SAVOIR FAIRE: AIR TRAVEL

Spending large amounts of time in the air is a necessary evil of the subcultures we inhabit. And air travel isn’t what it was.

Gone are the days of silver service, plush carpets gingerly danced over by attentive air hostesses, immaculately dressed and pouring vintage Dom Pérignon as you cruise at altitude over the Alps, before descending into Monaco. No, the air travel of today is a different scene altogether. Enter low cost airlines, 13-hour flights with your knees folded into a tray. Layovers spent on cold airports floors. Printing your own boarding passes and paying extortionate amounts for sub-par sandwiches. And worst of all, there’s not a drop of Vintage Champagne in sight.

 However, there are a few exceptions — cheat codes, if you will. In the vast, sprawling matrix that is modern aviation, there are a few loopholes. Opportunities to explore and exploit. With a little cunning, a dash of good luck and heeding the words that follow, you may just be able to navigate the world’s hubs with a little more panache. A little more flair. So bear with me here, and keep that Champagne on ice…

Pre-flight Checks.

It should be of no surprise to you that comfort in the air starts a long time before your actual flight. The dream of air travel is to fly in First or Business Class and doing so requires some preparation at home beforehand. Ever see your friends or favourite Surfer’s IG stories in First or Business and wonder how they got there? The key is planning. Put simply, you will never, ever get upgraded without a frequent flier account with a couple of miles to your name. Even the tiniest amount can help. Upgrades and benefits like extra KGs for your board bag are part of a game of constantly changing numbers depending on the airline, the seats available (called load factor in the biz), and the plane itself. Hell, even the humour of the staff on the day. But to play in the matrix you have to have some skin in the game.

So sign up to a frequent flyer account.

Sign up to all of them. They are free. One World. Star Alliance. AAdvantage. Flying blue. They are all great and offer similar rewards. The best I have found and swear by is the Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. Do it. It takes five minutes and you can backdate the past six months of travel for extra points. Choose your Frequent Flyer programme and stick with it — fly with that airline or its code shares whenever you can. Brendon Gibbens runs his life according to BA flights and for good reason — One World points are like gold dust and the gentle South African sits high and pretty on his stash of Avios.  Adrien Toyon’s Gold Air France status afforded us a more than pleasant trip in supreme comfort during a recent 8-hour stopover in Paris. Ask Morgan Maassen, ask Beyrick De Vries, ask Filipe — frequent flyer programmes cost nothing and are everything.

Sign up to a credit card that gives you a lounge pass. We agree that fronting the initial fee is annoying but if you fly enough it is totally worth it. With a lounge in any airport you are getting all your food and drink for free (plus you can invite a guest) so say you fly 20 times a year, and the card costs 200€, you’re already saving money on snacks you would buy anyway. The top trumps are AMEX miles and the lounges they afford you. Book all your travels on Amex and watch the points roll in. Transfer those across to miles on your chosen airline. Enjoy the nauseating panic that sets in on the 32nd day of your 30-day credit terms on the money you spanked (that wasn’t yours to start with) on a Mentawaiis boat trip with da boiz via a ‘stopover’ gentleman’s weekend in Hong Kong. Who cares — this is living!

Be careful on your choice of airports too. Yes, Ryanair from London Stansted or Paris Beauvais will be cheap but Stansted is nowhere near London and Beauvais is closer to England than Paris. It’s a shitshow. Avoid. It will bankrupt you in trains alone to get there. Avoid (unlike us) booking flights for early mornings after an event, festival or drinking-based trip because it is cheaper. You will be supremely hungover and you will be miserable. Likewise, don’t expect an empty row to yourself or an upgrade on a Friday afternoon flight, as that just isn’t going to happen for you, sunshine — for obvious reasons. Book smart.

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Check In.

So, with pre-flight checks conducted, you’re on your way to the airport. The key with airports is that check in is everything. Everything.

If flying long haul, never, ever, ever check in online. Always at the desk, always with a smile. Always with a sympathetic, “How’s your day going?” Act sophisticated and worldly, yet with a lackadaisical air. A mixture of coy admiration, sympathy and confidence. Understand their pain. Be nice, overly friendly. Would you help someone that is being a dick to you? No, so be nice. The mixture of kindness, confidence and sophistication is a difficult act to balance but one that when juggled well opens many doors, with supreme comfort awaiting on the other side

The ultimate best possible outcome of check in is an upgrade, and your whole demeanour whilst in transit should reflect this. Getting overweight boards on is ok but will leave you feeling empty inside whilst you watch other, more beautiful people boarding and turning left to a world of champagne, oysters and succulent leather.

I need not go on about the benefits of upgrades. But needless to say there are copious amounts of Champagne involved at all stages, with all the fringe benefits that usually accompany Champagne.  It is first class on the Titanic but with a better ending. It is a throwback to the glory days of travel. It is glamour. It is the height of sophistication. Upgrades to premium economy kind of count but not really, it will mark you as retired and on holiday. Set your sights higher. Business. Nay. First.

To achieve this level of heady self-esteem, your choice of check in agent is paramount. For the young male voyager, avoid the jaded older ladies, they have seen it all before and sadly, 20 years of foundation and fake eyelashes have made them immune to your charm. Equally, don’t be fooled by the younger, prettier check in girls; although they are recently initiated into the world of heavy foundation and fake lashes, they have already been hit on by 100 guys this morning so don’t waste your time. Aim for down the line, 35-45 years old and life is golden. Think librarian, think favourite aunt. Upgrades at the gate are possible but very rare. Check in is your primary target. 

Enquire gently. Lean over subtly and lower your voice, channel your inner Leonardo Dicaprio — “Is there any room in Business? Might one be able to upgrade on points? Do you have any reward seats available? Is the flight busy today? I’ve got an important meeting/play/commitment at the other end and would like to arrive refreshed — is there anyway you might be able to assist me?” Pay subtle compliments. You have mere moments to make an impression. Make it a breezy one, as if the natural thing to do if you were sat the other side of the counter would be to give you an upgrade based on your impeccable manners and sharp dress sense. There are a myriad of things to say to get you an upgrade, but to give away more secrets would leave me with nothing. I’ll leave it to your discretion and judgement on the day. Something about a good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan executed next week.

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The Lounge.

Having seamlessly chanced your way to an upgrade with a modest collection of points but excessive amounts of charm, the next step is the lounge. Lounges vary in prestige across the world but all are good. How you act in a lounge is of the utmost importance. I live in fear of being turned in by other lounge dwellers to the powers that be. “He’s an imposter!” they will cry over their metal Samsonite cases adorned with gold and platinum tags. I will then be dragged away, kicking and screaming back to departures and have my ticket torn up and be shown to seat 72F. Oh the shame!

Veteran lounge lizards will recognise a lounge rookie at 100 paces, but this can be easily avoided. Never look overexcited; nonchalance is the name of the game. Do not giggle excitedly. Do not take any photos. Do not post IG stories; you are not a 15-year-old influencer and should aspire to be slightly more sophisticated than that. The key is to act like you belong. Do nod politely at other lounge members. Most definitely do overindulge at the free bar, but do so in the way an investment banker would during a divorce. Subtly. More Casablanca, less Withnail & I. Hazy, unperturbed drunkenness is the aim and Bloody Marys and Champagne are de rigeur to achieve this.

All being well, you should then float aloof on a booze-induced cloud to your gate, turn left on the plane, enjoy more Champagne pre-take off, set the seat to bed mode, have the cabin crew tuck you in, then sleep peacefully until your hungover-yet-oh-so-triumphant arrival.

The Airline.

Choice of airline is paramount. Low cost is fine but must be kept to the shortest of distances. Ryanair is the only year-round flight to London from our home airport of Biarritz and sometimes you just have to get on with it. Head down, music up. Save those points for a rainy day. However, with long haul, a world of opportunity awaits…

Quite simply, the right airline will trump all previous airport experiences. A good airline will take boards not only for free, but with a smile and a lenient eye on those extra kilos, seats will be sumptuous, there will be a choice of fine wines and cake and you shall arrive at your destination in a timely manner feeling fresh to death, class regardless. A bad airline will charge 250 USD per board, with no meal and treat your legs like a foldaway tray.

We recommend the following: American, Air New Zealand, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Singapore, Qatar, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic (those uniforms!), Air France, Lufthansa, Qantas, Air Canada, KLM, Air France and Delta are all great. Virgin and Qatar above all.

We abhor flying with the following unless absolutely necessary: Ryanair, Iberia, Continental (Yuck!) United (Double Yuck!), Garuda, Easyjet, JAL, Jetstar, Lion Air, Aeroflot, China Southern, China East, most Chinese airlines related to points of the compass — Hello Kitty livery and fried scorpion (or other reptilian) flight snacks are an acquired taste… 

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The Layover.

A layover can be the best or the worst of times. Sadly, direct flights aren’t always there to have your back but that’s not to say this inconvenience can’t be mitigated. Again, planning is key. Avoid flights with connections under an hour. You will miss your connecting flight, and they will lose your bags. Equally, 12 hours in Doha is also miserable. Just think about it a little before you book.

Hopefully by now you have secured your lounge pass and or upgrade and are enjoying the free meals, showers and fast Wifi in comfy armchairs and/or beds. But most crucially, the free bar. If you haven’t — get working on it.

Bad layovers can be really bad. Too long will mean 36 hours on Qatar airport’s floor (it’s marble). Too short will result in running for a flight that has already departed without you and your bags arriving three days later. This is especially problematic if you are embarking on a boat trip or indeed further travels, resulting in your bags following you around the world in a long and expensive game of tag.

A stopover in Hong Kong for 48 hours can be quite possibly the greatest 48 hours of your existence. The general rule of thumb — if you are somewhere fun and you have the time, stopover for at least 24 hours.

Fun includes: New York, Hong Kong (the most fun), Reykjavík, Sydney, LA, London, Amsterdam.  

Fun does not include: Dubai, Qatar, Shannon, Pudong, Houston, Atlanta, Detroit.

Most other major international hubs are sweet (apart from LAX). LHR, CDG, ORD, TYO, JFK, SFO and so on and so forth are all fine fine fine but not kings. The El Dorado of airports is undoubtedly Singapore Changi International Airport. Long Live the King. Untold riches and comfort await you at Changi; there are fish that will nibble your toes for free, there are parrots in the smoking area, there is a butterfly garden, a spa, a swimming pool and a cinema. There are hourly beds. There are cocktail bars full of lush and storied humanity. They play music. Good conversation is always close by. On your way home from Indonesia, always factor in the 12-hour layover in Singapore to shower, recharge, reboot and prepare for your return to the First World. And when you combine this with the multiple beautiful people who pass through daily, a simple 8-to-10-hour layover can be dangerous amounts of fun.  

So there you have it. With a little planning, some charm and a dose of luck, hopefully your future navigation of the world’s airports can be a seamless blur of changing planes and time zones, surrounded by the height of comfort and luxury. And we’ll meet you for that drink in the lounge at Changi....make ours a Perrier Jouët.

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The modern airplane creates a new geographical dimension. A navigable ocean of air blankets the whole surface of the globe. There are no distant places any longer: the world is small and the world is one.

~ Wendell Willkie