July 15, 2024

I love to travel.  I’ve been to many places and have many more on my “Bucket List.”  Road trips are fun, but airlines have done a great job of taking the joy out of flying.  Short flights are expensive and a hassle.  And boy, do I dread those Long Distance Flights!

I’m going to date myself a bit here to reminisce about what flying was when I first started my travel experience.  Back “in the day” flying was a pleasant and rather refined experience.  People actually dressed up to take a flight.  Airline staff were pleasant and courteous.  Real meals were served – I fondly remember flights that served filet mignon dinners – in coach!  Seats actually had leg room ( a very nice feature for those of us standing six-foot plus.)  And of course if you paid for your seat you were entitled to bring your luggage along for no extra charge.  I used to love flying.  (I eventually even got my own private pilot license.)

Skip forward “several” years.   The flight experience today is a hectic disaster. Passengers are poorly treated, bunched and herded together into increasingly crowded planes and assigned to seats with rapidly decreasing leg room. ( Can you say “please don’t recline your seat into my knees” nicely and be taken seriously? ) Meals?  Forget about it.  For anything short of trans-oceanic or trans-continental we’re talking peanuts and soft drinks.  For the Long Haul Flights – something resembling a meal is served.  ( But if you are smart you should bring along your favorite sandwich and snacks – just a thought IMHO )

It’s against this background that I “look forward to?” and anticipate an upcoming flight to China.  No other way about it.  To get to China from where I live you have to fly.  And it’s a long flight.  I took a similar flight before when I visited Japan.  Loved Japan – hated the flight.

At this point I should probably clarify.  Yes, I am aware that airlines have a variety of seating options.  First class seats which fold down into beds and the like. Check out this spiffy configuration.   I could fly like this.

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But I don’t fly up there in First Class with the CEO’s and whoever. Why not?  I don’t work for a large firm and have access to hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles.  My travels don’t earn me any type of Premier or Deluxe or Club status.  I’m in the back of the bus – I fly Coach (there – my secret is out – wow – I feel so much better.)  Flying “up front”, well let’s just say it tends to get expensive.  How expensive? Just for kicks, while writing this article, I checked the current price for a round trip flight from Kansas City to Beijing and return.  Here’s what I found.  Flying coach (that’s me) would cost $1761.  Business Class (not me) $6818.  First Class (definitely not me) $15646! First Class costs almost nine times as much as Coach! 

If you would like a little insight into what it’s like to fly first class you might check this interesting article documenting one individual’s First Class flight from Chicago to Zurich.  It gives a nice detailed view of the first class travel experience.   The article shows that you are really treated well.  ( I think I’ll try to do a similar article on my Coach experience flying to Beijing this spring- stay tuned for that one – should be an interesting counter point.) My recent price check shows that the round trip non-stop flight from Chicago to Zurich sets a passenger back roughly $12,325.  For that price I guess you should be treated well.  That author is reported to fly something on the order of 180,000 miles per year.  I can only assume that he logs those miles as a business traveler, courtesy of his employer and as a result uses frequent flyer points to upgrade on occasion to First Class. I could be wrong here – but I doubt he is flying on his own dime.  Some corporation somewhere is likely adding this to it’s cost of doing business and passing the cost on to the consuming public – you know – those guys flying back there in Coach.

While airlines strive to innovate comfort and service in the first class section with sleeping cubicles, lie flat seats, and wonderful meals, they are trying to figure out how to cram more people into less space in coach. Seat space in Coach is dropping to the 23 inch area.  But the idea I like best is the “stand up while you fly” concept! Really – doesn’t that sound like fun?  I can’t wait to try this out!

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First Class sure sounds nice.  Meanwhile, back in reality – or should I say meanwhile back in Coach – things are a bit different.  For most travelers, long distance flights are an endurance challenge.  They are something to be tolerated and survived – a necessary evil to get where you want to go.  Here are some of my tactics to at least moderate a bit of the pain.
Ticketing and Seat Selection – Research routing and ticket prices across websites.   I prefer shorter duration flights – a no brainer for me.  But for my trip from KC to Beijing there was no non-stop flight – go figure.  My options included (for example)  connecting via Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle,San Francisco  and even New York or Washington D.C.  A non-stop flight from D.C. To Beijing? No way! I went with the San Francisco connection because the S.F. to Beijing flight time was the shortest.  After 12 hours in Coach – I want off the plane ASAP.  Then purchase tickets early through a website which guarantees to match price reductions if any occur.  For my most recent trip I went with Orbitz.  Monitor ticket prices via Yapta.  Then, if the price goes down, contact the site you used for your purchase. (So far my ticket price has increased 12% – not unusual at this point.  Prices tend to be the lowest around two weeks prior to departure.)  But I get my ticket early with the price match coverage.  Purchasing early allows me to get a good shot at “more desirable” seats. I use Seat Guru for help on this. I used to always go for the exit aisle – more leg room.  Now, of course, airlines consider these to be premium seats and charge more for these.  ( I refuse to pay extra for all these nickel and dime things that the airlines come up with.  If everyone refused maybe the airlines would come back to reality?  Yes – I know – not going to happen.  But I refuse on principle. I call it my Don Quixote mode of function.)  So for my upcoming Spring flight I was able to snag a bulkhead seat for my San Francisco – Beijing segment.  It’s a trade-off – no underseat storage – and it’s in the middle of the plane – no window.  But it has a bit more leg room and – wait for it – no seat in front of me to recline and bang into my knees! Yes! And the bulkhead generally serves as a bit of a sound deadener and blocks off sight lines forward of the seat.   Sitting next to the bulkhead seems to create a smaller and less chaotic space (sort of cocoon like)  in what is a very large aircraft.
In Flight Activities –  I always try to sleep as much as possible on Long Distance Flights.  I want to make the time pass as quickly as possible. Being asleep is great – not easy to do on an aircraft – but I try.   I use noise canceling ear phones to block out the various sound distractions in flight.  I listen to calming meditation type music on my iPhone. I use an eye shade to block out all flickering light from the in-flight movies, etc. All this helps me sleep.  When not sleeping I am deeply engaged with my iPad.  I have it loaded up for the flights with books, movies, games, etc. Keep the mind engaged and focused on something other than the big question – how much longer until we get there?   When awake, I eat the meals provided (selectively), munch on my own goodies, hydrate, and take the occasional stroll down the aisle to limber up the legs and stretch.
Baggage Issues – Packing and baggage issues can be a real hassle with flying these days.  Airlines have a charge for everything.  I’ll go into detail about packing for travels in a future article.  For the moment, rest assured that I pack to avoid extra or excess baggage fees.  For most long distance flights involving international travel that means I am allowed one checked bag, one carry on bag, and one personal item.
Prepare for the flight ……………. and  Enjoy The Adventure!
Dr.B, The PhotoTrekker