Frequent flyer miles: As a full-time traveler, I take a lot of flights. And since my travels are financially sustainable between my writing income and creative attempts at accommodation, I won’t pay the big bucks to fly business class (or – gasp – first class).
So unless I am lucky enough to get a free upgrade to first class, I am relegated to the ranks of economy – cattle class – with so many others.
But after reading Chris Guillebeau’s Frequent Flyer Master and getting one of his email updates about a US Airways promotion that promised some big bonus miles, I decided to take a financial leap of faith with the payoff of some big rewards.
My leap of faith came in the form of $1,200 in purchases, some of which could double as Christmas presents, and the bulk of which came in the form of identity tracking stickers (that proved to be considerably more valuable to me than I expected). Die-hard frequent flyer mile accumulators were making similar purchases (except some were spending up to four times as much as I), and almost nobody was actually interested in the stickers – it was solely for the frequent flyer miles.
This being my first frequent flyer mile “sting”, I was but dipping a toe in the waters of such operations, still nervous that US Airways wouldn’t credit the miles, or that I’d somehow screw up the purchases without recourse, or that the airline would devalue the miles.
Luckily none of that happened. 150,000 frequent flyer miles posted themselves neatly to my account three months later, US Airways didn’t devalue the miles, and I could use them for any Star Alliance airline flight.
I also followed some of Guillebeau’s techniques in his e-book for tracking and accumulating miles, as well as his redemption techniques. (One of his tips is that to get the most bang for your frequent flyer mile/buck, it is best to use them to book long-haul business class travel).
So when it came to plan out the next year of travel, my frequent flyer miles came in quite handy; my $1,200 purchase resulted in two long-haul business class flights (between New Zealand and Europe), as well as one return economy flight between New Zealand and Australia. I had to pay booking fees and taxes on both sets of tickets, which amounted to a total of $300, increasing my total out-of-pocket expenditure to $1,500. To have purchased the same flights at full price would have been over $5,800.
Having made the case for frequent flyer mile travel (I heartily endorse Chris Guillebeau’s Frequent Flyer Master e-book), I thought I’d let you in on the luxuries of my recent business class adventures….all 45 hours of them.
Leg One: New Zealand to Bangkok
It hadn’t occurred to me that the business class experience starts long before you get on the plane. From surpassing the long check-in lineups with special business class ticket counters, to circumventing passport control and security lineups with dedicated lanes, to special airport lounges with all you can eat and drink (and usually a good free WiFi connection), I was in airport bliss long before I set foot on the first of three flights.
The Air New Zealand lounge in Auckland was lovely, and set the stage beautifully for my business class travels. Although my flights were booked with Thai Airways (another Star Alliance carrier), I had use of the Air NZ lounge since there wasn’t a Thai Airways lounge in Auckland.
My flight to Bangkok was on a 777, and the business class seats (and service) was about as luxurious as I had hoped. The massive pod-like seats reclined to an almost flat position, which made sleep quite easy. If I were to be picky, I would say that the fully reclined position was actually a tad uncomfortable because I felt I was constantly sliding out of the seat if I didn’t brace myself with my feet on the footrest. But remembering what it’s like to catch fitful naps in cramped economy, I also realize I’m grasping at straws. Give me an inch, and I’ll take a mile, I guess!
Entertainment on demand was delivered through the large screens in front of each seat, and there was never any worry about the seat in front reclining into my lap, since the seat backs were fixed; instead each entire chair slid forward to recline.
The meals were spectacular. A menu revealed one 5-course meal and one 3-course meal, served on linen “tablecloths” with real cutlery and silver service. And of course, all the alcohol I could drink (which wasn’t very much). The service was attentive and the attendants spectacularly dressed in customary Thai silk garb.
Layover in Bangkok
As I indicated in a previous post, I was a touch nervous about the recent violent turmoil in Thailand, and so I decided to endure my 15 hour layover in the airport. However it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected it would be.
I passed the first few hours at a restaurant, enjoying some sticky rice and mango with coconut milk (one of my favourite Thai desserts) while charging my computer and reading. By this time it was 11:30pm, and I was so tired from my 15 hours of travel thus far that I felt nauseated. I was pleasantly surprised to find a quiet corner of the airport however, where I could lay out a blanket in relative peace (along with what accumulated to at least a dozen other travelers with the same motive) and get some fitful sleep for almost six hours. It was a strange contrast to my business class adventures, but one I wasn’t uncomfortable with.
By 5:30am, I couldn’t stand tossing and turning on the floor any longer, so I got up and thought I’d see if I could check in for my next flight – due to leave at 12:45pm. I was told the night prior that I couldn’t check in until 2.5 hours prior to boarding, but I had hoped that my question was lost in translation, and instead I was given the recommended check-in time, not the earliest one.
Bingo! I checked my bag and was given a pass to the Thai Airways Royal Silk Lounge. I spent the next six hours in relative bliss, surfing the WiFi madly, enjoying free Thai cuisine and beverages, and even receiving a complimentary Thai foot and leg massage at the Royal Orchid Spa. Heaven!
Leg Two: Bangkok to Frankfurt
My second flight (also almost 12 hours) was on a 747, and for the first time, I got to see what happens on the second floor of a 747! I was slightly disappointed to discover there was no dance party, spa, or swimming pool, but equally pleased to find a relatively intimate collection of business class seats.
Again the service was wonderful, the seats reclined, the entertainment selection was great, and the multi multi-course meals made me thankful for the long walks I took in the airport and enroute to the gate.
Leg Three: Frankfurt to Madrid
By the time I landed in Frankfurt, I had been flying (or laying over) for almost 40 hours. Although I caught some sleep on each flight and in the airport, I was starting to feel some deep fatigue, and the increase in temperature and daylight (not to mention the time changes) was disorienting.
I hurried to the Lufthansa Lounge, hoping to enjoy some of the relaxing space and quiet solitude I had found in my previous two lounge experiences. Unfortunately though, this lounge was packed to the hilt, and (gasp) didn’t even offer free WiFi. I did, however, manage to sweet talk the shower attendant into squeezing me in front of the cue for a quick shower before my next flight, which made a world of difference.
I had been looking forward to experiencing Lufthansa’s business class services, but was mildly disappointed. Thankfully I had some prior notice that Lufthansa’s business class short-haul flights weren’t worth the accompanying price tag, so I was even more thankful I hadn’t actually paid the accompanying price.
So although the service was lovely (attentive in an almost over-compensating manner), the food appeared to be the same as that served to other passengers (except with real cutlery), the seats weren’t any roomier (except the middle seat in every row of three was free), and the offer of free alcohol was lost on my tired body.
What I Learned
After experiencing long-haul business class travel, I’m not sure I can go back to economy! I am even more committed to using my frequent flyer miles for upgrades to business class for future long-haul flights, seeing the value in arriving refreshed and well-fed. And the perks make you feel like royalty.
I also see the value in buying a pass to the first class lounges – in most cases. Instead of losing the will to live as I did in the Los Angeles airport last year, I could have purchased access to the airport lounge for only $35. When flying economy and enduring a long layover (or early arrival to the airport), I think it’s worth it.
I had previously reserved my frequent flyer miles to cover the entire cost of an economy seat, and now instead I’m committed to finding more ways to use my miles for upgrades. In fact, every time I purchase an economy ticket, I can use existing miles to pay for my upgrade, as well as earn many more miles (and coveted status points) with my purchase.
With the help of the e-book Frequent Flyer Master and the regular updates that come with it, I expect to keep the miles flowing, and the business class flights coming.
Editor’s note: I received a free copy of Frequent Flyer Master for review purposes and there are affiliate links in this post. However I can’t say enough how much I endorse this product…if you fly, it’s worthwhile to get this book. The author even guarantees that with the application of the book’s tips, you will earn at least one free flight in your first year. So…what have you got to lose?