13 September 2014

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 September 13, 2014
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My annual visit to Montreux, Switzerland was via Zürich this trip and rather than connecting to a domestic flight (which would have actually made for a longer travel time) decided to take the train from Zürich to Vevey – which would be our base for three days before settling in at our usual location of Montreux for ten more days.  This was a far simpler connection versus our routing via Istanbul last year.  This is the first installment of my update to my Gluten-Free Guide to the Swiss Riviera and there are many new restaurants, hotels, and another new airline review to come very soon.

I have not been on United long-haul since it merged with Continental (but used to fly CO from Newark to Europe and always enjoyed their BusinessFirst service – so was very interested in seeing how this would translate now that they were folded into United). Let’s be honest here. Not every Continental flight was without its issues (particularly when it came to meeting the needs of a celiac and food allergic traveler) but when things worked, they tended to work well. When they went a bit awry, well let’s just say it was akin to going to a slightly dysfunctional family reunion.

Check-in at EWR was a bit chaotic (color me surprised).  Despite being let out on the correct level this time (it always seems to change) for BusinessFirst check-in, the dedicated area could only be accessed for those with boarding passes and a somewhat surly agent guarding the empty area kept saying “do you have a boarding pass?”  Um, you can pre-check in for international but cannot get a boarding pass until you complete check-in at the airport.  So, what may I ask, is the point of a dedicated BusinessFirst area?  Perhaps for the Hawaii flights.  We were directed to the Premier Access area which was busy but were told to pick any line and selected one that was the 1K line.  Unfortunately the agents had their hands full with a small tour group (all of whom were trying to change their seats for domestic flights) on one side and a family trying to check their car seat and deconstruct their stroller in front of us.  After about 10 minutes we finally made it to the kiosk and scanned our passports (surprising that this could not be done at the BusinessFirst check-in area) and received our boarding passes.  We then had to wait for an agent to show up to actually tag the bags.  All in all it took about 15-20 minutes from walking from one area to the other and then having to wait in what should have been a fast moving area.  Hardly a really premium start to the journey.

We then made our way to the security checkpoint for the C gates which was an utter mess of extremely long lines.  The TSA Pre and Premier Access were moving at a snail’s pace and the regular lines seemed to go on forever.  The agent manning the regular line tried to convince those on the Premier Access line that it would move quicker and they should move over – no thanks on that one (nor did anyone move).  More than 30 minutes was spent waiting to get to the actual security checkpoint.  There was a single checkpoint open for the Premier Access and a single for the TSA Pre which made no sense since this was the rush of the evening international departures.

Once through we made our way to the United Club which while obviously hopping at this hour did have seating available and a cocktail was quickly in hand.  The United Club is more than adequate and service always friendly and efficient.  We decided to make our way to the gate at the far end of Terminal C only to find Business had already boarded but just used the Premier Access lane to bypass the crowd and we were soon warmly welcomed on board.

United BusinessFirst

United Club EWR Terminal C and 767-400 BusinessFirst Seat

United Airlines
Flight: UA 134
Depart: Newark
Arrive: Zürich
Equipment: 767-400
Class: Business
Seats:  3A and 3C

Not to date my myself but the last time I was on (a then Continental) 767-400 it still had the recliner seats as the flat bed replacement project had just begun.  Yet there was always something about Continental’s service that somehow made up for the lack of lie flat beds – their in-flight service was truly always a lovely, well-polished experience.  I had wondered what the service would now be like post-merger.

The cabin had a 2-1-2 layout and the seats did feel private but there was something about the relative narrowness of the area where the “ottoman” was that made it feel like you needed to be a perfect triangle in order to actually fit comfortably – particularly when in bed mode.  But the seats were actually quite comfortable overall and proved more than enough personal space.


 
Pre-departure drinks were offered and you could have whatever you wanted which is always nice (and distracted from the fact that they were served in plastic cups).  I love that United has Tito’s on board (and in its Clubs as well) and that would be my preferred libation for this Atlantic crossing.  Service had that old Continental feel to it and the entire crew was extremely hard working and provided truly stellar service – highly professional and pleasant.

Amenity kits and menus were distributed which allowed me to confirm that my gluten-free meal was in fact on board (which I always do prior to departure) – it was.  United was the first airline to actually provide gluten-free offerings in all of its cabins (and we kind enough to allow me to sample some items before they launched).  More importantly in their premium cabins the soup course (first class on three cabin aircraft) and salad dressing (business class on two cabin aircraft) are now gluten-free of have a gluten-free dressing option.  This is truly meaningful  to a traveler like me who has celiac disease and used to feel like I would get gipped when traveling in premium cabins and ordering a special meal. Rice cakes are perfectly lovely but have no place in a premium cabin (and were de rigueur for many, many years) — my how far we have come.


 
The regular menu for the flight consisted of:

TO BEGIN

Chilled Appetizer
Seasame-coated tuna with rémoulade sauce

Fresh Seasonal Greens
Tomatoes, cucumber, Kalamata olives and croutons with your choice of honey peppercorn dressing or gluten-free balsamic vinaigrette

 

MAIN COURSE

Short Rib of Beef
Red wine sauce, aji Amarillo mashed potatoes, fine green beans and carrots

Tamale-filled Breast of Chicken
Creamy corn sauce, grilled yucca and tomatoes

Fillet of Salmon with Lump Crabmeat
Beurre blanc sauce, barley with vegetables, collard greens and tomatoes

Tri-color Ravioli
Creamy tomato sauce, asparagus and Parmesan cheese

 

TO FINISH
International Cheese Selection
Grapes and crackers served with Port

Dessert
Ice cream with your choice of toppings

 

PRIOR TO ARRIVAL
Fresh Fruit Selection
Served with granola, yogurt and breakfast breads

Once airborne the crew swung into action and took beverage orders and distributed mixed nuts.  This was followed by the delivery of some parts of my gluten-free meal – namely a small quinoa salad, a gluten-free roll, and gluten-free cookie (all wrapped to prevent cross-contamination).    Appetizers were up next and the gluten-free option was smoked salmon over lettuce with grilled asparagus that was actually very good.  The much anticipated full-sized salad was up next and while the regular salads were served from the serving cart my salad was actually on its own on the bottom most shelf, again, something that you definitely want to see as a celiac.  The salad was perfectly crisp and it was nice to actually have a safe dressing option (normally the gluten-free salads come dry on other airlines).


 
My gluten-free main course was a grilled chicken breast (typically the go to option for most airlines) with white rice and green beans.  The food was actually nicely presented and made me feel like I was enjoying the regular service just like everyone else.  There was a decent selection of domestic and international wines and I enjoyed a nice Malbec with my main course.  My dessert was a small plate of four strawberries but I was able to soon cut them and use them atop the ice cream that was soon to follow.

The full service does take a bit of time but it is nice to see an airline (particularly a U.S.-based airline) providing a high-level of actual service.  The lead flight attendant handling our side was always smiling and truly enjoyed her job – not to mention she mixed one mean Tito’s and club soda.

As for the regular offerings, my other half said they were surprisingly very good.  The tuna was quite good and the short ribs were perfectly cooked.

After dinner it was time for a bit of sleep and while the bed mode is comfortable the smallish space for your feet made it feel like somewhat of a tight fit (not to mention the position makes you feel like you are a ballerina or something performing the dying swan).  I was able to sleep comfortably for a bit but as the flight is not really that long soon woke-up for breakfast.  The breakfast service was swift and the gluten-free option was fresh fruit with a gluten-free blueberry muffin (which was truly a treat at 35,000 feet).

Arrival into Zürich was uneventful and we were soon through immigration, priority bags were indeed first off,  and we were on our way to the airport rail station for our train to Vevey via Lausanne.

Overall, the United in-flight experience was really very good.  The ground experience in EWR was, well, what you would expect and sadly is what it is.  It is just unfortunate that such a polished inflight experience gets somewhat marred by a chaotic (and oftentimes clueless) initial ground experience.  Not to mention that this ground experience was on the premium check-in level – I can only imagine the experience on the other check-in levels.

Still to come is an update to my Gluten-Free Guide to the Swiss Riviera: The return flight in Brussels Airlines Business Class (GVA-BRU-JFK) along with some fantastic (and delicious) new gluten-free/friendly restaurants along the Swiss Riviera including stays at Le Mirador Kempinski (Mont Pèlerin) and Fairmont’s Le Montreux Palace. Stay tuned.


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