I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Oh baby on board

"Would you like some fizzy?"

That's how Ruth was greeted when we flew in business class to Sydney last year. Her jaw had only just come back from the floor and her eyes were still pretty wide; she'd only two minutes previous asked me in hushed tones "am I allowed to be here?" after we'd gone upstairs on a BA 747. She was outwardly expressing how I feel every time I've been lucky enough to fly that way. Business class rocks.

For our first time in First class, by contrast, we were a little more circumspect. We knew in advance it wasn't a huge leap from business class, the main difference being the privacy of the seats and cabin, and the better service which comes from a similar level of staffing over 14 passengers (tops) as there are over 38 or so further back. But we were still offered fizzy, and we accepted.

(I actually accepted a bit too much. Other than during take-off itself, my glass wasn't empty for the first 3 hours or so of the flight -- and this came back to haunt me in San Francisco)

That's not to say there's no difference in the seat, mind. It is a little wider, and a fair bit longer. Where in business there's a footrest with a "NOT TO BE USED AS A SEAT" sign on it, in First it's explicitly meant to be so used. They refer to it as a "buddy seat", and you can get someone from elsewhere to come up and join you for a drink mid-flight. Like sending back for your PA or whatever, I guess. You can also ask, if travelling as a couple (or presumably if you pull onboard) to have 2 meals served on one table, the two of you sitting facing each other. We did this on the way back.

That being possible should make obvious the fact that the table is also bigger. And they lay it properly: out comes the tablecloth, the metal cutlery, the proper plates, the starter, the main, the dessert, the wine, the cheese, the biscuits... it's just consumption of epic proportions. You can have it whenever you want, as another benefit of First over all the other cabins is precisely that: instead of have the food service when you're told, they let you pick a time that suits you. Perfect if you've already overindulged in the lounge beforehand and want to wait. Alternatively, if you've overindulged beforehand but are a fat greedy scoffer such as me, you can have it at the start of the flight. Ahem.

Prior to the food service I went through my normal onboard routine, which basically consists of skim-reading every magazine and looking at all the entertainment listings. I didn't know that First class had its own magazine, so I started there. As with the business class magazines it was full of stuff I can't afford, am not interested in, and probably wouldn't care about even if I was minted. I was amused to discover the ads for discreet addiction treatment clinics though. These fat cats and celebs just don't know when enough's enough, do they? And as for the special 'luxury collection' stuff at the back of the shopping magazine -- who the hell spends £140 on a fucking pencil???

Lunch arrived and I have no recollection as to what it was, even though I'd pored over the menu beforehand. I blame the fizzy. Oh, it turns out from checking Flickr that I had the sea bass. And then there was a posh dessert, and cheese and biscuits. YUM.

The rest of the flight was actually pretty uneventful, with nothing being particularly first class or notable about it that I haven't already mentioned. The movies and other entertainment options are the same in all cabins, and the service wasn't monstrously attentive. Most people just want to relax with their headphones on, or sleep (even on a day flight) and the staff weren't buzzing round much. I watched a few comedy episodes, plus Righteous Kill and Dog Day Afternoon, both pretty good. I like Al Pacino, which helps.

At some point we were handed our kits of stuff. They're a different design to the business class ones but as far as I could tell the contents are just from someone else rather than Elemis. So you get eye wakening cream, lip balm, some flight socks, etc etc. They also hand out sleeper suits/pyjamas, though I didn't bother unwrapping mine. And there was more champagne.

San Francisco is an awesome airport to arrive into. Immigration is a breeze and the luggage seems to come off much quicker than most other airports I've been to. Previously when travelling for Yahoo! I had managed to get to my hotel room in central San Francisco about 75 minutes from being allowed to turn my phone on (still on the plane), and we managed it in about the same speed this time. However, staying one block further north from my old haunt meant I arrived sweaty and out of breath, because that one block is a bastard hill. They laughed at me when we checked in!

We were given room 911. And we thought: God help anyone in another room that, in an emergency, panics and leaves off the 9 for an outside line before calling for help.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A First Class airport experience

We got a cab at about 0915, if memory serves. The flight wasn't until 1425 but we wanted to enjoy the airport experience as much as possible. Airports are lovely if you have access to the right places.

The cab driver was a strange bloke. Really nice; I think I may have had him drive me to Heathrow before, when he had to stop for petrol en route and told me a story about how he bought a house in Thames Ditton directly from the vendor: having happened to notice a for-sale sign being erected while he was in the vicinity, he waited until the erector buggered off, then knocked on the door and made a cut-out-the-estate-agents offer. Nice job, if true, and it made me wonder just how much cab drivers earn. The conversation this time did nothing to reduce my wonder, since he told us about a close relative in some shit-hot ballet school in Richmond (albeit on a scholarship, I think), plus numerous yearly trips abroad to Greece and beyond, and he just carried himself with the air -- and voice -- of someone a bit well to-do. Perhaps he's independently wealthy and drives a cab in Surbiton to avert boredom, or just for the love of meeting new people all the time. Or perhaps he was just a liar.

Whatever he was, he got us to the airport sharpish. Heathrow T5 is great (though I say this having only been there twice before) and most of the time there's no real need to use any "fast track" check-in desks, because the queues and process at the regular ones are so negligible. However, we were determined to make use of everything our ticket entitled us to -- the benefits are not lessened if you "paid" with miles -- so we headed all the way to the First Class check-in zone at the end.

The entrance of this zone is manned by staff who confirm your eligibility to be there (thankfully not taking into account the way you're dressed, or your accent) and kind of half-escort you to a check-in desk with no queue. There are loads of desks and loads of staff: there's supposed to pretty much never be a queue, and if there is one there are some very comfortable and swanky chairs you can park your arse in while you wait. They come get you when it's your turn, and they're very apologetic -- I know because I saw it happen on our way out.

While we were checking in a group turned up at the desk next to us. It wasn't difficult to overhear their conversation because it was loud (not rude or obtrusively so, just naturally, with the added factor of the whole zone being a fairly hushed environment). They actually failed to check-in though, because their flight had just left. They'd misread the flight time on their ticket/itinerary as the check-in time. Oh dear.

I've probably spent more time writing the last two paragraphs than we actually spent checking in, because it was a breeze. They asked us if we knew where the lounges were and we did, because having had a Gold Card previously we'd been to the First Class lounge in August 2008. However! There's an extra, super-exclusive lounge called the Concorde Room, with even stricter entry requirements. A Gold Card isn't enough, you have to either be flying in First Class or have a Premier Card -- which are invite-only, dished out to people who head companies (or travel budgets) that give significant chunks of cash to BA each year. Or, alternatively, be a celeb who BA think would be a worthwhile recipient. Anyway, we had First Class tickets, so we were in...

... or so we thought. The route to the First Class lounge is a real trek in T5, but the Concorde Room entrance is directly after security. We queued up behind the people being turned away, and when we got to the front handed over our boarding passes. Seats 1A and 2A in a 747: undeniably First Class, yet we were told to hop it. In fact, everyone was being told to hop it. Doubtless some, perhaps most, were right to get that treatment, but we knew our rights so perservered. Eventually she took our boarding passes inside, then came back out with an apology, and held the door open for us. Damn right!

There's an inner desk where they actually scan the boarding pass, and the woman there explained where things were: the left luggage shelves, the showers, the place to have breakfast. One fry-up later, we dropped our bags and booked a massage. There was a 35 minute wait, so we headed out to the terminal shops to get some last minute stuff.

The massage was great. It's on this super-expensive chair that does all kinds of crazy stuff, but at the same time there was a member of staff giving a hard (requested -- could have had soft if I'd wanted) head and shoulder massage. Win.

Back into the lounge again, this time to the bar. This is where it started to get seriously fat cat: we ordered champagne and a cheese plate, and were told we'd just missed Tom Jones. Jordan and her 3 tits were in earlier, and Ewan McGregor was sitting just over there (he was 'n all). The champagne came in huge glasses, and was lovely, and I had 2 and half glasses. Hic!

We left the lounge a bit too early. Being unfamiliar with "T5B", the kind of extra bit of T5 you can only reach in a sort of light/monorail thing, we overestimated how long it would take us to get to the gate. But it was OK, because it meant we could take advantage of the Business Class lounge there.

And here's where it started to get a bit ... dangerous. Y'see, business class lounges rule. You get free beer, and food, which typically includes a lot of cheese. You avoid the scrum, there are TVs to watch, did I mention the beer was free? Because it is. And they're wonderful. But being champered and pampered already that morning, this lounge felt a bit, how can I put it ... pikey. Rubbish. Which betrays the fact that we were feeling above it, we were feeling used to the trappings of First Class already. And that's what's dangerous: it might make all future trips -- the vast majority of which won't feature a lounge of any description! -- a disappointment. If I hadn't seen such riches I could live with being poor and all that bollocks.

Anyway, the lounge was fine. The beer was free (not sure if I'd pointed that out yet), and it was close to the gate. And once the flight started to board, our passes meant we could use the fast track queue and have zero fuss getting to our seats, because the cabin is on the left of the door where you get on, and there's fuck all seats in it. Just 14. And they're lovely. Huge. Spacious. Awesome. And we had 11 hours in them ahead of us!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Front of the bus

Been meaning to say something about having flown first class for the last week and a bit, ie since we got back. Yes, you read it right (and I'm still amazed by it myself): when Ruth and I went to San Francisco on Jan 31st, and came back on Feb 8th/9th (overnight flight), we flew in BA First Class. Fucking incredible! This is how we managed it.
FIRST menu

The 4 word version is "an obsession with miles". Basically ever since Yahoo! flew me to Taipei in March 2006, in the eye-opening experience that is business class, I've been trying to earn miles with BA (and BMI) as much as possible. I owe pretty much everything to the people who hang around at flyertalk.com -- those guys and gals are experts at how best to earn miles, how best to spend miles, and how to maximise the experience of flying in something beyond economy. Taking in all the advice from there I set out to experience luxury travel, and have managed it in ways far beyond my original plan. It would never have been possible without the good fortune of a decent pay packet and work travel, but the main thrust of what follows is value for money: I haven't paid anything like the going rate for this stuff.

BA's Executive Club scheme is a loyalty programme which very much works both ways: the more you fly with BA (and to a lesser extent their partners, eg Qantas) the more miles you get. And the more miles you get, the further you can go, and/or you can fly in more comfort. Flyertalk taught me that the best value for money happily involves flying in business or first class, due to the amount of cash you have to pay alongside the miles you redeem. More about that at the bottom; it's not important unless you can get hold of the miles in the first place.

First and foremost, I have flown. I earnt a bunch from that Yahoo! trip which sparked it all off; I earnt a shitload from my epic round the world once-in-a-lifetime (or so I thought...) holiday in Sept/Oct 2006 and May/June 2007; I earnt a load more by being sent to California 3 times in 2007 by Yahoo!; and I earnt still more from occasional holidays (Istanbul, Amsterdam, Wacken).

Then there's the miles I've "earnt" on the ground. Since August 2006 I've had a BA American Express credit card and have pumped shitloads of my spending through it. That's 1.5 miles per pound spent (3 miles whenever I buy something from BA, eg flights). I've made us shop at Tesco to earn clubcard points, availed myself of as many bonus point offers as I could get away with, and we had our electricity from E.ON for a year. E.ON give you clubcard points, and clubcard points convert to BA miles. And since BA launched an affiliate shopping scheme, I've used that a lot too (even got 3000 miles too many from a purchase in the first week). Oh, and I've been known to top the account up by just straight out buying miles too.

The penultimate piece of the puzzle is another benefit of the BA Amex card. As well as miles for each quid spent, I also get a 2-for-1 voucher if I spend £10k in my billing year (which runs August to July). It's a fairly restrictive voucher: it enables you to get 2 seats instead of 1 so long as you (a) pay with BA miles (b) fly with BA, no codeshares, no partner airlines (c) start in the UK. But since we live in the UK and want to fly BA as much as possible, the restrictions don't bother us. As it happens we already used one voucher to go visit my bro and sis-in-law in Sydney in April 2008, paying 200k BA miles instead of 400k to go there in business class.

That was very fucking winful. It was also pretty much the only voucher I ever expected to use, and the last benefit directly attributable to that 06/07 round-the-world trip. Indeed, booking it in June '07 cleared me out of miles -- but that was before two of the California work trips, the Istanbul holiday, the affiliate scheme... the miles started to stack up again.

I earnt another voucher, but it still didn't look likely that we'd be able to make good use of it. In November 2008 I had ~125k miles, and then the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. BA had a "sale", whereby they were charging 50% (in mileage terms) of the normal "price" for any flights anywhere on their network. The same as a 2-for-1 voucher, then, except you could combine the two. And that's how we managed to fly First Class:

  • Normal mileage required for 2x London-San Francisco-London: 300k
  • Mileage required if using a 2-for-1 voucher: 150k
  • Mileage required when using voucher in the sale: 75k

Fuckin' bingo.

Finally let me return to what I was saying above, about value for money and stuff. When you pay for a flight with miles there is still an amount of cash you have to stump up as well. These are referred to as "taxes, fees and surcharges" and are a mixture of
  • genuine taxes that BA have to pay the government/airport, so they pass it on to the punter; and
  • a variable component of their ticket price, based on things such as how much BA have been paying for oil in the last 6-9 months.
The airlines claim these charges are separate from what they refer to as the "base fare", and so you have to pay them even when redeeming miles for flights. Some people bitch about these, and I can see why, but I'm happy to cough up. And the primary reason I'm happy to cough up is this: 2 people with semi-flexible First Class tickets to San Francisco on BA costs somewhere in the region of £8000 each. We paid £780 between us. The real point here is that if we'd spent 25k miles and flown in economy, the cash we'd have had to pay wouldn't have actually gone down by a great deal: the rub is that taxes, fees, and surcharges make up a significant proportion of an economy ticket because they are an absolute amount. They are not relative to the base fare -- if they were, you'd pay zero when spending miles! The amounts do go up (eg the APD figure), but not by much, certainly compared to the fare. You can get the taxes, fees and surcharges figures direct from ba.com -- they tell you how much they are when you go to make a booking (before you pay).

So anyway, yes -- £780. And fuck me did we get our money's worth; hopefully I'll find the time to write about that soon.