Wednesday, October 29, 2014

KLM: Toronto to Tel-Aviv. Stopover in Amsterdam

KLM wing view
With all of the changes to Air Canada's Aeroplan program (the "altitude program" for frequent flyers), it has become much less attractive for many people to fly Air Canada regularly.  For starters, Air Canada now awards Aeroplan points at a greatly reduced rate for most flights.  With some partners, no Aeroplan miles are earned at all.  And the price for an Air Canada flight is often several hundred dollars more than a flight on one of the other airlines.

So I decided to take a cheaper flight on a different system.  I flew KLM this time from Toronto to Tel-Aviv with a lengthy stopover in Amsterdam.  The price was significantly lower than any available Star Alliance flight.  Only flights with Turkish Air or Alitalia were close in price.  Since I was traveling with someone this time - and he was changing through Amsterdam, I decided to join him.  I should note that he purchased a KLM flight, round trip, Toronto to Tel-Aviv, for just over $700 Cdn including all taxes.  That was at least $500 less than the lowest priced Air Canada or El Al flight.  These are my notes about the flight and about the stopover in Amsterdam.

Overall, I would say that it was quite fun to stop and spend the day in Amsterdam.  But to do so, you have to get through the KLM flight, which was brutal, compared to just about any other airline that I have used in the past 5 years (and reviewed on this site).

The main advantage of KLM was the price.  It was quite a bit cheaper than just about any other carriers - other than Turkish or Alitalia.  I was considering trying one of those but opted for a day in Amsterdam.

KLM leaves Toronto from Pearson International's Terminal 3, which is the older terminal.  There was little difficulty in the boarding process.  We were offered lounge access for about $30 Cdn (I had no special status on KLM so I would not have been able to get into the lounge otherwise).  My flying companion decided that this was a good idea so we spent a couple of hours in the lounge.  It was not nearly as nice as the Air Canada lounge in Terminal 1.  The food and drink selections were more limited.  Even the seats were less comfortable.  But even with the additional cost of paying for the lounge, flying KLM was still far less expensive than Air Canada.

Boarding was quite a jungle.  It was fairly disorganized, although the ground staff did their best to board passengers by row number.  They tried to stick to that but it was all taking place in such a crowded space that it seemed like a far lengthier and more disorganized process than many other airlines.

The biggest problem with KLM was the seats.  While I may have gained a couple of pounds since my last flight, this clearly felt like the narrowest seat I have sat in over the course of my five years traveling back and forth between Toronto and Israel.  I could barely get into the seat, let alone move in any direction once I was in it.  I was sitting at window seat and there were two people in the other seats next to me (the plane configuration was 3-4-3).  I was so uncomfortable, I just didn't know what to do.  I couldn't concentrate on the book I had, so I wound up watching a really dumb movie.

The plane did have personal entertainment systems, though they were the old-style systems, like those used on many Austrian Air planes.  The screen was low resolution and was not a touch-screen.  The selection was quite limited.  The sound was terrible.  While this was still a step up over El-Al (the planes between Toronto and Israel have no personal screens), it was nowhere close to the systems used by other airlines like Air Canada, United, US Air, Lufthansa, etc.,.

I had ordered an Asian vegetarian meal.  It was one of the smallest meals I have seen on a transatlantic flight.  It was served more than 2 hours into the flight (which was only 6 1/2 hours in total to begin with).  The meal included lentils, white rice, tofu and salad but I was still quite hungry.  The "house" wine was a South African Cabernet-Shiraz.  It was tasty.  The flight attendants also offered a variety of after dinner drinks including cognac.  So the drink service was comparable to most of the other European airlines or Air Canada.  (The American airlines all charge $7 for a bottle of lousy wine).  The flight attendants were cheerful and friendly and came around often.  I have no complaints about the beverage service or the flight attendants themselves.  But it is difficult to get past the tremendous discomfort of sitting in such a tiny, cramped seat on an overnight flight.

For all of my complaints about flying on KLM from Toronto to Amsterdam, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed being in Amsterdam.  It was my first time.  We had approximately 13 hours from the time our flight arrived in Amsterdam until the next flight to Tel-Aviv.  We decided to try and make the most of it.

Getting to the centre of Amsterdam is quite easy and convenient.  I should note that we first found a locker in the Amsterdam airport to store our carry on bags.  This was a great idea and made our trip that much easier.  Locker locations are clearly marked, easy to find and reasonably priced.  We then took the "inter-city" train from Schipol Airport to Amsterdam Centraal Station.  The cost was about 18 Euros for two of us, round-trip.  The train ride itself was about 15 minutes.  It was smooth and comfortable.

Anne Frank House Line-Up
Our first stop was the Anne Frank House.  I had read that it would have been better to buy tickets in advance to avoid the long line-ups.  But when I had visited the on-line site, about a week before the trip, the advance tickets were already sold out.  Since the attraction is so highly rated, we decided to wait to see it despite the line up.  But I have to say, it was a 2 1/2 hour wait to get into the museum.  It was cold and windy outside, perhaps 10 or 12C.  Not pleasant at all. 

The Museum itself was definitely worth visiting, though ideally without the lengthy wait.  Centred around the life story of Anne Frank and her famous diary, the museum is, essentially, a Holocaust museum, using the story of Anne Frank as the vehicle.  The museum is housed in a reconstructed version of the Frank house and involves climbing up some very steep and narrow staircases and traveling from room to room in the house in which Anne Frank hid from the Nazis for more than two years.  There were some very moving exhibits including the actual Anne Frank diary, the exhibit with information about Auschwitz-Birkenau and a video montage at the end with comments from a range of personalities about the story of Anne Frank.  The museum is apparently one of Amsterdam's most visited tourist sites.  It is a fascinating place and it is heartening to see so many people, from so many different countries, visiting the site.

After our museum visit, we took a short walk over to the Pancake Bakery, a well known and highly recommended pancake house.  Since we had planned this in advance, we had a Google map route.  It was a short walk and very convenient.  I had a veggie pancake - a giant pancake with a melange of stir fried veggies including broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, onions and some feta cheese.  It was quite
Cinnamon Ice Cream Dessert - Pancake Bakery
good.  My dining companion had a salmon cream cheese pancake which was somewhat less tasty.  We both had coffee which was okay but nothing more.  Overall, it was a neat place, moderately priced and reasonably filling.  We shared a dessert - cinnamon flavoured ice cream with fruit compote, Belgian chocolate shavings and whipped cream.  Neither of us ate the whipped cream and we couldn't finish the whole dessert.  But it was quite tasty.

From there, we headed off the old Jewish Quarter.  We had a Google map for this route as well.  We took a short walk, got on a tram car and we were dropped off right next to our destination in less than 10 minutes.  We had purchased an all day pass for the Amsterdam transportation system so, again, this was quite easy and convenient.  Once you buy these passes, you simply swipe the pass as you get on the tram car and then again once you get off.  No cash is used anywhere on this system.

Portuguese Synagogue Amsterdam - Entrance
Our main destination was the Portuguese Synagogue.  This is a wonderful place, originally completed in 1675.  It is a beautiful synagogue with ornate detailing.  When used, it is lit up entirely by candle light with no electricity or heating.  It is currently used on Yom Kippur and on selected special Shabbat services during the year.  It is also used for concerts and some holidays.  Visitors can pay an admission fee and take a tour of the entire synagogue complex with an audio device that provides pre-recorded information about various spots in the complex.  The cavernous synagogue includes rows of original wooden benches, and huge candelabras.

Portuguese Synagogue - "Esnoga" - Amsterdam
Esnoga Respository - Judaica
Esnoga Library
The synagogue complex also includes a basement repository of religious articles - Torah breastplates, crowns, pointers, Etrog boxes and many other items, hand crafted in silver and gold and often studded with ornamental precious or semi-precious stones.  The repository also includes a massive library, that is still in use.

We spent more time than we had planned in this complex and wound up skipping the nearby Amsterdam Jewish museum and the old Ashkenazi synagogue.  But this synagogue (known as the "Esnoga") alone easily justified the lengthy stopover in Amsterdam.

Traveling through Amsterdam, I couldn't help but feel that I was in a special place.  The architectural style of the buildings is attractive, the canals running through the city are enticing and there are so many cafes, museums, interesting stores and other places that I felt that I would need at least another week in Amsterdam - or perhaps several more lengthy stopovers.  We wound up missing the Van Gogh museum, the Rembrandt museum and the other great museums that Amsterdam is known for housing.  We didn't even make it to Amsterdam's unique Sex Museum, though we passed by the entrance.  We also ran out of time to hit the red light district, the famous coffee houses (and hash bars) and the Heineken beer factory.  From what I could see, I think it would be quite a bit of fun to just wander around or bike through the city without any set list of places to visit.

Overall, even though the KLM flight from Toronto to Amsterdam was cramped and uncomfortable, the stopover made it all worthwhile.

We took a train back from Amsterdam to the airport and even had time to wander around the duty free shops for a bit.  Our flight was uneventful.  The plane was very modest with no entertainment screens or other amenities.  Fortunately, it is only a 4 1/2 hour flight to Tel-Aviv, though it arrives at 2:20 a.m., which is also brutal.

Would I do it again?  Well, despite the discomfort of KLM, the price was right and Amsterdam was great.  There is lots more to see there.  So if I have another opportunity to save lots of money on an airline ticket and spend the day in Amsterdam, I will probably do it again, despite the various drawbacks, which, in particular, include the awful flight times and the super-cramped seating. But as you probably know from reading previous blogs, I tend to choose experience over luxury...

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