The Thing I Splurge On, Travel-Wise

Tomorrow I start on a week-long trip to Australia, the itinerary of which goes as such: Dayton to Houston to Auckland to Melbourne to Canberra. It will take over 40 hours, and includes an epic 11-hour layover in Houston because, well, that’s just how these things work sometimes. The length and general nature of the trip is such that it’s a good time to note my general travel policy these days, which is:

If there’s an ocean involved, when possible, buy a lie-down seat.

I should note that for domestic flights, I almost never pay for business class seats. One, what domestic business class gets you is a little extra width in the seat, some extra leg room and free booze, which as a short-legged five foot seven teetotaler is not the value proposition it might be for others. And the flight is rarely more than four hours in any event. For domestic flights, premium economy is my sweet spot. If I ever get a business seat domestically, it’s because I was automatically upgraded for some reason, or because when I got to the sign-in kiosk the upgrade was available for $50 or less. What can I say, I’m a cheap bastard.

But in the last couple of years I’ve changed my tune when it comes to overseas flights, and I splash out for a seat that reclines all the way down, which means business class at least. Why? Well:

1. Because these flights are ridiculously long. A transatlantic flight from the US is seven to ten hours. A transpacific flight is anywhere from ten to eighteen hours. The Houston – Auckland leg of my flight tomorrow is fourteen hours and forty five minutes. An economy or economy plus seat is perfectly fine for a four-hour flight. For one that’s three times as long? Well, I’d rather not, if I can avoid it.

Also, in this particular case, the flight leaves Houston in the evening, which brings us to the another point:

2. Some people can sleep sitting up, but I am not one of them. Believe me, I’ve tried. The best case scenario has me entering a fugue state that is not quite awake but also not really asleep, which means I arrive at wherever I’m going in a condition that’s best described at “full bwuh?” I’m old now and pulling out of that particular condition is more difficult than it used to be.

However, when I have a lay-down seat (or at least one that reclines significantly) I can get some actual sleep. Is it great sleep? Well, no, it’s on a plane in a narrow bunk with not-amazing padding. But it is adequate sleep; enough that when I’m done with my travels I don’t feel like I’ve been worked over with an airplane. Also:

3. Access to airport lounges. Mind you, I often have access to these already: my American Express gets me access to the Delta Sky Club when I fly that airline, and to its own Centurion Club, and I also paid for a United Club membership this year. But when I don’t already (for example, when I fly United), or when having a business class ticket gets one into a different, slightly better lounge (for example, the United Polaris lounges), it’s very useful. Sitting at an airport gate is rarely a fantastic human experience, because the seats are not really comfortable and there’s usually a scrum for electrical outlets; airport lounges are usually at least slightly more civilized.

These lounges makes a real difference for when you have, say, a ridiculous 11-hour layover in Houston. The Polaris lounge there has showers and daybeds; so does the Centurion Club. They lay out food and drink for no additional cost and every seat has its own power source. And most people in the club are somewhat less stressed and aggravated than they would be at the gate. It makes a real difference in how one feels even before one gets on a plane for a very very long trip.

(Also, to pre-empt the “you’re gonna be there for 11 hours, go out and see the city!” suggestions — well, and in fact, I may; Houston’s a nice town. But also let’s not pretend that leaving a major airport for a day trip, and then getting back in, is not without its own set of logistical challenges, and even then, I’m still going to be spending a large amount of time at the airport anyway. So the thing about airport lounge access still applies.)

4. Because people start getting weird and cranky on long-haul flights (me included). Which makes sense, most humans are not designed to stay in one position, more or less, for hours and hours at a time. It’s enervating and antsy-making, no matter how much you sleep or do the airline-recommended exercises to avoid deep vein thrombosis. Also eventually people’s sense of “I’m in a public place, I should behave myself” seems to disappear, and then comes the nose-picking or porn-watching or the furtive eating of an egregiously stinky meat pie out of a cloche hat (which I swear to god is a thing that a seatmate of mine did on a flight from Australia back to the US, when I was sitting in economy).

Having a lie-down seat doesn’t keep anyone else on the flight from doing weird shit, it just means I don’t have to deal with it. And also, when I start doing weird shit, they don’t have to deal with me, either.

(For the record: I have not picked my nose or watched porn or eaten a meat pie out of a cloche hat whilst on a plane. Honest.)

5. Because paying for the lie-down seats just plain makes air travel more civilized. The airport lounges and the getting on the plane first and the not having to fight for overhead space and the blankets and pillows and eyemasks and earplugs and the actual food and drink anytime you want it and the not wrestling someone for the goddamned armrest and the airline attendants actually being attentive and the, let’s not forget, ability to put your seat down and just maybe sleep for a change makes a difference. I’m not going to pretend that the 40-hour trip I’m about to take is going to be happy bundle of joy from start to finish, but, look. I’ve gone to Australia economy class before. I know how much the experience varies between these two states of travel. Likewise other long-haul travel.

And yeah, it does suck that the difference is as significant as it is. In a just world everyone would have lie-down seats and tolerable airport experiences. I’m well aware that I’m getting out of a certain level of travel hell simply because I have the wherewithal to do so. Not everyone has the option. It’s privilege, bluntly, and I acknowledge it.

And in this particular case, I’m okay exercising it, because the other option (I mean, aside from not doing the travel at all) is hours of discomfort and aggravation, and a certain number of hours at the end of the travel recovering from it before I am a useful human once more. At this point in my life there is a specific financial value that I can assign to not feeling that way, and most of the time, it’s one I’m willing to pay (and even more so when I’m traveling with Krissy, for whom long-haul travel is even more taxing).

It’s nice to be able to do it. I recommend it, if you can afford it, and have been on the fence about it. Splurge, it’s mostly worth it.

50 thoughts on “The Thing I Splurge On, Travel-Wise

  1. Excellent advice. I almost always fly first class on flights from NY to Europe, although coming home I have found daytime Premium Economy flights to be okay. Until my most recent one. I had chosen a bulkhead seat for more legroom and wound up with a baby bassinet attached to the wall in front of me!

  2. When you do have to fight for electrical outlets, you might consider doing what my husband and I did last time we flew — we brought power strips so that we converted one outlet into five or six. That way we had two for ourselves, plus extras left over for other folks.

    Also, have fun! Don’t let the drop bears get you.

  3. We had a wine cruise around Australia and New Zealand scheduled a few years ago, and I requested a Qantas flight in business class of an Airbus 380 with John Travolta as pilot. As I recall the tickets were in the low five figures each. Whew! Anyway, they couldn’t promise me Travolta or any given Sweathog (and the cruise was canceled) so we didn’t go.

    PS. It appears that Travolta is piloting a Qantas flight to Wollongong in November, a repositioning flight to a museum. However, it’s Frank Sinatra’s old 707, not a Superjumbo.

  4. I prefer to calculate in a stop over of 14 to 20 hours after every transatlantic flight before connecting. A hotel for 100 USD (or less) close to the airport is way more relaxing and lots cheaper. Especially when you fly with two since my spouse is always coming with.

  5. I feel your pain. When we arrived from California we checked in and immediately went to a Mozart opera that evening at Sydney Opera House – it was the only performance while we were to be in town. I’d been reading a SF book on the plane instead of getting enough sleep, and as we dozed through the second act the plot of the book mixed with that of Cosi Fan Tutte – a remarkable juxtaposition which did no justice to either.

  6. Visit Boston some time. Getting out of Logan into the city is easy. You can take the Silver Line to South Station and walk to many places from there. I’m aware that Boston is a rare place in that regard; getting from most airports into the city is a much greater challenge.

    The catch is that Boston is not a major hub for making airline connections. About the only connections you would make here are for regional and local planes to smaller New England airports. You’re not likely to have a long layover here.

  7. People watch porn in public? Who are these people’s parents? Who raised these misfits? What the actual <—— a phrase I hate. Gross, disgusting, ew.

    I teach a water therapy class and do some DVT exercises and tell folks to do them everyday but especially when they are traveling.

    I hope you have a great time.

  8. For trans-atlantic flights there are a few eastbound daytime flights to London (from Chicago, New York, Boston and Toronto). They may require a quite early morning depending on how long your domestic leg beforehand is, but still an attractive option sometimes.

    No such luck for flights to Australia, there aren’t even flights timed to arrive in the evening so you stay up on the flight and go straight to sleep on arrival (there used to be).

  9. We flew to Australia the Christmas after 9/11 for a family get together…with a seven year old and a 3 year old… economy. I will never do something so stupid again, it’s business class or nothing from now on

  10. A little bit of Googling tells me you may be going to Canberra.

    If you like museums, Canberra is amazing. Don’t miss the National Museum of Australia. With your history as a film critic, you may like the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. I would also recommend the Australian War Memorial, which is not just a memorial, but also a museum. (It doesn’t glorify war.). If you like art galleries, the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery are amazing.

    You might also like to see our Parliament building. It has a grass roof that reaches to the ground in each side!

    The food and parks are great, too.

    You might want to check the weather forecast. I live further North in Queensland and, though it is only spring, our maximums are already over 30C (high 80’s-90’sF).

    Have a wonderful trip! Wishing you comfortable reclining.

  11. I haven’t had the wherewithal to fly business class to Europe very often but one time, on a flight from Heathrow back to Los Angeles, I was bumped up to business class as I had offered to take a later flight when I found the flight was overbooked in economy. My seat mate was an elderly English lady, a retired nurse, who was heading to L.A. to see grandchildren. The most lovely long distance flight I’ve ever been on. Excellent conversations on many topics, good food and beverage choices and a Barco-lounger sized seat. I’m 6’3″ and always shell out for economy plus, aisle seat for the leg room when the flight is over 4 hours.
    Anyway, I look back at that flight over 20 years ago with fondness. British Airways and KLM were class acts in those days.

  12. Crypto has the right of it. Rather than paying hefty prices to upgrade and being unable to sleep anyhow (every little jolt tends to wake me up), if there is a layover of more than 8 hours, getting a hotel room in a nearby hotel is quite worth it, and prices are usually not awful, especially at the last minute. We accidentally went to the wrong airport returning to the US from London, which required a change of flight and 10 hour layover. 7 hours of non-moving sleep during the layover did wonders for the jet lag and made the rest of the flight much more bearable.

  13. I am quite long-legged, my spouse and I are both fairly tall, and neither of us is particularly slender. We splashed out for Premium Economy for the trip from Chicago to Dublin this summer for the first time ever. It was SOOOOOO much better than Cattle-Car Class, which is how we’ve always flown before (including to London in 2014), but boy, howdy, it is a heckuva wallop to the pocketbook. I hate air travel in any case, and it is especially painful to be sitting there with the knowledge that I am paying nearly $3.00 per minute – per MINUTE – to be stuffed into a noisy tin can at 40,000 feet over the ocean with a baby two rows back screaming at the top of her lungs for the entire flight. Even if there is actually enough leg room and butt room.

    One of our kids, who is over 6 feet tall and has a 35″ inseam, travels by air at least once or twice a month for work. They pay for business class or first class for all their flights because anything else is simply intolerable. It was actually on their recommendation that we bit the bullet and spent the extra for Premium Economy, in fact. While it was less awful than Cattle Car, I just don’t think there’s any way to make air travel entirely non-awful. Which is why we fly maybe once or twice per decade at most.

    Safe travels to you, sir, and may there be no screaming babies on your flights. Have fun, be healthy, and we look forward to hearing about your journey.

  14. I’m wondering what the various items in your photo are. Such as the flat rectangular thing with the Polaris label that looks a teensy bit like a solar panel but why would you haul a solar panel onto a plane?

  15. lif strand:

    That’s the menu.

    On the seat, from bottom to top: fluffy pillow, regular blanket, memory foam pillow, menu, overnight kit (which included eye mask, ear plugs and toiletries), heavy blanket.

  16. It’s like a drinks fridge. If you’d like one and you can afford it, go for it. Lie flat seats were a serious breakthrough. I had flown that trans-Pacific route in business class enough times back in the 90s, and it was better than economy but not great. Lie flat seats are like science fiction sleep pods, totally amazing. They even give one a sense of privacy. Now if they can get the suspended animation system working, the problem of long haul flights would be solved.

  17. Pity you’re not going to see any more of New Zealand than the transit area of the airport; that’s really not the best part of the country!

    Is WorldCon 2020 on your travel plans for next year? Hopefully that’ll give you a better chance to see the country (and my hometown too, as Wellington is hosting!)

  18. John, I flew three round trip flights between Japan and the US this summer. On one, I had a front seat exit row in ANA’s new A380 with no one sitting next to me. That was quite a different experience than the rest of the journeys. I 100% concur with the value of your splurge!! These flights are painful!

    Safe travels,

    Joe McAlarnen Móvil: 240-498-5248

    >

  19. “egregiously stinky meat pie out of a cloche hat”

    After seeing the crimes you’ve committed against humanity cloaked in your burritos of mass destruction, i think you have permanently lost all rights to complain about ANYONE’s food choices.

    Ever.

    Have a good trip and dream of scramjets going across the planet in a couple hours

  20. I’ve only ever flown economy to Europe (including one business trip where my previous employer decided that the flight was literally 5 minutes too short for an employee at my salary grade to fly business class). I’m going to Naples in January, and shelled out the extra for premium economy (first or business class are not in my budget). I am hopeful that it will be a better experience as a result.

  21. Contra cryptomathecian and TheMadLibrarian, picking a schedule with additional layover time and spending the night in a hotel requires additional days off from work which for an American may not be obtainable for any price. (However, I do have an upcoming trip with an unavoidable overnight layover on the outbound leg so I may be sticking to economy there. I have status with the airline so I get the lounges anyway. ;-)

    To go all-in on first world problems, I often wish they wouldn’t try to get so fancy with the meals in business class. The only airplane meal I ever found inedible was some quinoa bullshit that was the last thing left in a business class galley.

  22. I’m doing the ::grits teeth, rolls eyes, whispers:: “digital nomad” thing for the next few years (using airfordable, it’s legit way cheaper for me to hop back & forth to Central America than it is for me to live in the SF Bay Area).

    I can’t afford a first class ticket (and it’s rarely more than a 4 hour flight—not including layovers), but I am considering splurging got an “airport lounge memberships” just can’t decide which one (my Mexico City layover was 8 hrs long & started at 5am), as well as one of those “breeze through TSA/US Customs” membership dealios.

  23. If I weren’t recovering from a bad cold, I’d have been delighted to pick you up in Houston to go sightseeing. Maybe next time. BTW pretty sure the only nonstop from IAH to AKL (Air New Zealand with United codeshare) leaves at 8:20 pm not 11: ya may wanna re-check those tickets so you’re not surprised ;-)

  24. Australia is great, but it is a long was from anywhere except New Zealand :-)

    Sydney to Dallas 17 hours non-stop (or the 9 movie flight as like to call it). Melbourne to London 20 hours give or take with one stop. There’s now a non-stop flight from Perth to London.

  25. As someone who grew up in Houston (now in Austin – yay), I can say that based on the location of IAH (Bush Int’l now I think?) which barely qualifies as being “in” Houston, trying to see the city and make it back out to the airport would have been an unpleasant experience at best due to both traffic and distance.

  26. Carbon credits? Bah! Someone who really cared about the environment would bicycle to Australia! :D

    Cheers, and have fun.

  27. Gosh, I think it would be nice to just take a trip. Things like seats going down never would have occurred to me.

    Sometimes I think it would be nice to be able to get into a car and go for a drive, see stuff, maybe visit a museum or a zoo or maybe see a ballgame in a stadium.

    I’m really poor. I don’t get to do a lot of stuff.

    Lie-down seats sound nice.

  28. I try not to sleep on flights out of consideration for others, because without my CPAP machine, I snore loudly and stop breathing a lot. Nobody wants to hear that on a long fight, especially if they’re trying to sleep themselves.

  29. My wife and I flew to Spain last summer. Woulda Coulda Shoulda bought the upgrade to business class. That way, we would have been MANY rows away from the little old lady crinkling her water bottle. All Night. Every 15 min. All. The. Way. To. Spain.

  30. Thanks for saying Houston is a nice town (whether you meant it or not). Despite its challenges, we like it. We’ve got some super weird museums.

  31. I’m not a seasoned traveler but I’ve done a bit of it over the years. I used Premium Economy when I could for the over an hour flights I had to take last year. For my short flights I’ve enjoyed JetBlue’s flights. Next month I’m going to Japan so we splurged for the business class on JAL. 13 hours from LAX to Tokyo. Lay flat seats with my own little cubicle to myself sounds really good.

  32. My first thought was, surely you can find some way to get from Dayton to Houston on a later flight that doesn’t entail an ELEVEN hour layover. But I’m sure if you could have, you would have. (That is one of many advantages we have in living in New York – direct flights almost everywhere, and plenty o’choice.)

    I know. Don’t call you Shirley.

    The last time (of 35 or so) we went to London it was business class on American (my wife had points for the upgrade), and frankly, we would never go any other way again. Fantastic difference all the way around, even to the dedicated check-in and security lines, the lounges, the food, the drinks, etc. Anyway, we’re old (we’re considering going back for our 50th in a year or two) and we are so definitely worth it.

  33. I recently flew from Seattle to Paris and back (10-11 hours) and got a lie-flat seat. I gotta say, they’re better in theory than in practice. Though I’m taller and wider than most people. Got maybe 3 hours sleep heading out. Though it sure as heck beats an economy seat any day.

  34. When I was in the Air Force, I traveled overseas quite a bit. After my first flight into Seoul from Seattle in economy, I would always ask how much an upgrade would be at check in. If it was under 250 sheckles, I would take it. It made travel so much more comfortable, and being able to sleep for the majority of the flight reduced my jet lag by about half.

  35. I discovered this spring that you could BUY access to an airport lounge for a tiny fee, and you can bet that I did. Free juice, coffee, real food, and a comfy chair with my own outlet and relative quiet – everyone was eating or reading their email, not chatting. So worth it. I can’t afford to upgrade my flight, but this relaxing time during the inevitable layover makes a huge difference to me.

  36. I’ll take business class over cattle car any day of the week for long haul flights. Fortunately my company pays for business class when I travel overseas (5-6 times a year). However, domestically, if I can avoid getting on an airplane, I would rather drive. Global Entry is nice to have, it makes returning to the USA much easier but, you still have to wait to pick up your luggage.

  37. As an Australian with a 6ft6in spouse I completely support the choice of business class. Au is a long flight from anywhere but our rule of thumb is anything under 8 hours we go economy but pay a bit extra for extra legroom seats, over 8 we are going business. As time goes by that particular line in the cloud is starting to move, after a few business class flights we are now thinking about comfort even in the slightly shorter flights, just not the domestic ones.

  38. Last June I flew for the first time in about fifteen years, cross-country to California. I have never enjoyed air travel, and post 9/11 the petty hassles grew into the Not Worth It realm. But last summer I had a conference i really wanted to go to, and my eleven-year-old’s godmother lives out there, so I took the kid for her first air trip.

    It was … not horrific. I don’t know if I got lucky, or it wasn’t really as bad as I remembered, or I am more willing to put up with it in my old age, or what. Maybe it was the airline–Southwest, which by reputation is comparatively non-horrific. the legroom was definitely better than I remember it. My knees weren’t jammed against the seat in front of me. Have there been improvements in seat design? The seat width was within tolerable range, if only barely. And the airline staff were consistently amicable, ranging to positively helpful. So I would be willing to consider doing this again.

    The AirBnB at the other end was faintly ridiculous–cheap, but with absurd hoops to jump through. It worked out, but I may splurge for a hotel room next time, just to avoid the comic opera aspects.

  39. @FiercePassion, I don’t fly a lot, but the best decision I ever made was to enroll in TSA PreCheck. I’d guess the international-travel version would be almost as convenient.

    I’ve always been able to stick with the cheap seats, but as a 5’2″ nondrinker (who’s usually flying Southwest for the free checked luggage) there’s no benefit to me to pay more. If I ever end up flying international, though, I’ll remember these tips.

  40. I’m at the stage of my life where I’m taking my retirement trips while I can still physically make them. Thus, my wife and I go to Europe every other year. Why not every year? Because we need to save up for the business class airfare. We have learned the hard way that any lower fare class is not do-able. Privileged? Yes. Also, psychologically and physically necessary.

  41. Years ago I did Detroit to Hong Kong in – literally – the last row of the plane. With my back against the bulkhead there was no recline. And I can’t sleep sitting up. Pure misery.

    These days I travel a fair amount for work, and 50% of it is with one of our executives. The CEO -always- flies first/business, and I get to tag along. My boss flies first/business if the cost differential isn’t too high, which is surprisingly often. You’re right it’s just a much more civilized way to exist. On my own I pay for the upgraded economy for the extra legroom.

    I have yet to experience the glory of lay down seats.

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