Having flown across the ocean countless times and having aged at least a few years since 1970, when I started doing so, I know that six or seven hours is about all I can take in an economy-class seat. So, when my wife and I started thinking about a far longer trip -- to Japan -- we knew we'd need to find a way to claw our way up to greater comfort.
For a variety of reasons -- not least our fondness for London as both destination and travel hub -- we have long flown British Airways almost exclusively, and we use a BA-branded credit card. This has paid off in frequent-flier miles and silver card status, which means we're even more determined to stick with BA to keep the miles and privileges coming. Luckily, we like BA's service and schedules, so we don't feel trapped.
Hence, we'd been hoarding miles, and when it was time to book our Japan tickets we found ourselves with hundreds of thousands of them -- plus a two-for-one voucher. The original idea had been to travel in business class (what BA calls Club World), which offers comfortable flat beds and excellent airport lounges with good drinks and snacks, as well as pre-flight meals for night departures. But that two-for-one voucher got us to thinking that we ought to treat ourselves to first class for most of the trip (apart from the relatively short New York-London leg, for which we booked Club), and we redeemed 200,000 miles and spent about $3,000 in taxes and fees for tickets that together would have cost -- get this -- the better part of $50,000 to purchase, about the same as the 2012 United States median household income.
Fifteen hundred dollars apiece is not exactly cheap, but the same itinerary would have cost more than $2,000 each in cramped economy class (direct flights to Tokyo are less costly, but London was an immutable part of our itinerary).
Here's some of what we got for our outlay, apart from a peek into a different world of travel.
After our five days in London (I've written about some of the afternoon snacks and suppers we enjoyed there), we arrived at Heathrow airport's Terminal 5 at about 7 a.m. to find a team of red-jacketed porters waiting to haul our luggage all the way from the drop-off point to check-in; that might have been as far as 50 yards. I needed to visit the tax rebate desk, so my wife was installed in a comfy alcove to wait. A good start.
BA's regular business/silver-card-holder lounges at Heathrow (and at JFK) are uncommonly good, but the vast Concorde Room lounge beats them to pieces. For one thing, there's direct access from the airport security gantlet-run, not a trivial consideration when you're feeling dizzy with relief at not having triggered the metal detector.
Once inside, we found no buffet, no automatic coffee machine. Rather, waiters deliver anything you want anywhere in the lounge, including a terrace -- indoors, but because it is in the open space of the terminal it has an almost al fresco feel -- and a restaurant with intimate wood-paneled booths. (If the restaurant booths are not private enough for you, you can reserve a "cabana" with a day-bed, shower, toilet, TV and bowl of fruit. We expected a long layover on the way home, so we booked one of these for the return trip.) Our meal was a simple one -- good coffee, freshly made toast with Tiptree jam and acceptable pastries -- but many fliers were putting away colossal hot breakfasts. Some had already started on the booze -- the wine selection was tempting -- but we thought we'd wait at least until we'd boarded the plane.
There were 14 seat-pods in the Boeing 777 cabin, and the atmosphere was hushed and cozy. The environment was much enhanced by subtle lighting and expansive railway-train-like rectangular windows with electrically controlled shades. These are a clever illusion, of course: Each extends over two standard airplane windows. The pods had individual clothes closets and plenty of elbow room, with deep shelves for the Anya Hindmarch toiletries bags and the junk we cannot travel without. And, as expected, the leg room was for all practical purposes infinite. For once, the electronics -- lights, seat/bed adjustment -- were easy to figure out. From the moment we boarded, all staff addressed us by name without obvious reference to a cheat sheet.
Dinner is served gracefully, with no cart and no timetable: You can order from any part of the fairly diverse menu at any point in the flight, and your table will be deployed and draped with crisp linen -- and set for two if you like, since the pods have a guest seat which becomes the foot of the bed at sleepy-time. The wines were terrific and included Laurent-Perrier Grand Siￃﾨcle Champagne and a more than respectable 14-year-old Bordeaux. Food varied in quality (whatever the class, this was an airplane): When we ordered toward the end of the flight (which arrived in Japan at the scary hour of 4:45 a.m.), my wife's leek and potato soup with smoked salmon was delicious and fresh-tasting, but my full English breakfast was distressingly dry and overcooked. The fine chocolates were from London's Artisan du Chocolat, a favorite of ours.
We were supplied with pajamas, slippers and a comfortable eyeshade that didn't squash my nose. When it was time to use those things, a crew member turned our seats into beds and made them up with an under-pad and a warm but lightweight comforter in a pretty white cotton cover strewn with golden squares. BA's business class beds are a miracle compared to a chair, but at six feet I barely fit into them. Here, I found three or four inches of clearance above my head, and my feet didn't touch the end of the pod. We slept solidly and comfortably for more than five hours of the 11-hour flight, admittedly with pharmacological assistance. If we'd wanted to look at television, we'd have had our choice of hundreds of movies and other programs and a 15-inch screen to view them on.
In the old BOAC days, when I started traveling abroad, cabin crews too often seemed stern and sullen. That is no longer the norm at BA, but as first class passengers we really were cossetted, as we might have been in a good restaurant: a discreet eye was kept on us, and needs were generally anticipated. We certainly never had to push the call button.
With variations, this pattern was repeated on the following two legs of the trip. Departing Tokyo from Narita airport, we weren't on BA's home turf and I can't blame the company for the ordinariness of the Japan Airlines lounge (though it did offer massages, good croissants from Paris-based but ubiquitous Maison Kayser and little warming ovens stocked with hot towels). Once on board, all was well; one of the crew greeted us with, "Ah, Mr. and Mrs. Schneider -- we've been expecting you." Corny, but kind of nice. Food, again, was up and down (the down including fridge-cold cheese), but everything else was impeccable.
Owing to appalling weather, the flight departed hours late and there was no point in making use of our cabana at Heathrow; we took a quick break and boarded our final flight home to New York. This was a Boeing 747; although the seats were the same, the pods they were installed in didn't seem quite as spacious owing to the more tapered cabin. We'd clearly become entirely spoiled. And upon landing at JFK, the spoiling continued: Because of the early arrival of a full flight from another destination the immigration line was very, very long, yet BA found a way to expedite the process for the dozen or so first-class passengers. Our luggage arrived quickly, too.
We had a great time, but there was a paradox: Somehow, the peace and quiet, the comfortable seats/beds and the warm hospitality of first class travel made the flights seem about 30 per cent shorter than they do in the back of the plane (and genuinely eased jet lag). Yet it was all such a pleasure that we regretted sensing the time slip through our fingers.
It is ridiculous to ask whether this kind of flying is worth the cash price of the fare: If the cost doesn't make you feel queasy, then perhaps you can afford it (or are profligate). It is not ridiculous, however, to ask whether my wife and I had any regrets about exchanging so many hard-earned frequent-flier miles for our tickets, and the answer is no. We would -- we shall -- do it again some time.