef" that I selected. I cut into it and it appeared to be white meat, but clearly wasn't chicken (and obviously wasn't pork on SV). My suspicion is that it was veal. The main was edible, but definitely not something I'd seek out again.

    Dessert:

    [​IMG]

    I thought it was a bit odd that the dinner service tray would come with a little box containing two chocolates, as I expected we'd get a full dessert/pudding/sweet, depending on the version and class of English you speak. I soon discovered that the painfully slow service was why we were given chocolates. In the box was a dark chocolate truffle and a truffle containing a lemon creme filling. Both tasty. Eventually the FAs came around with the dessert cart. (It appears they only had one cart, so the speedy aisle got dessert first and then my aisle got ours.) There were several options featuring fruit, but I went for a chocolate mousse-like option with a cup of tea. It was decent but had a bit of an odd aftertaste and the texture was a bit gummier than I would have cared for.

    IFE:

    After dinner, I decided that I'd been reading enough and would check out the AVOD options. I was impressed with the wide selection of movies and television (lots of CSI) available, both in English and Arabic. The music selection was also ample, providing "radio channels" for which a host/presenter selected an assortment of songs from a genre and entire albums to select. English-audio programs were subtitled in Arabic, and from what I could see of my neighbor's screen, Arabic-audio programs were subtitled in English. I didn't measure the screen, but it was a good size, probably in the 10-11 inch range. (No picture, sorry.) I watched The King's Speech, which I'm a bit ashamed to say I hadn't seen before, so I can't comment on how much it was censored. I did detect some swearing that had been muted out, but I would expect this on western carriers, too. Scenes featuring alcohol did not appear to have been altered. I do intend to
    watch the entire film soon, and if there's anything glaringly obvious that was missing from the SV version, I'll post an update.

    I'd been hoping to switch on the downward-facing camera for landing in case we approached over the city, but most features of the IFE system were disabled for approach. We touched down in RUH at 0025 AST, where the temperature was 30C.
     
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  2. MSPeconomist
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    MSPeconomist Gold Member

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    Very interesting. Thank you.
     
  3. mtkeller
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    mtkeller Silver Member

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    Immigration and customs

    Upon arrival, we parked away from the terminal building and a bus was provided to take us to the terminal, despite there being open jet bridges. (My colleagues who flew from IAD said they deplaned via jet bridge, so not sure what was going on other than an arrival in the middle of the night.) The first bus had enough seats that F passengers got to sit down, and then the J passengers crowded in around them. The bus pulling up behind us for Y had no seats (or maybe a couple for those with disabilities).

    Since the FAs had not provided any landing cards in flight, I went straight for the table with landing cards and filled one out, being accustomed to arriving in the UK with a non-EU passport. Turns out that my visa type didn't require the card, but it didn't take that long and there were no queues beyond the ones forming from our flight. The immigration agent didn't seem to speak English, but he used my visa to pull up information on my computer. He wrote a number in my passport in Arabic (note that Arabic doesn't use the digits commonly called "Arabic numerals!) and stamped it. I then took my luggage to an X-ray machine and put it through. If anyone was watching it, he was asleep, it seemed. (There was a helper there ensuring that no one carried even the smallest bag that hadn't been put through the machine.

    After being cleared as having no contraband, I went through the arrivals door and found my driver from the University. We got in the University's giant suburban and started off for the hotel. Given low traffic levels at that time of night, I didn't really get much exposure to Saudi driving, other than noticing that lane markings were more advisory than something that you were expected to follow.
     
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  4. mtkeller
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    mtkeller Silver Member

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    Holiday Inn Izdihar

    The driver took me straight to the hotel, and we were greeted by a security guard who insisted on the driver opening the hood. The guard glanced under the hood and in the back of the SUV and then opened the gate and let us in. There was a metal detector (not nude-o-scope) at the front of the hotel, but no one was manning it so we just walked in. The lobby looked like any other western hotel, with the exception of a large number of men smoking in the lobby. My driver had to argue with the night clerk about my room for a while. (First ensuring it was a non-smoking room, then ensuring that I would have a king-sized bed instead of a twin, and then ensuring that I was in the same building as my colleagues. The final bit required involving the manager. I was glad to have a driver from the University to handle this, as I was too tired to care all that much.)

    Given Saudis' sensitivity to photography, I don't have any photos of the public spaces of the hotel. However, I do have some of the interior of the room, which said "Executive" on the door in addition to the room number.

    Bedroom:

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    Facilities:

    [​IMG]

    (Note that if you're visiting KSA, it is recommended you carry some toilet paper with you from your hotel. The University's toilets were equipped with a hose similar to the one pictured above and a nozzle under the seat (no separate bidet) but had no toilet paper.)

    Electrical connections:

    The Saudis tend to have a mish-mash of electrical connections. Every socket in my hotel room was of the continental European (two pin) style. However, the iron was a UK-style plug. Thankfully, I had a plug converter with me. At the University, I witnessed rooms that had all three types of sockets (in one room!).

    [​IMG]

    Internet and Television

    The hotel now offers free WiFi. You need a password from the front desk, and even though they initially hand you 24-hour passwords, you can ask for a 7-day one. The Internet is censored in KSA, but I only ran up against the filter once, and that was a site that I expected to be blocked. News sites are generally all accessible, unlike in China. There was also wired Internet, but something was wrong with my connection, so I stuck with the WiFi. If you have a VPN, you should have no problem accessing whatever you need.

    There's a broad assortment of television channels available in the hotel. I found it rather comforting to tune in and listen to BBC World my first morning there. Unfortunately (?), I missed the final of the Eurovision song competition, as it was not airing on any of the hotel's channels.

    [​IMG]
     
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  5. mtkeller
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    mtkeller Silver Member

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    Other features:

    I shouldn't have been surprised to find this, but the ceiling of each room features a sticker showing which direction Muslims should face when they pray:

    [​IMG]

    The hotel also features two fitness centers (pretty well-equipped and with bottles of chilled water available), one open most of the day and the other open only in the afternoon and evening. There's also a pool for each fitness center. None of these facilities are open to women.

    The hotel also has a restaurant that puts out a buffet for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I ate almost all my meals here, since it would just be charged straight to the room and thus picked up by the University. Breakfast features cereal, all non-pork components of a full English (chicken sausages that resembled hot dogs and beef bacon provided instead), American/Scottish-style pancakes, porridge, and cheese/cold cuts/bread of a continental breakfast. The charge for this was SR109 (about $29), which seemed rather steep. Lunch was an assortment. There was always a wide-ranging salad bar with good hummus and tabouleh. There were usually a couple of varieties of rice, a curry, mixed grill (sausages and chicken skewers), and then a few other things. Dinner was theme night, usually with a lamb stew or curry for those who weren't into the themes. We had Tex-Mex night, barbecue (grilling) night, Asian (mostly Indian) night, Venetian night, and Mediterranean night. Lunch and dinner always had an ample assortment of breads and desserts available as well. (Desserts were excellent!) Beverages were the only thing ordered from the waiters. I generally had water (bottled, as the tap water is not potable), but you could get pepsi/diet pepsi/7-up or a variety of fruit juices (mango juice was good). Lunch ran about SR200 with a beverage. Not sure about dinner, as we generally charged it all to one person's room, an that was never mine.

    The restaurant has folding screens that they put up in the event a Saudi couple wishes to dine. The wife would find it very difficult to eat with her veil in place, and with unrelated men not accompanied by wives in the dining room, they could not remove the veil unless behind the screens.
     
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  6. mtkeller
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    mtkeller Silver Member

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    Thanks. I do have a (rather poor) picture of the J seat that I took on the return flight that I'll get up before too long with info on the flight back. (Since I tried to sleep most of the way, it will be much shorter.) I'll also select a few photos I took while out and about.
     
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  7. NYBanker
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    NYBanker Gold Member

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    Fascinating post. Thanks for sharing. KSA is indeed one of the most 'closed' countries in the world.

    I had a mini-roadshow about 18 months ago that went BAH-DOH-AUH-DXB. Although it wasn't intentional, it was interesting to see the gradual easing of the religious customs through each port. In hindsight, I wouldn't want to have done it in the reverse order.
     
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  8. mtkeller
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    mtkeller Silver Member

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    Sorry the completion has been so delayed, but I had a couple of other trips (including going to Western Canada) after the KSA trip, and so I'm just catching up.

    Five days in Riyadh

    After initial arrival, I got a decent night's sleep at the hotel and then spent time catching up on email and reviewing the slides for my first workshop before the driver picked us up. The first drive to campus was uneventful, and we had a driver who at least spoke some English. This would not be a pattern that held for the rest of the week. (The workshops all went well, and I won't bore anyone with further details on them.)

    Our driver for the rest of the week proved interesting. His English was limited to "Hello", "Thank you", and "Goodbye", as best as we could tell. This only proved problematic when we needed to communicate with him about subsequent pick-up times, which usually required a call to someone who could speak English. (One of my colleagues was studying Arabic, so he could communicate basic times, but he wasn't always travelling with me.) The driver fit the stereotype of horrible Saudi drivers. Some have suggested that the lack of women drivers has created a testosterone-fueled, competitive environment, and I find that a very plausible explanation. Lane markings are clearly deemed advisory by most drivers, especially during rush hour. The ramps on and off freeways/motorways are set up in a bizarre manner that often requires you to overshoot your intended destination, exit the freeway, cross over the freeway on an overpass, get back on the freeway going the other direction, and then get off onto a frontage road to approach. One day our driver decided he didn't want to go around the block to get onto the freeway the proper way, so he backed up about 100m on one of these frontage roads (with traffic whizzing by) until he could cut out onto the freeway. We were clearly displeased with this, so it fortunately didn't happen again.

    Venturing out into Riyadh

    Most of my time the first few days was spent either at the hotel or on campus. (Workshops ran 1600-2100 most days, which was awkward for doing anything else.) However, on my last night there, I met up with FTer dunk to venture out of the hotel. We started by taking a taxi to Tahlia Street, a major shopping/dining street. ("Tahlia" means "desalination plant", which is the only way I was able to find the street's actual name after the fact.) The street is loaded with every American and British brand you can imagine. Off the top of my head, I recall walking past an Applebee's and a Johnny Rocket's in terms of restaurants. I didn't snap a lot of pictures, but here's one example:

    [​IMG]


    After a bit of walking down the street in insane heat, we found somewhere to grab something cold (albeit non-alcoholic) to drink. From there, we headed by taxi to the Kingdom Tower. This is a 1000-foot-tall skyscraper that you can pay SAR25 (The riyal is pegged at SAR3.75 per USD) to go to the top of. The view is quite spectacular and clearly demonstrates how sprawling Riyadh has become. The signs indicate you're not supposed to take photos from up there, but since it was near closing time and there were no ladies present, the staff allowed me to take a few. We were the last ones down for the night, as the staff left with us.

    View of the Kingdom Tower from the ground
    [​IMG]

    View from the top of the Kingdom Tower
    [​IMG]
     
  9. mtkeller
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    mtkeller Silver Member

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    Since traffic cut short the excursion dunk and I were on, I set out on my own the next morning (my last in Riyadh). I'd gotten some advice that Deerah Souq (there's about a billion spellings I found) would be a good place to pick up a few items to take home. Went out to the taxi rank at the hotel and asked a driver if he could take me there. He said yes, but then once we'd started out, he asked for an address [​IMG] He did call his dispatcher, and I told him where I wanted to go then passed the phone to the driver who quickly acknowledged he did know where to take me. I didn't realize until we were well under way that he hadn't started the meter, so I was a bit apprehensive about what the charge would be. When we got there, he asked if i wanted him to wait (I didn't) and then gave me a blank receipt when I asked how much I owed him. He kept saying something like "It's fine", so I just got out of the cab. He then started honking at me and finally quoted me a price of SAR60. I thought this was fare, given what I'd paid to go from the Kingdom Tower to the hotel the night before but tried to get away with SAR50. He wasn't having it, so I just paid what he wanted and went on my way.

    Since I wanted to avoid taking pictures of people, I don't have a lot of pictures from the souq. However, it was strange seeing shop after shop selling thobes and keffiyeh, the Saudi national dress for men. These are all very plain garments, so I didn't get why you needed a bunch of shops in the same place selling the same thing. They also had shops selling random electronic junk, carpets (if I return, I'll probably save some suitcase room to get a small one), gold, watches, and random souvenir-type things. The shopkeepers are all trying to draw you in, but I picked a few that had things that looked interesting. I'm not a fan of bargaining, but I engaged in it and got decent prices for a few things, including an Arabian coffee pot that looks like it might actually be old. I didn't care whether it was really an antique or not, but was interested in getting something with the Saudi emblem on it. I was really interested in getting a dagger to take back, but I wasn't sure how easily I could get it past customs in the UK.

    Near the souq is Al-Masmak Fortress, which the first king of Saudi Arabia conquered at the beginning of his effort to unify the Kingdom in the early 20th century. There's a dusty open square next to the fortress and then a more modern square that Westerners often call "chop chop square" because it's where public executions are carried out (apparently less frequently than they used to be). A few photos from this excursion are below.

    [​IMG] [​IMG]

    [​IMG] [​IMG]
     
  10. mtkeller
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    mtkeller Silver Member

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    Al-Masmak Fortress
    [​IMG]

    Chop Chop Square
    [​IMG]

    For the return to the hotel, I knew enough to have the hotel's address written down in English and Arabic. I took a sheet of Arabic letterhead from the room and wrote down the English information on it. When I started trying to hail a taxi, I realized how invisible women really are in KSA. At least once, I moved toward to hail a cab that I thought was unoccupied before I realized there were black-cloaked women in the back seat, invisible against the seats other than the slit where their eyes were peering out. The first taxi I actually hailed looked at it and decided he didn't want to figure out where it was. The second one I tried just waved me off (apparently he didn't even want to try a Westerner). The third, fortunately, was willing to call and confirm directions. It took two calls, but he figured out where he needed to take me and had started the meter. The ride back was SAR61, despite heavier traffic leading to a slower trip, so I probably should have paid more like SAR50 on the way out, but it wasn't a big deal.

    More to come, hopefully tomorrow, finally reviewing the return flight on SV and an evaluation of sleepability of their J seat.
     
  11. Bonnie
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    Bonnie Silver Member

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    I lived in Riyadh in the early 80s so really appreciate your TR and reading about Riyadh today. We had huge well stocked super markets, but otherwise, shopping was mostly done in the souks. No significant western stores when we were there...certainly no Johnny Rocket's! Sounds like the driving habits haven't changed though!:rolleyes:
     
  12. mtkeller
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    mtkeller Silver Member

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    Return flight, SV103 RUH-LHR

    Airport arrival

    My driver took me from the HI Izdihar (the University had booked it through my last day, since I had a late flight out) around 2230 for a scheduled 0135 departure. We got to RUH a bit past 1100, and during the drive, my driver kept making/receiving family calls, as best as I could tell. A couple of times, he passed me the phone just to say hello to one of his children, who seemed only capable of saying hello. It was all a bit odd, but was Wednesday night, so the weekend was starting, and he seemed in a good mood.

    There were an arsenal of foreign workers in jumpsuits waiting to help with baggage, but since I just had one suitcase, I went on my own way to find check-in.

    Check-in

    The first bizarre thing about King Khaled International Airport is that to get to a check-in counter, you have to put all bags through X-ray and go through a metal detector. Fortunately, the check-in wasn't mobbed, and it was easy to find the right counter since SV essentially has its own terminal. However, the pace was glacial. I was in the J/Alfursan Silver and Gold queue, and there was an F queue nearby. The agent working F seemed to randomly be deciding whether or not he'd have passengers from the J queue move over. Some check-in staff decided that riding around on the baggage conveyor belt was more important than checking in passengers. I did eventually get checked in, fortunately. The signage wasn't very clear on how to get to the gates, so I went up an escalator only to discover that it was just a lounge space for those waiting for passengers, not the boarding lounge. Thus, it was back through the metal detector the wrong way (no care as to if it was set off in that direction).

    Passport control/Security

    Passport control came before security. Fortunately, there was a staff member there inspecting passports and directing people to the appropriate queues. (The signs are not very helpful when you can't read your visa well enough to understand which queue you belong in.) Passport control was perfunctory for me and didn't differ in any substantial way (for me) from exiting the Schengen zone.

    Security at RUH is laughable, compared to the US or the UK. Male passengers put their bags through an X-ray with no concern as to removing large electronics or liquids (not that I enjoy doing that in the US or UK or find it necessary). In fact, the X-ray operator didn't seem to be paying particular attention to the screen. A quick step through the WTMD, and you're in the departures lounge. Ladies are directed into a separate room where (presumably) they remove their covering for security screening. (There's a similar ladies' setup at the check-in metal detector.)

    The departures lounge at the SV terminal in RUH is unbelievably humid because of a massive fountain on the lower (arrivals/immigration/customs) level in the middle. I saw a lot of passengers taking photos from the overlooking balcony on the departures level. Interestingly, the non-Muslim women generally had removed their abayas, etc. post-security. I wanted to find a newstand to see if I could get a magazine (or some other publication) that the mutawa had censored, but I couldn't find anywhere to acquire one and switched to searching for the Alfursan Golden Lounge.

    Alfursan Golden Lounge

    This lounge is hidden way off in a corner, and the terminal maps don't give any real indication of where it is. Basically, I found myself wandering from one end of the gate area to the other until I found a sign directing me to Duty Free and the lounge. Once I found the lounge, there was no one working check-in. The sign outside said that you were to have an invitation from check-in, but I wasn't given one. I figured that I could always use my Priority Pass card if they insisted on an invitation even for their own J passengers. A guy standing near the entry of the very crowded lounge (the CDG flight was in an extended delay and my LHR flight had just been delayed 40 minutes...no explanation given, but the flight is DMM-RUH-LHR, so we might have been waiting on inbound) indicated that people were just walking in, so I should feel free. Eventually a staff member came and checked me in, no invitation or PP required.

    The lounge is surprisingly small, given the number of flights SV is operating and their heavy premium load (from what I've been able to ascertain). I was tired and just wanted to get on the plane and sleep, but I found a reasonably comfy seat (seats in general were hard to come by) and pulled out my laptop to entertain myself until boarding. They had a selection of hot and cold food, but they were tearing it down right as I went up to inspect it. I mainly wanted something sweet anyway, so I grabbed a couple of mini fruit tarts and some water to drink. Obviously no alcohol in the lounge, but there really wasn't much to speak of in terms of drinks. A few soft drinks and water, but not the vast assortment of fruit juices you might have expected.

    Wifi was reasonably fast, and kept me occupied until a staff member eventually came around and announced that the LHR flight was boarding. Given the overcrowding in the lounge, I was happy to head to the gate to board the flight.

    Boarding

    Ugh. When I got to the gate, there was already a queue, although it was moving fairly quickly. No signage indicating if F/J passengers could jump the queue, and there was an armed Royal Saudi Air Force soldier walking around trying to keep the queue orderly. As I neared the front, I realized that they were letting F and J around on the side, but at that point it wasn't worth rushing ahead. (The soldier once yelled at an SV staff member for letting someone jump the queue, and the staffer had to try to explain that it was for VIPs.)

    Boarding was similar to any other international flight: BP checked and torn, airline employee checks passport. However, the airline employee checked the passport for your exit stamp and told you to show it to the immigration agent in the jet bridge. Yes, that's right, there's a KSA immigration officer standing in the middle of the jet bridge making sure everyone's been stamped out of the country. The reason? Some people can't leave the country without permission (generally of their husband/father/employer) but try to anyway. Thus, a final check to make sure that it's legal for them to leave the country.

    Flight SV103, RUH-LHR (HZ-AKD)

    Normally I'm an aisle seat person, except when I want to try to sleep. Thus, I'd booked 17A so that I could settle in by the window and not have to worry about anyone climbing over me. I apologize for the lack of real pictures, but I didn't want to upset anyone on board with my photo taking. Thus, this is the best shot I've got of the seats:

    [​IMG]

    They're standard angled lie-flat seats that recline in their shell. As I mentioned on the outbound, the seats are a bit uncomfortable in the fully upright position. The photo below shows the pillow (left) and duvet (right) I found waiting on my seat. The pillow was really nice, while the duvet felt a bit cheap (it was sealed in a plastic bag, which I removed for the photo). there was no other amenity kit provided at the seat. I took my shoes off and settled in while waiting for departure.

    [​IMG]

    After boarding, the FAs came around offering newspapers and magazines. (Both Arabic and English. Didn't see the newspapers, but the magazines seemed to be the weekly US news magazines.) Then coffee (seriously, who needs coffee at 0215?) and dates. This time, we actually got a J menu! Of course, I didn't care, since all I wanted to do was sleep. Here's the menu for those interested:

    Beverages
    • Juices: Fresh orange, fresh lemon, fresh grapefruit, apple, mango, apricot, pineapple, mixed fruit
    • Soft drinks: Pepsi, Seven-up, Mirinda, sparkling water
    • Diet drinks: Diet Pepsi, Diet Seven-up
    • Hot Drinks: Tea, coffee, Nescafé, decaffeinated coffee, cappuccino, espresso, hot chocolate

    Snack (served after takeoff)
    • Starter: Fresh mixed salad with dressing
    • Main (choice of): Hot combo (A combination plate with breaded fish, fried prawns and chicken puff pastry), Pasta Tortellini (Tortellini pasta stuffed with cheese and spinach), or Sandwich Platter (Assorted open face sandwiches)
    • Served with: Cheesecake (Baked cheesecake with Oreo cookie)
    • Lighter alternative: Seafood Brochette with Salad (Seafood kebab on a bed of mixed leafy salad served with a bowl of fresh fruits)

    Breakfast (served before landing)
    • Cold selection: Fresh seasonal fruits
    • Hot Entrees: Chives Omelette (served with potato roesti, grilled mushrooms, and ratatouille), Crepe with Musrooms (served with spinach sauté and asparagus), or Belgium Waffles (served with garnishes and maple syrup)
    • Cold alternative: Cheese selection platter with labneh and olive oil. Assortment of breakfast breaks served with butter and preserves.

    The menu comes with the note that if you wish not to eat during meal service, you can ask the cabin crew to serve the meal any time prior to one hour and thirty minutes before landing. I decided I wouldn't even try for breakfast then, since I needed to maximize sleep before spending a day in a series of talks at work. Thus, I regret I can't comment further on SV food, other than to say it doesn't sound like it has much chance of being better than what I experienced on the outbound.

    This time, cabin crew disabled the IFE prior to departure. In addition, they turned off power to the J seats, so there were a number of us frustratedly pushing buttons trying to recline a couple minutes after we were off the ground. It took longer than I thought appropriate for an FA to decide to power them back up. As soon as I could, I put the seat into full recline mode. The seat does go flat, but it sits at a slight angle from horizontal. Initially, this angle doesn't seem too noticeable, but it becomes more apparent as the flight progresses. I'm about 6' and was able to get reasonably comfortable even on my side. There's a bit of a hard piece of the seat that I found it difficult to get into the best position for sleeping, but when tired enough, it doesn't really matter. I slept fitfully through the flight. I remember the times being awake and finding a better position, but clearly I slept, as I don't recall any indication of the FAs doing the meal service.

    When awakened for landing, I discovered that they had at some point in flight distributed amenity kits on our cup rests. Would have been nice to have them earlier, as they also didn't dim the cabin lights or ask people to close the window shades. Thus, I spent most of the flight with the duvet over my head. (I subsequently have realized that the amenity kit, which contains an eye mask, toothpaste/brush, and socks, was for "Guest" class, SV's economy class.) This time, the external cameras were left on for most of the approach, so I got to see some of the area surrounding LHR. I had to bother the FAs for a landing card (the first time I'd seen one featuring Arabic labels in addition to English), and J passengers were not provided with FastTrack cards for immigration. I anticipated this would be problematic, but that comes later. Just before landing, the FAs walked through the cabin with a "harmless insecticide" in mister bottles and sprayed the air. (Presumably a requirement of the UK.) Touchdown at LHR was 0650, just a bit later than we were scheduled for (ah, the joys of LHR schedule padding).
     
  13. mtkeller
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    mtkeller Silver Member

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    UKBA

    I hurried on my way to the UKBA, as T4 now houses most of the Middle Eastern carriers, and they all have arrivals around the same time. Also, there are multiple arrivals on DL and CO from the US. I got to the UK Border and there was a queue larger than I'd ever seen at T4. In fact, the regular and FastTrack queues were merged up to the point of the entrance of FastTrack, so even if I'd had the magic ticket, I would have been in the queue for 45+ minutes. In the end, it was two hours before I was re-admitted to the UK. BAA was announcing that UKBA was understaffed and trying to get staff from other terminals, but it was still a clusterf#@k. Some staff sitting there seemingly doing nothing, and then supervisors standing in the back and not interested in rolling up their sleeves and trying to get people through quickly. We've discussed this extensively in the UK/Ireland forum, but the UKBA at LHR needs some serious reforms. (At the top of my list would be re-establishing IRIS enrolment in all LHR terminals and not just T5.)

    Customs was more than I usually experience, as I was pulled aside briefly by an inspector. He hadn't been standing by the magic archway you walk through for the green lane, but instead appeared to be just coming on or coming back from break. He asked where I'd come from, how long I'd been there, why I'd been there, and if I had anything to declare. About 30 seconds and I was on my way again.

    Yotel

    Part of the reason I wanted to get through immigration quickly is that I'd shelled out £32 for four hours at the Yotel. I needed to leave LHR at 1030 to get to work, so I booked it from 0630 in hopes of getting there quickly. Instead, it was after 0900 by the time I got there. I got into bed for a bit, but my body told me it was 1100, so there wasn't much sleep. I did find the shower really refreshing, however. If I'd been able to get through immigration quickly, it would have been money very well spent. In the absence of an arrivals lounge for elites/J/F at T4, the Yotel is a good option. (Hello, SkyTeam. Do you hear me? We want a proper LHR arrivals lounge to complement the lovely SkyTeam Lounge in T4.) Some photos of a standard Yotel cabin follow.

    Workspace (table up, table down)

    [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Shower, toilet, sink

    [​IMG] [​IMG]
     
  14. mtkeller
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    mtkeller Silver Member

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    Bed

    [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Where does that chair go?

    [​IMG]
     
  15. mtkeller
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    mtkeller Silver Member

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    My final verdict on SV in one word? "Don't"

    The service was inconsistent (not just flight-to-flight, but aisle-to-aisle on a flight) and indifferent at best. I've had much better service in Y on DL than in J on SV. The food was unappetizing (but edible). Ground service wasn't terribly helpful either. They do, however, have nice modern aircraft. (The J lav was very spacious, perhaps to allow space for female passengers to disrobe. I did note the absence of the types of facilities provided at my hotel, so I'm not sure how Muslims take care of their personal hygiene in flight.) I'm a bit disappointed that SV will be joining SkyTeam next year, unless it brings about improvement in their service. Well, I guess the good part for me is that I'll be able to earn SkyMiles on SV eventually. I do hope to return to KSA, if the university will invite me back, and I'd much rather be crediting miles to DL than to SV's Alfursan. (They don't partner with anyone for mileage earning yet, as best as I can tell.)
     
  16. mtkeller
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    mtkeller Silver Member

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    Postscript

    A few days after returning from KSA, I was booked to fly AZ LHR-FCO-TLV in order to give a talk at a university in Israel. While in KSA, I was generally careful not to say "Israel" to Western colleagues, but instead resorted to "the country in this part of the world that this country says doesn't exist" since most Saudis' English isn't good enough to understand this if eavesdropping. (The SV in-flight moving map doesn't show national boundaries, but Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv are conspicuously absent from the map.)

    No extra security outbound, but upon arrival at TLV I did get more questions from security than the other passengers. It was all very professional and mainly amounted to confirming my purpose for being in Israel and to inquire very briefly about my stay in KSA. I must have been visibly nervous, as the security guy specifically told me that I need not be nervous. At immigration, there were no questions about KSA, although my agent did hold my passport through a window in her booth to the neighboring booth, presumably to get her supervisor's approval.

    Departing TLV was a different security experience. I arrived via train about 2:45 prior to departure, and there was quite a queue to get past security to the check-in. When I finally did get to speak to a security agent, she had a ton of questions for me. Why I'd been in Israel was quickly covered, but then she wanted to know a lot about KSA: Why had I been there? How had the University learned about me to invite me? Had I been to a private home while there? Was I in touch with anyone in KSA since I left? Do I have any plans made to return at this time? Eventually, she let me on my way, and since I didn't have a bag to check, I went straight to the AZ counter to get a BP. No extra bag check for me, even, despite the KSA stamps. Laptop out and through the bag screening device separately, but that was about it. (My liquids had to come out after going through the machine, but only because my 75mL canister of shaving gel looked a bit large.)

    The Israelis were happy to not leave any marks on my passport upon arrival or departure when I politely asked that they not stamp it.
     
  17. Redcap
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    Redcap Silver Member

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    Thank you for a nice report. How was the shopping experience? Good prices?
     
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  18. mtkeller
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    I got a good deal on my riyals, as my foreign exchange place made a mistake that I didn't feel obligated to point out to them, so the prices were really good ;)

    If you want a thobe or an abaya, they have tons of options for you. I sure can't tell the difference between them, but maybe they can. The most expensive thing I bought was the Arabic coffee pot with the Saudi emblem on it. I paid SAR100 ($26.67 using the pegged $1=SAR3.75) for it. Maybe it's really old and actually worth a bit more, but even if it's not, I thought it was a fair price. Small things could be had for SAR5 or less, and if you're buying multiples of something to take back to give to people, it seems to be easy to get a deal from most shops. I hate haggling, so I probably could have gotten things down even more if I wanted to. I have no idea about the carpets or daggers, since pretty much nothing has a price tag on it. The one tactic I didn't mind using but was successful with was saying that I wanted to go look around a bit more and might come back; they seem pretty eager to offer you a better deal then :D
     
  19. Redcap
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    Haggling is part of the games, it is expected. I even believe some some merchant get offended if you don't haggle :D
     
  20. mtkeller
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    Oh, yes, I did enough homework to learn that and haggled on everything. :D Well, except the SAR5 stuffed camel I was sending back for some friends' little guy. Seemed silly to haggle over a riyal or two.
     
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  21. Mangy
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    Mangy Gold Member

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    Nice report mtkeller. Well written and informative. It's a shame that we didn't get to meet up.

    Your flights are the best you will experience on SV (those going to the USA or London). If you want bad, try SV to India or Indonesia:(

    When I flew F in February, the 747-300 still had the original seats
     
  22. mtkeller
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    Thanks. Hopefully I get a chance to return and we can meet up then. I totally meant to include a shout-out to you and Monkey Girl in this TR, but I was copy and pasting from FT and forgot.

    Yikes! Perhaps membership in SkyTeam will improve SV. After donkey meat and a pilot smoking in the cockpit on JED-CDG, I'm not sure that it could get worse.
     
  23. kiwi
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    kiwi Gold Member

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    Thanks for the report on an airline not often found in trip reports.
     

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