Air travel is miserable. You're herded, shouted at, hemmed in, and — if lucky — placated with sugared water and the cheapest feed available in mass quantities. Even the corn syrup that once "honey-roasted" your peanuts is too exotic for airborne enjoyment these days.
It wouldn't be so bad if we didn't know what we were missing. But preserved in memories and old movies is a more civilised era: when airports and planes were nice, and the coffee was served in china; when flight attendants smiled at you instead of pretending not to notice they just crushed your elbow with a drink cart. These days we're treated to long lines, strip searches, a ban on water, and a cattlecar experience that's akin to riding the subway for several hours. "Be grateful you have a seat, sir."
There are, however, some vestiges of that past glory: First class lounges.
No, I'm not talking about those cut-rate clubs brimming with business travellers stuffing their faces full of denatured vegetables, light beer and Tetra-packed hummus. First class lounges, though rare these days, are something special. Found in major international airports, they're airline-specific, and in addition to legitimately first-rate food and top-shelf liquor, have everything from pool tables to putting greens, spa services, even old-school arcades.
Some even circumvent the whole miserable airport experience entirely with dedicated buildings — like the Lufthansa terminal in Frankfurt. When I die I want to be buried there.
You arrive, you check in with a dedicated personal assistant who makes sure you have everything you need and get where you're going in the most possible comfort, and continue to the spa or the cigar lounge or the restaurant.
Unlike those business lounges, you can't get into a first class lounge because you bought a membership or have some special credit card. You need an international first class ticket. Well, maybe you do; I once got paid to hang out in a first class lounge. It was awesome. Here's how I worked the system and partied with the one per cent:
In some ways, an airport is like any other office complex: When you want to throw a nice party, you pick the nicest room. Parties can honour visiting dignitaries, local events, a corporate milestone — whatever. But when an airport or airline takes over a lounge to throw down, they can't exactly exclude the people who shelled out thousands for a travel experience that includes access to the lounge. So they don't. They invite them, and everyone has a blast.
I was on business in a city with a particularly nice first class lounge and heard on flyertalk (an awesome forum that travel nerds like myself frequent) that there was a party in the lounge that night — this kind of thing doesn't happen often, and it's even more rare that I'm actually in a city when one of these parties is popping off. As far as I was concerned, I wasn't reading a frequent flyers' forum; I was talking to a burning bush. It didn't matter that I wasn't even travelling that day — I had to be there. I had an idea.
There's another travel geek site called expertflyer, and it's an indispensable tool for anyone who is in airports more than once a week. It lets you find out when flights have upgrades available, which seats are the best, when they become available, and stuff like that. In this case, though, I used it to sniff out a very particular type of flight:
- It had to be international
- There had to be a single first class seat available
- It had to be on the airline whose lounge was hosting the party (duh)
- It had to be taking off between 2 and 23 hours after the party started
I'll explain in a bit. For now, you just need to know that, with a bit of digging through expertflyer (again, it's hard to properly emphasise how amazing this site is) I found one that met all of my needs: I bought the single remaining fully-refundable F-class (that's the ticketing code for first class) seat. The party was at six, the flight took off at 11, and, as a bonus, it was on a route that's very popular with international business travellers. This was going to be cake.
I breezed through security — first class, baby! — and got to the party around 6:30. No need to be the first one there. I drank enough free (real) champagne that I would have been terrifically hung over if I hadn't been gorging myself on crab legs and carved-to-order beef tenderloin. It's not like I was alone — everyone was tanked. I talked to a few nice people, and even made a really good business contact. The party started to wind down around 8:30 (amateurs!), so I made my way to the spa area of the lounge, relaxed in the steam room for a spell, took a shower and sauntered over to the gate around 10. The gate attendant was dealing with a mob of angry suits. The flight was oversold. But I knew that.
See, when you find a flight where the only available available berth is in the first class cabin — especially when that flight is on a popular route — it is oversold. Nine out of 10 times. Airlines pack their coach cabins with more people than they can hold because they know that people always miss their flights. Security lines, traffic, torrid affairs, work emergencies, substance abuse — it all factors in, and the airlines have algorithms that help them figure out how many extra suckers they can sell seats to. It works out. Mostly. Until it doesn't, and that's when you hear my favourite announcement, which goes something like this:
Attention passengers on flight yada yada, We got caught selling too many seats on this flight because we're greedy bastards, and now we need you bail our arses out. If you wouldn't mind giving up your seat, we'll book you on another flight — and maybe give you some money if you're smart enough to ask for it.
I approached the counter, and offered to give up my seat. I didn't want it anyway, but I sure as hell didn't tell the gate agent that. The next flight to this particular destination was the following day, and this was a major inconvenience to any traveller. I haggled — nicely — and walked away with a $US600 airline credit and a first-class ticket on the next flight.
Which I promptly refunded before the original flight took off to get my full fare credited back to my card. Then hopped a cab back to my hotel literally smelling like a rose — love that first class lounge bodywash.
I am on the road more than a jam band; I have more miles than the Interstate Highway System, and I've racked up more medallions than a war hero. I am Frequent Flyer X, and I'm sharing my hard-earned knowledge with you. So buy me a drink the next time you spot me in the Lounge — if you can figure out who I am.
Original illustration by Shannon May. Check out more of her work on her website.
Photo of Frankfurt Lufthansa terminal by Flickr user Jurgen Stemper.