Air travel since September 11 is a drag, but a lot of improvements have been made. Security no longer confiscates my mascara, and since I got my TSA Pre clearance I don’t have to take my shoes off and expose my socks to the germs and indignity of airport carpet. Still, when it comes to air travel, it’s met less with Christmas morning excitement and more with New Year’s Day hangover dread. Is it possible to get a first class travel experience on a coach budget? I have a few tried, but not always true, methods that make me feel if not First Class then at least Economy Plus.
The single greatest thing I’ve done to make air travel easier is to get Global Entry Certification. Global Entry automatically qualifies you for the Clear and TSA Pre programs. It’s a bit of an ordeal to obtain, but jump through all the hoops without any red flags coming up and you will receive a card that gets you shorter security lines domestically and a much shorter customs process when traveling home from other countries. It’s like a VIP pass for good behavior, and once you’ve got it the pass is good for five years.
Another of my tricks is to fly from smaller, closer airports whenever possible. I live in Calistoga, so the Santa Rosa Airport is a mere 30 minutes from my house. I can park and walk to the terminal in less than 10 minutes, and the security lines have maybe ten people in them at a time. Contrast that with the horrors of getting to SFO (with an additional 45 minutes for the drive from Calistoga).
It is definitely more expensive and makes for a longer travel day when flying out of a small airport because it almost always means a connection out of a large airport. How much more expensive and how many more hours will determine whether or not you think it’s worth it. Since when traveling I grit my teeth from the moment I leave the house until the moment the plane has lift-off, the savings on dental bills alone makes it worth every penny for me.
Unless. When it works, flying out of a small airport is phenomenal, but sometimes the most organized plans are laid to waste. For example, this summer American Airlines changed my flights out of Santa Rosa three times, each time screwing up my connections, necessitating hours and hours on the phone with airline reps. So there’s that.
When I am forced to fly out of San Francisco International, I book a hotel at the airport for the night before the flight. Does this make it a first class experience on a coach budget? Hardly. At a cost of around $300 and the better part of the day getting to an ugly part of the Bay Area to sleep in a generic hotel room, it’s not exactly an extra day in Shangri-La. However, it greatly reduces the chance of missing a flight due to traffic and the reduction in stress must add at least a few months to my life expectancy.
Another travel tip to make a coach airline ticket feel more like first class has to do with baggage. On direct flights I check my suitcase. Not feeling like a pack mule when walking to the gate or having to juggle luggage in a bathroom stall makes me feel like a princess for some reason. Also, I can relax and not panic about storing a bag onboard. I lounge and nurse a cappuccino while others scramble to wedge their wheelies into the overhead bins.
On the other hand, if I’m trying to make connections I go carry on only all the way. Lost or late luggage due to my crazy connections (made necessary when I fly out of Santa Rosa) would not feel first class. So when I carry on a bag, I trade the relaxed cappuccino luxury of no baggage for a carry-on full of stuff that makes the trip more enjoyable like extra charged battery packs for my electronic devices, which I’ve preloaded with movies, music, books and podcasts. Having your own satin eye mask, soft blanket and comfortable headphones is also trés première classe.
Even though a wheel-less duffle bag is more difficult to carry, the benefit of knowing you can probably stuff it into even the teeniest of small plane bins, unlike a wheeled carry on, makes it worth it for ensuring your luggage makes flight connections.
Ear plugs for crying baby flights, a great smelling lotion for long, dry flights, and Neosporin to dab in my nostrils for flights during cold season are some of the other items I take to make my scrawny coach seat seem like an upgrade.
Lastly, I may not get the warm cookie and nuts of first class but I take a variety of snacks to avoid costly and unhealthy airport and airplane food. You know how I always say if you’re on a budget you’ve got to become your own personal trainer, executive assistant, housekeeper, etc.? When you travel, be your own super perky 1960s flight attendant: anticipate your in-flight needs and make it as close to a first class experience as possible.