Oh how flying has changed from the days of the smiling Pan Am stewardesses [sic] who served real food on real china even to economy passengers who could actually shift their legs in comfort. At least, that’s how it looks when we watch the new piece of television nostalgia that is this season’s Pan Am. But it’s the 21st century, and much has changed. That said, as we put the finishing touches on arrangements for our winter holiday to Hawaii (that’s after we return from our Christmas in the south of France – more about that to come), it occurs to us that we’ve learned a thing or two about discernment in air travel these days.
We’ve been thinking about all the things that we’ve learned to maximize our comfort when traveling by air so that the journey is part of the experience rather than being that-which-must-be-endured to get to the good stuff. It’s also worth considering whether add-ons offered by the airlines are worth it for you and might actually contribute to a near-luxurious experience.
Here are our four rules for discerning air travel:
Rule #1: Be very judicious about your seat selection.
Our obsession in this realm began some years ago when we flew to Seattle to meet our son who was doing a summer exchange program with the Pacific Northwest Ballet school. We decided to meet him, drive down the coast to San Francisco and fly home to the east coast from there. We had little choice at the point of decision but to book three seats in economy on the “red-eye” after which we fell out of the plane, kissing the ground and vowing that we’d never travel like that again. So, if you can afford business class on any flight over three hours, just do it (or don’t complain). If you can’t afford business class (and remember that the airplanes run seat sales on business class during low business travel seasons such as Christmas), the discerning traveler can still be judicious about seat selection.
The most important thing you need to do is to visit www.seatguru.com. First, as you are making your booking (even if you are using a travel agent, do this first), look at the aircraft type for the flight you are interested in. Then go to Seartguru and find the airline and the aircraft. Look at the cabin configuration and their assessment of the seat (for example, if there is no bin space above this seat, it will tell you; if there is a bit of extra leg room, it will tell you; if the seat does not recline because it is in front of an exit row, it will tell you etc.)
If you are flying in economy on an airline that offers premium seats such as those at bulkheads and on exit rows, if your flight is long, you will find that there is great value to spending the extra cash.
Rule #2: Never arrive at an airport without your seat already selected (and preferably at time of booking).
As we were planning the upcoming Hawaii adventure, we were reminded of a previous trip when we used this inter-island airline. At that time, there was no advance seat selection at all. That meant that before boarding was called, people began to line up – a situation that we did not understand. We were to find out quickly. When boarding was finally called, the crush to get onboard was frightening. No one had a seat and everyone wanted to be first to get a “good” one. This year, we’re booked on first class seats on Hawaiian Airlines between islands to avoid this particular nightmare.
Rule #3: Never get on an airplane without noise-cancelling earphones.
No exceptions. Invest in a set of noise-cancelling earphones, attach them to your music source (our choice is an iPhone; our earphone choice is Bose) and you’ll never care again if there is a wailing infant on the plane. Of course you can’t use them during take-off and landing, but they will be a godsend during the flight and they can attach to the plane’s entertainment system if you’d like to watch a movie.
We learned this lesson on a flight from Barcelona to Paris a couple of years ago (Iberian Airlines if you must know). When we boarded the plane (on which we had been unable to get anything other than two center seats in economy) we found ourselves surrounded by a large group of people from China. We could only conclude that they had not received the memo about being quiet on airplanes (forgive us for this expectation: we’re Canadians and on Air Canada, things tend to be quiet unless there’s a wailing infant on board; see above). These people seemed to think that talking across three or four rows was business as usual. It was the longest two hours of our lives.
Rule #3: Invest in the lounge-access card for your airline of choice.
If you typically fly on one airline much more than another (which you should since there are many perks to being a frequent flyer) and you are not usually paying for business class flights, the investment in the access card will greatly improve your comfort when flying. This is particularly evident when your flight is delayed. It is another add-on that is worth the investment.
Rule #4: Never get on an airplane without some food on your person.
…and this holds true even if you’re flying first or business class. We always take protein bars because they are non-messy, easy to carry and can be carried over from one trip to another if they are not used (until they reach their best-before date of course). The importance of this habit was brought home to us on a flight from Toronto to Antigua one winter. The plane was unable to land in Antigua (evidently they didn’t have a guidance system for fog), so we ended up spending the first night of our Antigua vacation in Barbados. The next morning, we were up very early so that the plane could take us to Antigua as planned. We arrived early at the airport via airline transport without breakfast (too early at the place we stayed) to find that the only sustenance available was coffee. We had no idea when our next meal would be so we broke out the protein bars and had a pleasant wait until the plane finally boarded. The issue of extra food becomes especially important when a flight is delayed on the ground.
Our son flew from JFK to Toronto earlier this year and the flight was delayed two hours on the tarmac! He had no food, and since the flight was so short, there was not food on board. He was mighty hungry when he finally arrived at his destination.
So, there are our four rules that we never ignore – and our airplane trips are (almost) fun.