On The Ginger Travel Guru, I’m really keen to have a variety of guest contributors writing for the site. This is the first such article by Capotereader.
This is the story of how I got hooked on air travel and airline status but as a means to an end, rather than an end to a means. Try not to groan, as there’s another cliché coming in quick succession: it’s not about the journey but what you do when you’re there. But first, a quick confession: while that may be true, it is great to be able to make the getting there (and back) bit a little more comfortable without a massive outlay of cash.
Thanks to the friends I’ve made across the frequent flyer community, I’ve visited some of the most remarkable places on the planet (but still have plenty of others I can’t wait to see), flown Concorde to and from NYC a few times, and almost exclusively fly first and business class whenever I fly.
Is it the fawning of cabin crews on bended knee, the better food and drink and comfier seat, not to mention the array of shiny airline cards the sum total of my happiness? Thankfully, no. But bear with me, while I attempt to explain why.
My partner and I met towards the end of the noughties and have happily been an item ever since. Of the many passions we’ve shared since day one, is getting out and exploring the world and understanding it from a range of different perspectives.
Back in the early days of us being “coupled up” we took a couple of months off work to do a round-the-world trip taking in six continents. The trip was unforgettable: we saw the Great Pyramids for the first time, visited the highest desert on earth in northern Chile, gazed out from the top of the Twin Towers in NY (yup, that long ago), explored the ancient site of Machu Picchu, partied in Mexico City, amazed at the splendour of the Grand Canyon, rode the Star Ferry across Hong Kong Bay, gazed at Mt Fuji from the Lost in Translation hotel in Tokyo and caught up with a branch of the family in Australia.
But, like many who do this, it was on the cheapest steerage ticket and, boy, was the journey hard work. As lovely as each of the places we visited were, we were officially wrecked on arrival at just about every one of them. But the joys of being a 20-year-old means you bounce back pretty quickly.
A little while after returning, we were both getting itchy about doing another trip, of similarly ambitious scale. The bummer was that the long stint off work was a one-off for us both and we knew how much the “getting there” bit had taken its toll.
I then discovered a site called Flyertalk, at the time a wonderful kind of open source code for how to fly extensively, comfortably and inexpensively. It was something of a revelation. You mean I can buy a round-the-world ticket in business class for less than I would pay in economy from London, simply by starting my journey a few hours away, in Cairo? I can buy a first class ticket, on any airline, to South America or Australia and New Zealand for circa £1K? Wow. Just imagine picking up a long flight to some far off wonder, arriving after a good night’s sleep, a movie or two and decent food and wine all the way.
Now before you start using Google to do the same, I’m sorry to say that those amazing fares, from those particular places, have long since gone. And it’s this constant moving of the goal posts which has become something of an obsession. Why, for example, does a first class fare from London to Rio de Janeiro cost £10,000 while starting the same journey a few hours away reduces the cost to £1,000? The general rule of thumb is that there’s always a (much) cheaper way to get to where you want to go, if you’re prepared to suffer the inconvenience of starting somewhere else. The ancillary benefit, of course, is that each time you fly in one of the premium cabins, airlines reward your loyalty with points and other benefits – but that’s a separate post in itself and will doubtless be well covered by Dave.
I thought we’d done well by “gaming the system” back then, but just think what the results were when we got sassier about how to combine this with each of the airline loyalty schemes.
Back then we used to do most of our flying across airlines which are (or, in some cases, were) members respectively of the Oneworld and Star Alliance groups. The more you concentrate premium travel in particular schemes, the faster your benefits build.
There were a few sideshow marvels along the way – the now-defunct BMI Diamond Club, for instance, which rewarded us handsomely, mainly without setting foot on a BMI aircraft. But, again, that’s a story for another day and another post.
We initially accumulated all of our Oneworld flights to the Qantas Frequent Flyer scheme, both attaining its highest membership tier of Platinum. The benefits? We used some of the points we’d acquired to upgrade from business to first class on numerous flights, used a (then) discrepancy between the Qantas and BA schemes to redeem award flights to other places for less, and so on.
With the benefit of hindsight, we should’ve seen the thing coming where Qantas effectively turned its back on any scheme members living outside Australia and NZ. Had we been accumulating in the BA Executive Club from day one, we’d by now both be well on our way to lifetime Gold tier membership, with access to its Concorde Room thrown in.
Thanks to a chance meeting with Dave a few years back, I first got properly introduced to BA’s Executive Club Gold Guest List membership tier. Does it make me feel more “exclusive” and “cared for”? Frankly, who cares. Members of this tier usually get a visit from the most senior member of cabin crew and some fawning praise. Frankly, I find the whole thing really embarrassing. And it’s likely just as uncomfortable for the crew who are told to do it.
But here’s the kicker. Every time we fly from Heathrow Terminal 5 or JFK Terminal 7, we get access to the Concorde Room (a nice to have, rather than a game changer). The bit which really does change things is that each year we get four opportunities to upgrade our class of travel, plus twice per year, to open up availability on award seats, which otherwise are held back for cash fares.
Why does this make a difference? We both have busy lives and when unexpectedly booking a few days off, there’s quite a difference between running away for a few days respite in a European city and, say, heading off to Rio, Hong Kong or LA for a long weekend, and in first class.
Fast forward to the present day and many years later we’re both a bit jaded about premium travel – not least on BA. But neither of us are remotely close to giving up our addiction, which has taken us to some of the most remarkable places in the world and, we hope, will continue to do so.
Capotereader is a forty-something former journalist and media executive who lives in the UK and Chile, and often a metal tube somewhere in between.