I spent this past week flying from Amsterdam to Sofia, Bulgaria to Warsaw and Gdansk, Poland primarily as a way to pick up two Aegean Airlines Miles+Bonus Silver elite qualification flight segments in this Star Alliance member frequent flyer program.
Qualification Tier Points for Aegean Miles + Bonus Silver elite are 12,000 Tier Points + 2 Aegean flight segments or 24,000 Tier Points without Aegean flights. I knocked out the two Aegean flight segments on a $110 ticket Sofia, Bulgaria SOF – Athens, Greece – Warsaw, Poland. My next ticketed flight on SAS will meet the Tier Points qualification for Silver elite.
My Aegean Miles + Bonus Tier Points earned so far are from one Stockholm-Copenhagen-San Francisco flight earning 1 tier point per flight mile and San Francisco – London LHR on United Airlines for this current trip earning 0.5 tier points per flight mile. These flights were the outbound portions of round trip tickets and I will make the return flights in summer 2017, but there is also a high probability I will earn the 2,500 or so tier points I need for Silver elite before my summer flight.
Sofia as a destination had a two-fold rationale. Firstly, I had never been to the city and I read it was a cheap travel destination. While in Sofia I saw a travel survey showing Sofia as the cheapest destination of 84 cities globally.
Secondly, the cost and convenience of airline tickets to and from Sofia. A nonstop Ryanair flight from Eindhoven EIN, Netherlands for $50.62 with a paid seat and checked bag included was easy to access from Amsterdam. Sofia was also one of the few 2-segment Aegean routes I found at a low price that did not force an overnight stay in Athens and fit my dates of travel.
Basically, I had three hours in Athens between flights on my first time in Greece. Once I have Silver elite after my next SAS flight, then I will need 4 flight segments and 24,000 Tier Points to move up to Gold elite. Aegean Gold members receive Star Alliance Gold member benefits including lounge benefits on international flights. United Airlines flights in the USA will be considered international flights as an Aegean Gold elite member. I plan to tour Greece later this year when I map out my next four Aegean flight segments for Miles + Bonus Gold elite.
Olympic Airlines Sofia SOF – Athens ATH
Getting to Sofia Airport the other morning was a little more challenging than I anticipated. I arrived at the Lion’s Bridge Metro Station in Sofia at 8:30am morning rush hour. The first train to the Serdika city center tram line intersection came and there was no way I could even squeeze into a car with my carry-on and small backpack.
The next train had just enough space for me. By the time the train arrived at Sofia Airport, some dozen stops later, only three passengers remained in the cars.
Olympic Airlines is Aegean’s subsidiary carrier.
Sofia SOF Airport
Relaxed in the lounge at Sofia Airport in the one of two I could access with my Diner’s Club card. The other was primarily Star Alliance. I arrived at the gate 30 minutes before flight time. At ten minutes before flight time there was still no gate agent. Finally, a gate agent started processing passengers about five minutes before flight time to load us on a bus to the Olympic Airlines plane.
The flight passed over lots of snow capped mountains and then the blue sea of islands dotted with coastal towns appeared. Suddenly I was feeling the desire to see Greece. Unfortunately, I had an aisle seat and I was on the wrong side of the aircraft to spot the Acropolis as we passed by Athens heading inland to the airport.
At aircraft touchdown, in a move I have not seen in many years, if ever, six or eight people jumped out of their seats and started taking luggage out of the overhead bins as the plane was still taxiing along the runway. The flight attendant announcement got the passengers back into their seats.
Due to coming from Bulgaria, I had to go through passport control and my passport was stamped with a Greece entry visa.
I exited out the airport doors and stood on Greece terra firma breathing in the sea air, a familiar smell to me from my Pacific Ocean home.
Have I or haven’t I been to Greece?
Normally I would not qualify an airport transit as having been to a country. I have passed through Narita Airport Tokyo more than a dozen times, but I have never had a Japan stamp in my passport and I have never been outside immigration control zones of the airport.
I have a Greece passport stamp, I was outside the airport terminal, where I ate Greek pizza lunch, I photographed a statue in front of the terminal from the 4th century BC and I drank two Greek Alfa beers.
“You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline – it helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but in the very least you need a beer.”
– Frank Zappa
After walking around 30 minutes outside, I headed back inside through security. My Diner’s Club entry to the lounge at Athens Airport was rejected due to the USA co-brand MasterCard label. That was a first for me and I was not going to pay 37 EUR to sit in a lounge for a couple hours.
I found a spot with an outlet and logged into free Athens Airport wifi to catch up on the news.
I forgot to take any photos of the Aegean plane. I did take some notes on the flight attendants uniforms, similar to the dress for the Olympic Airlines crew. Four flight attendants were all young women, hair pulled back tight in a bun, deep red lipstick and lots of make-up. They wore sleeveless black tops with red aprons during inflight service. Drinks were generous with two passes of the alcohol cart and an additional pass through with coffee and tea and a meal service of pasta and meatballs.
Two rows in front of me were five young Greek women who probably took about 100 selfies during the 2 hour 20 minute flight to Warsaw with all kinds of different poses and seat rearrangement.
Even more astounding was seeing a dozen or so passengers jumping out of their seats on touchdown in Warsaw as we were still speeding down the runway. There was no getting these passengers back in their seats as the plane taxied to the gate.
Passengers pushed their way from the back to the front of the plane. I don’t know if this is normal for Aegean Airlines, or if I was traveling on flights with people who had never flown before.
Poland Border Guards Document Inspection
Another first was finding a team of Poland Border Guards on the ramp inspecting every passenger’s identification documents with magnified eye lenses before being allowed to exit the plane gangway.
Normally a two flight segment in economy class does not offer much to remember. I’ll have another four Aegean/Olympic flights later this year to get a better sense of the airline parent for my new elite status.
And next time I pass this way, I will plan to venture out of the airport and into the streets of the real Greece.