The best seats, the best planes and the best point schemes, as told by the jet-setters who spend their lives in the air
Words by Ms Jenny Southan
Illustrations by Mr Pete Gamlen
Earlier this year, American businessman Mr Tom Stuker racked up 18 million miles – equivalent to circumnavigating the Earth 722 times – after a lifetime of flying with United. That’s a lot of packing, security pat-downs and plastic trays of plane food. But he’s not alone.
By the end of the year, the world’s airlines will have carried four billion passengers – almost twice as many as 12 years ago. With the advent of low-cost airlines, and more planes in the sky than ever before, compared to our grandparents we are all frequent flyers. Some of us, however, by necessity or design, have attained elite jet-setter status, racking up the points, luxuriating in lounges and knowing how to get the best seat for the best price.
As features editor of Business Traveller magazine, I have flown at least once a month to destinations as wide ranging as Latvia, Ras al Khaimah, Detroit, Iran and Azerbaijan. Not wedded to one specific airline, I had the privilege of sampling everything from Air New Zealand’s innovative economy class Skycouch to Air France’s incredible apartment-style first-class cabin. A highlight was a 30,000ft rave on a Virgin Atlantic “party flight” – Rudimental DJ’d and everyone was dancing and drinking champagnearound the upper-class bar. It was more than a little surreal. But largely I have tested and reviewed the different business-class cabins of dozens of airlines.
I’m now leaving the title, but here I have gathered together the air travel secrets of the serious jet-setters I have met along the way, with a few tips of my own to get things started…
EXTRA LEGROOM PAYS OFF
Remove some of the discomfort of flying economy by booking seats with extra legroom. Most airlines charge for the privilege these days, but if you are tall, it will be worth it. Virgin Atlantic, for example, publishes its seat maps online and clearly shows which ones have more space. On its Boeing 747s, it has 18 exit row seats and 30 extra legroom seats (86.36cm instead of 78.74cm), which cost from £30 one-way. If you have a Flying Club Gold Card, you choose one for free.
BID ON UPGRADES
A clever way to get an upgrade is to bid for one in an eBay-style auction. The system is powered by Plusgrade, with dozens of airlines implanting it, including Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Air Canada. Each airline has its own rules on the bidding process but in general, you will be able to jump up one cabin class. To give yourself the best chance of winning the bid, compare the difference between the seat you bought and the seat you would like, and then bid 20-40 per cent of the difference. You can also try the seatfrog.com app for last-minute upgrade auctions.
TURN LEFT, PAY LESS
If you’d rather invest in a five-star hotel for a few nights than a seat at the front of a plane for a few hours, look around for lesser-known boutique airlines and routings that provide “affordable luxury”. La Compagnie is a fantastic business-class-only French airline that only flies between Paris CDG and New York Newark. Its powder blue, private jet-style cabin is configured with 74 seats that recline 175 degrees to create lie-flat beds, and return flights can cost as little as $1,600. Low-cost airline Norwegian Air is another one to look at, flying Boeing 787 Dreamliners between the UK and the US, with premium seats (essentially premium economy, but you also get lounge access) undercutting other airlines on transatlantic routes to Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Boston with prices from £720 return (premium economy on traditional airlines can cost upwards of £2,000).
Mr Fred Finn is the Guinness World Record-holder for “world’s most travelled person”. He flew Concorde 718 times. These days he flies about 200,000 miles a year
Mr Fred Finn: I have found that the best aircraft since Concorde is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Unlike other jets, the air doesn’t come through the engines, so it’s not baked and dry, which increases dehydration. The air in the cabin has more humidity, which makes a difference to your eyes and skin, and the way you feel when you land. Many airlines (including ANA, BA, Etihad, KLM, Thai Airways and Virgin Atlantic) now have the Dreamliner in their fleets, so look out for this aircraft when booking.
Mr Gilbert Ott is a travel blogger for godsavethepoints.com. He typically flies 150,000 to 200,000 miles a year
BYO FOOD AND BEVERAGES
Mr Gilbert Ott: The way to survive flying long-haul economy is self-catering – don’t rely on the airline. I bring my own snacks (a banana, some biscuits, maybe some sushi), water, noise-cancelling Bose QC35 wireless headphones and Netflix offline. That said, I find Asian carriers such as Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines consistently offer great economy experiences. Virgin Atlantic can be good, too.
BUY POINTS, SAVE CASH
Mr Gilbert Ott: Sometimes buying points (or even better, using points) is cheaper than paying a cash price for business or first class. Airlines often sell points at a deep discount and provided there are seats available, can save you thousands of pounds on buying a ticket outright. (For some airlines, their frequent flyer programmes are more valuable than their actual flights – selling miles is an amazing way to make money without even moving a plane.) Alaska Airlines is a great example – you can often snag round trips to Asia with partner airlines such as Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines for under $2,000 in business class, versus a minimum of $6,000 on a cash ticket.
BECOME AN EXPERT
Mr Gilbert Ott: When flying economy, avoid the middle seat at all costs if you are travelling alone. I set free alerts on expertflyer.com so I can see when the best window or aisle seats become available. Then I can go back to the airline website to nab them when they open up. When using the paid-for version ($9.99 a month), you can set unlimited alerts letting you know when upgrades are available on specific airlines, flights or dates. ExpertFlyer will search every day and, if what you need opens up, you’ll get an email. This week, it got me an upgrade from business to first on ANA.
SPEND POINTS WISELY
Mr Gilbert Ott: Make the most of your points. Don’t use them for tickets you can afford to buy with cash or where the cents-per-mile ratio is low. For example, if you can afford a $250 ticket and it would require 25,000 miles or more to redeem, don’t pay with points as that works out at just one cent per point. Since airline points don’t have a fixed cash value, those same 25,000 miles could cover a ticket that’s more than three times the price – and that’s the time to use them.
JOIN THE CLUBHOUSE
Mr Gilbert Ott: One of my favourite lounges is the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at London Heathrow, where you can enjoy waiter service, cocktails, free haircuts and massages. There’s a pool table, a cinema and a spa with a sauna, steam room and hot tub. The Qantas International First lounge in LA is dreamy – it serves amazing food from chef Neil Perry, complimentary champagne, a long list of Australian wines, gorgeous décor and phenomenal service. I never want to leave.
Mr Doug Gollan is the founder of privatejetcardcomparisons. He has lifetime platinum status with American Airlines having travelled for 200 days a year between 2001 and 2014
PRIVATE JETS FOR LESS
Mr Doug Gollan: For a cost-effective way of travelling by private jet, try Surf Air or JetSmarter. Surf Air recently launched in Europe (it flies to Zurich, Cannes and Ibiza) and has a growing US network covering Texas and 12 destinations across California. Members pay a monthly fee of $1,950 upwards, and this allows them to fly on as many jets as they want. Annual membership with JetSmarter ranges between $5,000 and $15,000, and entitles you to free seats on both “empty legs” (when the jet is returning to it’s home-base after an outbound charter) and shuttle flights (these fly at set times like commercial airlines). In this case it’s more affordable because you don’t have exclusive use of the aircraft – you will be sitting with strangers.
Mr John Arlidge is senior writer for The Sunday Times. He once flew 26,000 miles (the equivalent of once around the Earth) in four days for a story
GO FOR GOLD
Mr John Arlidge: Virgin Atlantic offers the single best frequent flyer perk to its regular customers: anyone who has held a Virgin Flying Club Gold Card (to earn and maintain this you need to accrue 1,000 tier points every 12 months – equivalent to a minimum of five one-way flights in Upper Class) for 10 consecutive years, and has 7,500 tier points, is awarded a Virgin Gold Card for life. Yes, you read that right. For life. And it’s all the more valuable when you consider it gives travellers free seat reservations, priority boarding and lounge access across Delta’s North American network, Air France and KLM.
Mr John Arlidge: If you think British Airways is off its game, book its partner airlines. Qatar Airways and American Airlines are the best. You’ll earn the same tier points to retain your silver or gold BA Executive Club status (but not the same miles). American Airlines’ transatlantic business-class service is as good as first class on many carriers; its domestic US services are also top class.
Mr John Arlidge: When flying economy long-haul, choose Emirates, Qatar Airways or Etihad. But make sure you’re on an A380 ‘superjumbo’. BA’s best economy cabin is upstairs at the back on the A380 – a tiny cabin with only 32 seats. If you cannot afford business class, book premium economy, which is available on many airlines including Air France, Air New Zealand, ANA, BA, Qantas and Virgin Atlantic. This cabin also tends fills up first, so you’ve also got more chance of being upgraded.
Mr Joe McCanta is brand ambassador for Grey Goose vodka. He visits about 30 countries a year and in the past two years he has flown more than a million miles
ROLL WITH IT
Mr Joe McCanta: I always roll my clothes. This creates way more space in my case and means outfits are ready to be worn straight away. A good friend of mine who travels as much as I do even puts the rolled-up clothes into large, gallon-sized ziplock bags and presses the air out so they remain crease-free.
Mr Joe McCanta: Bring your own bitters and syrups for the plane so you can be a master mixologist anywhere you are. The Death & Co travel kit is the best because it has an incredible recipe book and is modular, which means you fill up the bottles before you fly and can have dozens of options of drinks. Even if you are travelling economy, you can jazz up a vodka and tonic.
PLINK, PLINK, WHIZZ
Mr Joe McCanta: When it comes to jet lag, I always take effervescent rehydration tablets such as Nuun on the plane. Even if not drinking any alcohol, you get way more dehydrated than you think while travelling and it’s nice to land refreshed rather than parched. I also go for a run when I land – this really helps get me back on point and means I can explore my surroundings.”
JUMP THE QUEUE
Mr Joe McCanta: US and Canadian citizens can sign up for the free Mobile Passport app and for me it has been life-changing. Authorised by US Customs and Border Protection, it allows you to use dedicated fast-track lanes to avoid the notoriously long customs lines in more than 20 US airports such as New York JFK.
Mr Reigo Eljas is country director UK and Ireland of lastminute.com. He travels a minimum of 100,000 miles a year on business
GET IN EARLY
Mr Reigo Eljas: Spending miles is getting harder as airlines limit the seats available for redemptions. Your best chance is to book well in advance, as the closer you get to your departure date, the less likely it is you will be able to use them. Sometimes you can get lucky if you book very last minute. I once booked a flight from Madrid to London just over 24 hours in advance and seats became available when they hadn’t been before.
Ms Fabienne Cauli is vice-president of business-to-business EMEA for American Express. She flies two to four times a week
CASE BY CASE
Ms Fabienne Cauli: I have two suitcases packed with essentials such as toiletries, make-up and business attire. As soon as I’m back from a trip, I leave one case at home to be washed and replenished, and use the other for the next trip. It saves a lot of time not having to repack from scratch for each trip.
Mr Salvatore Imposimato is vice president of brand experience at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel in LA
COMFORT COMES FIRST
Mr Salvatore Imposimato: First and foremost, I am a nervous flyer. So no matter how much I travel – which is up to six times per week – I still hate boarding planes. I always travel with my oldest pair of beat up, black Chuck Taylors – they go with my day-to-day casual look and still look great when I’m dressed up. I also take my wireless Beats by Dre headphones, a motorcycle jacket and Nike Flynit running shoes, no matter the city.
THOM BROWNESlim-Fit Striped Loopback Cotton-Jersey Sweatshirt
LORO PIANAVirgin Wool Sweatpants
ARMAND DIRADOURIANCashmere and Silk Eye Mask
MASTER & DYNAMICMW50+ Leather 2-in-1 Wireless Over-Ear Headphones
THIS IS GROUNDGrande Tech Dopp Kit Leather Travel Organiser
MALIN + GOETZEssentials Travel Kit