Note: This is part of a package of four columns, running Friday and Monday, about luxury-class amenities for budget travelers.
July 18, 2003 -- Ushered onto the upper deck of a 747, I reclined in my spacious seat. And reclined, and reclined, because the seat turned into a bed -- perfect for getting some Zs on my 13-hour trans-Pacific flight. When I woke up, I could walk around the cabin without stepping over my row-mate, enjoy a dozen movies or slurp up a hot, freshly prepared bowl of noodles whenever I wanted.
I was in business class, and loving it.
I'm the ultimate discount flier, but recently (thanks to Sony Electronics and Lufthansa) I got to fly business class on trips from New York to Tokyo and from New York to Frankfurt. It's not easy for tightwads to get into the front cabin, but sometimes it's worth saving your miles for.
Flying All Nippon Airways' "New style" business class from New York to Tokyo was pure luxury -- a dozen movies, start-and-stoppable whenever I wanted on a private screen; a second-floor seat away from drink trolleys and engine noise, stunningly high-quality food, and a seat that turned into a bed with a comfy quilt.
Why is it "business" class and not luxury class, then? Because business travelers appreciate the quiet airport lounges where it's easy to get work done; they covet the room to unfold a laptop, and the outlet to plug it into; and, most importantly, when you've got to go straight into a meeting after a 13-hour flight, it's good to be well-rested.
Flying Lufthansa to Frankfurt, I got to try business class one way and coach the other. Lufthansa's business class isn't as luxurious as ANA's -- no on-demand hot snacks, no bed-seats -- but you can still stretch out quite a bit more than in coach and you get a selection of video channels. (To Lufthansa's credit, they're going to be improving their business class in the near future.) On the way back, happily plowing through a novel in Lufthansa's perfectly decent coach section, I came up with three rules for leisure travelers trying to decide whether to splurge on an upgrade.
Go the distance. Domestic business class generally offers few advantages over coach -- just a bit more legroom. It's not worth the price difference. Save your upgrading for flights to Europe and Asia, where business class can mean luxury.
Sleep through it. The additional legroom matters most when you're trying to stretch out. If there's a flight you intend to sleep through, that's the one to upgrade.
Shop around. Flying to Europe? British Airways' Club World business class offers fully flat beds, 18 video channels, mid-flight snacks and (at JFK, at least) the most glorious airport lounge I've ever seen. Northwest's World Business Class, on the other hand, gives you only a 150° recline and six video channels. There's a huge difference in business class amenities, so it makes sense to shop around on your route.
Joining the Elite
So how do you get on board with this business class experience?
Use miles. Many leisure travelers in business class are there because they "bought" their tickets with frequent-flier miles. The cheapest way to use miles is to upgrade a coach fare -- most airlines will push you into Business Class on an international flight for 25-30,000 miles. Just make sure your fare qualifies for upgrades, because not all of them do. (If in doubt, use a travel agent rather than a Web site to book your flight.) If you've got 80-90,000 miles around, you can probably get a Business Class ticket outright.
Pay (less). Several airlines let you either buy upgrades or buy miles to use for upgrades. On United, for example, members of their frequent flier program can buy 2000 miles' worth of upgrades for $325, and can buy up to 15,000 miles for 2.5 cents per mile. Even at $650 to upgrade an international flight, that's much cheaper than many business class tickets.
Use eBay. Top-class elite fliers get free upgrade certificates, often more than they know what to do with. So they sell them on eBay. If you're interested, go to www.ebay.com and search in their Travel section for the word "upgrade." The airlines don't like this, but can't stop it. Still, the idea of buying one of these certificates makes my stomach do somersaults: as eBay doesn't guarantee the quality of merchandise, you may get an empty envelope, a counterfeit certificate, or a piece of paper reading "sucker!"
Negotiate. Gate agents have the ultimate power when it comes to upgrades. They can upgrade you because you've been bumped off another flight, because it's your honeymoon, or because business class is empty and they're feeling generous. Don't plead, just be nice and mention your "extenuating circumstance" off-handedly.
What About First?
First class: now that's decadence. Depending on whom you're flying with, international first class may involve individual cabins (sort of like office cubicles) with fully-flat beds, giant video screens, or even in-flight massages and chauffeured motorcycle service to the airport (those last two are on Virgin Atlantic.) All for 100,000 miles or so.
Hey, a guy can dream ...
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