First Class Dreams, Sandwich from Home Budget: A Frugal Traveler’s Guide for Flying
Everyone has their unique travel style. Some treat vacations like a chance to live their best life, eating expensive meals and getting where they’re going in style. Others nickel and dime their trips, opting to forfeit basic amenities (like a bathroom in their hotel room) in order to stretch their funds further. Gabby and I find ourselves in the middle of these two extremes. We call it “budget traveling with a ‘fuck it I’m on vacation’ attitude.” Basically this means we scrimp where we can while still leaving room to eat/see/experience things we could not normally afford because fuck it we’re on vacation.
Getting There Cheaply-ish
One of the biggest chunks of your travel budget will inevitably always go to your airline tickets. With the exception of ultra low-cost and budget airlines, which we will cover in another post, most airlines offer the same three tiers of service.
First class passengers are treated to a luxurious experience that only money can buy. This is especially true for international carriers such as Emirates, Air France, and Lufthansa who seem to be in a competition of who can provide the most over the top experience 35,000 feet up in the sky to the 1%. I mean they have showers on planes now. On Emirates A380 you can reserve a 30-minute spot to use the spa-like shower suite. While you only have 5 minutes of actual hot water shower time, you get to spend the additional 25 minutes enjoying some much needed quiet time. And to top off the whole experience, they leave a plate of fresh fruit for you to enjoy when you return to your seat. The closest to this I’ve ever come was when some nice older ladies handed out Italian plums they picked from their tree that morning to those sitting around them. I explained to one of them that you are allowed to bring an empty water bottle through security and fill it up when TSA determines you are not a flight risk, so I feel like it was a pretty even trade.
If you want to experience first class on Emirates but don’t have $10,000 burning a hole in your wallet, Ben Schlappig of One Mile at a Time does a great job documenting his travels. Take a look next time you want to feel broke as hell or need something to daydream about when buying your weekly Powerball ticket.
Business class is as one would expect — enough steps above economy to make you feel superior but far enough below first to remind you to stay in your lane. Jerry Seinfeld has a great joke about flight attendants closing the curtain that separates first class from the other riff raff on the plane, “they always give you that little look, ‘Maybe if you were to work a little harder, I wouldn’t have to do this.’” Want to enjoy a shower on your next 15-hour flight? Well then be better and earn it. Or you know, get a new family, preferably one who started a French fashion house or a chocolate and candy empire.
Now we come to the ever changing economy class. While this used the single lowest tier of traveler, it has since been broken up to include basic, standard and premium options.
The standard is what we are all used to with economy. You can select your seat at check out, bring a carry on (aka a suitcase you should have checked but hell no are you paying $30 when you can just shove it into the overhead bin with the help of a tall guy sitting near you who has been silently nominated by the other passengers to stand there assisting those with overstuffed luggage so the aisle can be cleared quicker, everyone can get to their seats faster and the plane can take off when scheduled) and usually board the airline in the middle of the pack.
The premium option gives you just enough amenities so you feel like you’ve made it, but at a price point where us normal folks can still afford to eat on vacation. Travelers who select this upgrade typically receive a seat with more legroom, priority boarding and maybe a free adult beverage.
To wrap up economy we come to the basic option, and the one I most often opt for. It is the barest of bones offering. While none of the economy options include a checked bag, some airlines don’t even offer a carry on — all you get with your ticket price is a personal item, usually in the form of a rotund backpack. You board the aircraft in the last group and you don’t get your seat assignment until you arrive at the airport. While this may stress out some flyers, I like to think of it as airplane gambling. Most of the time you lose (which as I’ve found out is just like regular gambling), getting saddled with a seat at the back of the plane next to the bathroom. But sometimes, you beat the house and win it all. On my last evening flight from Boston to Portland, I got an exit row all to myself. That’s right, I said an exit row all to myself. As soon as we reached cruising altitude I took my shoes off, bucked myself into the middle seat and laid down. Best cross country flight I’ve ever had.
Getting That Upgrade
While many people flying in non-economy level pay full price for that ticket, some simply have status with the airline. The more you fly, the more frequent flier miles you get. Then before you know it bada bing bada boom you’re an elite status member and getting automatically upgraded when fancy seats have not been filled.
Getting enough miles to turn yourself into a somebody sounds easy enough, but it is actually pretty hard to reach those numbers just by taking casual vacations. The winners are typically those who travel a lot for business or the lucky few who travel for their full-time job (we’re coming for you, travel bloggers). I guess there are some rich folks out there who simply travel enough for fun that they rack up the miles, but since they don’t need automatic upgrades let’s ignore them.
Side note: There is a man named David Phillips who earned more than 1.2 million frequent flyer miles by spending only $3,140 on single-serve pudding snacks. But we can’t all be David.
There was a brief period where I thought I had reached elite status on Alaska Airlines. I signed up for their credit card in order to get the 40,000 bonus miles with the plan of using them to get a few cross country flights (to no one’s surprise I have only used them for flights to Vegas. Wait, do Gabby and I go to Vegas too much? This is not the time for soul searching).
While clicking around the Alaska website I came to the qualifications page for their elite level members. To my excitement, 40,000 miles was enough to get me to their second tier — MVP GOLD. The long list of benefits included free flight changes and cancelations. So, knowing these miles would soon be in my digital wallet, I booked a flight home with little thought, as I knew I could easily change it later. I then waited patiently for my welcome email. After a few calls to customer service, I was faced with a harsh reality. Bonus miles from credit card sign ups do not qualify for elite status. This kids is a lesson in the importance of reading all the fine print. Looking back, it is almost ridiculous that I thought they would hand out status to people whose only requirement was having a decent credit score and the ability to spend $2,000 within three months of opening the account. And if you are wondering, I did end up paying the $125 flight change fee.
Saving On Baggage Fees
“I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” said my least favorite Office character, Andrew Baines Bernard. While he was referring to the time before his character arc went bananas and he left his well earned regional manager job, friends and girlfriend behind to sail his family’s boat down to the Bahamas, this quote hit hard for me in terms of checked bags.
There was a time when every airline ticket included a checked bag, a carry on and a personal item. Perhaps this excess of bags is why so many millennials are over packers (this is based on data gathered by me watching myself and those around me pack poorly. Gabby included). But many times with the option of how many and what size bags to pack, I chose to only bring a carry on. Now, a carry on is often my only financially responsible choice.
As I said before, I am an over-packer. So instead of pairing down what I will bring with me, I cram exactly what I would have packed in a checked bag into a smaller carry on suitcase and a backpack. And then I proceed to wander around the airport hunched over from the weight of it all. This is fine when in a small airport (shout out to PDX, which only has one terminal), but can get annoying real fast when you have a long way to go. A good portion of my airline travel is done alone, so having a lot of luggage with me is inconvenient when I have to go to the bathroom. Apparently it is a real no no to ask a random person to watch your belongings for you. I have however bonded with a few older folks, switching off watching each other’s belongings at the gate while the other runs to the bathroom one final time. I’m sure I will eventually be robbed, but until then the system is working.
As long as I don’t have a tight schedule, I would much rather check my bag. This gives me the freedom to wander with only a backpack and makes the boarding process less stressful. Since I don’t need to fight for room in the overhead bin, I have no problem being in the last boarding group, a position that comes with buying the cheapest ticket.
9 times out of 10 I am able to check my bag without paying a fee through the magic of complementary gate checks. In an effort to make as much money as possible, airlines are notorious for overbooking. This means, they almost always make an announcement that the flight is full. And with a full flight comes the risk of running out of overhead bin storage. To solve this, they offer to check anyone’s bag for free to their final destination. I am often the first one in line. My brother claims that he will walk right up to the ticket counter and offers to gate check his suitcase before an announcement is made, but I have never witnessed this so this tip is unsubstantiated.
With my newly lightened load, I’m able to freely walk around the terminal, getting in all my steps before being confined to my tiny seat for the next few hours. Instead of huddling in a circle around the gate, waiting anxiously for my group to be called, I can relax. I have short legs so I am perfectly comfortable with my backpack stowed under the seat in front of me. After a simple plane deboarding, I get to hang out with all my new friends, waiting to see my purple suitcase come around the conveyor belt. I have not experienced lost luggage or an exceptionally long delay, so far. Maybe once I do I’ll only relinquish my carry on when I am forced to do so, another downside of being in the last boarding group.
I recently learned that your checked bag does not need to be a suitcase. On my last trip to Vegas, I was flying down on Alaska but flying back on Spirit. Since I have the Alaska credit card, I get a free checked bag but a Spirit ticket only includes a personal, so everything I wanted to come home with me had to fit into a backpack.
A week before the trip I picked up a free case of beer from a local brewery. Apparently they brewed it incorrectly so it had too short of a shelf life to sell. Since there was no way I could drink 24 pints of a hoppy IPA in the next seven days I looked into bringing it down to Vegas; there would be 10 of us down there so chances were high it would be consumed. After some googling I found that the only requirement for a standard checked bag (on Alaska) is that it has to measure less than 62 linear inches (height + length + width) and weigh no more than 50 pounds. I got a free cooler box from a meal delivery kit my neighbor was recycling that fit the dimensional requirements, filled it with beer and the disposable ice packs that came with the kit. I got about 15 beers in the box before it was almost too heavy to carry.
I broke quite the sweat carrying that box around in 100 degree Vegas weather but it was well worth it.
Now it is worth noting that while I talked a lot of shit about economy class, I’m grateful to have the opportunity to fly at all. There are plenty of people who do not have the time, money or ability to travel and they would happily take the seat next to the bathroom in exchange for the prospect of a much needed break.
But we wouldn’t be too upset if some kind hearted airline wanted to jump in and give us a taste of the good life either. You know, for research purposes.