Barcelona 2017: From Boston to Spain on SWISS… with a Business Class upgrade win

Attempting to wrangle every thought I’ve entertained about a week long trip to Europe would result in my posting about it after weeks if not months passed. Instead, I’ll try to focus rather narrowly on little slices of the journey. Knowing my propensity to go on and on and on, this might also keep my posts to a digestible length for the digital age.

Travel day 1: Transatlantic red eye

Anyone who’s flown within a decade or so is aware that conditions in Economy Class are cramped and uncomfortable, even for short, daytime flights. Getting to Europe from the USA means losing hours as you jump ahead six to nine time zones, and most flights depart at bedtime with a morning arrival.

Full disclosure: I had never successfully employed the “correct” procedure of sleeping on the plane, toughing it out upon arrival, and staying awake all of the first day in Europe. Before this trip, I had always tumbled into a desperate sleep upon reaching my hotel.

Even as a teen—my first visit to London was led by my high school theatre teacher between 11th and 12th grade—I found jet lag really difficult, and staying awake after a night flight really, really hard.

Barcelona Ramblas hotel bed - 1

Heaven is a big, soft bed after an overnight flight in Economy

I’ve never been particularly good at sleeping in a seat. Now that I have a chronic condition that includes regularly experiencing fairly significant pain, I was downright worried about the seven hour flight to Zurich (ZRH), where we would change planes for our ultimate destination: Barcelona (BCN), Spain.

First, I was afraid my hip arthritis would go into overdrive from all the sitting,* like it did on two domestic cross country flights this summer. Second, I feared I would sleep poorly, if at all, and thus experience increased pain triggered by fatigue. A double whammy, and one that tripled my anxiety in the weeks leading up to the journey.

You can’t fly direct from Boston to Barcelona. I had the freedom to select** our flights, and I opted for a transfer in Zurich with SWISS International Airlines.

I’d read excellent reports about conditions in Zurich airport on FlyerTalk. I always go looking for the opinions of frequent flyers in the FlyerTalk forums when I book airline tickets that include an unfamiliar layover location.

Transfers can be beastly in the world’s largest, busiest airports. I will pay extra to have a quicker, cleaner, or smoother trip through customs and passport control.

My husband did not appreciate the fact that we flew outbound on SWISS with a return on parent airline Lufthansa. They are code share partners, but not the same airline. This made reserving seats more complicated. He had a little angst about having to view his flights on two different websites/airline apps.

After all was said and done, however, DH was pretty happy with the flights I selected. He has even declared Munich (MUC) his favorite world airport. He’d rather stay home, but, if he must have a layover, he’d like to have it in München. He loves the relaxation area with its chaise longues.

Booking airline tickets

Every time my husband has an international business trip, I check airfares to see if I can tag along. Usually, it is prohibitively expensive for an extra ticket, and the second one must be paid for on our own dime.

Sometimes, he’s booking too close to the dates of travel for the best price. DH also tends to make the shortest possible trip (no Saturday night stays, typically flying on peak weekdays) and is unwilling to adjust his schedule or take a less convenient flight to lower the fare into “bring the family” territory.

That’s his right: he’s a busy man, and he doesn’t enjoy travel. He’s going to go where the conference or university is, give his brilliant talk, eat room service, and get back ASAP to our family home and the people that he loves. I wouldn’t want him to change!

Admittedly, though, I’m sometimes a bit jealous when he makes several international trips in a year, complains about them, and doesn’t even get out of his hotel room to tell me what the city of Such&such was like. Or try the famous insert food here. Or see the renowned site right across the street from his hotel. Sigh.

This time, however, all the stars aligned. DH was invited to a great conference in Barcelona, a world class destination by any standard.

The dates fell just after Thanksgiving, so I knew I’d have family in town to watch my kids if I wanted to join him on an adults only trip.

It was a four day conference, a little longer than some, making the transatlantic flight worthwhile even for a jet lag lightweight like myself.

I booked his ticket, then checked prices for my own itinerary if I went with him. For myself, I looked at a return flight on the weekend instead of his preference, Thursday. It wasn’t pricing out in the thousands; the economy fare was under $500. I booked it immediately.

And then I started thinking… At this price, we can afford a family trip to Europe!

I’d paid for the kids’ passports to take them to Iceland years before, but we’ve hardly used them since. Apologies to Canada, but our passport cards are sufficient to visit you by land or sea.

Checking in with my teen, he shocked me by stating his preference to skip Spain. I nudged him a little, but, in the end, decided to respect his wish to stay at home. He’s kind of like his dad—a homebody—and he’s very much entered into the teen period of finding his own way by rejecting, sometimes reflexively, his parents’ priorities.

If he were studying Spanish, I might’ve insisted, but DS1 would remain with his grandparents post-Thanksgiving.

My little guy was a different story. When we travel, he is my most frequent social companion in the evening. On cruises, he’ll accompany me to formal dinners so his dad can enjoy room service in sweatpants. DS2 has danced in shipboard discos, and sipped virgin mocktails in swanky piano bars. He keeps a full wardrobe of bow ties for such occasions.

Son with mocktail in shipboard bar - 1

DS2 aboard our favorite ship, Crystal Serenity, at (rainy) sunset in Alaska.

When I described Spain’s culture of frequent socializing in bars and restaurants, with families dining together into what we consider the wee hours, he was all in. He didn’t object to missing a week of school, either, especially not in the land that introduced chocolate to Europe.

I had to call to book his ticket separately because DS2 is a minor. The website wouldn’t allow me to make the reservation as it looked like a case of a child traveling alone. We traveled with three different ticket locator numbers and e-tickets. This worked out to my advantage as our departure date neared.

SWISS Upgrade Bargain bid for Business Class

SWISS offers a program called “SWISS Upgrade Bargain” in which, if invited by the airline, one can place a bid in an amount of one’s choice within an airline-delimited range to be upgraded from Economy to Business Class. In my case, the price range allowed began at roughly CHF 780 up to an amount more than business class would’ve cost if purchased outright for my ticket. I always check the fare for a better seat, even when I doubt I can afford it!

This no doubt fills the Business Class cabin while providing some revenue for the airline as opposed to their offering those seats to frequent fliers as a courtesy.

In an interesting twist, of the three of us, only I received an email from SWISS offering me the option to bid for an upgrade. The program rules state that children under 18 aren’t eligible, so my son’s case makes sense, but I am less clear on why DH, with his more expensive ticket, didn’t get the offer. There’s some possibility, he admits, that an airline email went into his spam folder.

At any rate, we had to keep one parent in Economy with our minor child. I suggested we make a relatively low bid and see what happened. If we didn’t get it, we would fly in uncomfortable solidarity in Coach. If we won the bid, I would offer the seat to my husband if I boarded the plane feeling well, but take it myself if I already had pain before we left home.

I didn’t quite forget that I’d placed the bid—I think I offered CHF 810, or about 30 francs more than the minimum possible offer—but I considered it an extreme long shot. Theories online as to how the odds of acceptance are calculated include the notion that one’s initial fare added to the bid might be the determining factor, and my ticket was cheap.

Two or three days before our trip, I got the email: my bid was accepted. I couldn’t reserve a specific seat of my choice under this scheme, but had no qualms about taking whatever SWISS offered. I believed that any lie-flat, Business Class seat was going to be superior to my carefully researched thank you SeatGuru Economy Class window seat.

This should come as no surprise: it was wildly superior.The Business Class cabin on SWISS

My photos are abysmal, so try Google for better lit images if you want visuals for what I’m about to describe.

The randomly selected by SWISS computers seat assigned to me was in the center column of the primary Business Class section. On this Airbus A330-300, Business Class seats are arranged in a staggered pattern of one-two-two (first row), followed by two-two-one (second row), and so on. I.e., by the windows, one side of the plane has a pair of seats, while the other has a single seat; the pattern as to which side has the single switches between every row.

There are also two rows of Business Class seats in the front section of the plane which otherwise consists of the First Class cabin. Those are terribly popular with frequent flyers, seen as superior to the all Business area due to the lack of bassinets and greater distance from Economy. I didn’t expect to get a seat in the coveted rows four and five, and, in fact, I never even peeked into the forward cabin.

What did happen was an unexpected extra “upgrade” from my center/aisle Business Class seat to one of the single seats near the window, known colloquially at least on FlyerTalk as the “thrones.”

Thrones have the benefit of permanent side tables on both sides instead of just one; the pair of seats behind the “throne” use the hidden space under these tables for the footwell of their reclined passengers. Thrones enjoy the most dedicated space of any seat in the Business Class cabin.

How did I, neither a frequent flyer on Lufthansa/SWISS nor a full fare ticket holder, get a throne? For the same reason I’m most often moved back in the cheap seats: a couple wanted to sit together, and, naturally, I agreed to trade seats.

It is possible that I could have said no, if, for example, the seat I was asked to take was the window seat in a pair with a stranger. That’s the only Business Class seat type wherein one must awaken a neighbor to access the aisle. I’m glad I wasn’t asked to swap to one of those seats, because I might’ve felt grumpy if I said yes, or guilty if I said no!

One of the first thing I noticed about my Business Class seat was how little storage there is at the seat itself for take off and landing.

The very large footwell—I couldn’t even reach the back with my tippy-toes while seated with the leg rest extended!—is not secure storage for one’s belongings. Anything you want during takeoff and landing has to fit in the little “glove box” compartment beneath the monitor and above the footwell.

Barcelona 2017 Swiss Business store stuff

My Tom Bihn Packing Cube Shoulder Bag, wearing a neon pink Red Oxx Monkey’s Fist Zipper Pull, in the “glove box” storage space in SWISS Business Class. Water+amenity kit also in the box were courtesy of the airline, in case the boarding champagne wasn’t enough to sip before takeoff.

Fortunately, I’d read up on these seats and packed accordingly. I was able to wedge my usual “carry on comfort” kit, a Tom Bihn Packing Cube Shoulder Bag, into the space by removing some bulky accessories. (My wrist braces were in there, fairly rigid, and taking up a lot of space; I just put them on!)

I felt a little naked with my handbag stowed in the overhead bin, but there was ample storage space for two carry on bags overhead, and I didn’t need anything more than my phone for the brief duration of takeoff and landing.

SWISS IFE flight - 1I entertained myself by playing with the extensive controls for adjusting my seat, and I browsed the in flight entertainment (IFE) system.

For the record, the seat controls are totally intuitive. You’ll figure them out if you sit here. There is a “massage” function, but it felt more like an annoyance than a feature.

As for IFE, I flipped through the available offerings, then left it on my favorite view while flying: the flight path and time until arrival information being fed from the cockpit. I don’t think I’m the only nerd who loves this kind of data, am I? I love to watch that little plane icon traverse the globe.

It’s shockingly easy to let any little annoyances go while enjoying a complimentary glass of champagne in the front of the plane.

As always, I found the overhead bins rather high for my not-tall self to reach, but I grabbed my purse once the seatbelt sign was turned off, then kept it by my side—not stowed, but nowhere near crowding my feet in the abundance of space in Business Class. Even later, when I fully reclined my seat to sleep, there was plenty of room for both my body and my purse in my seat’s allotted area.

Once again, I found myself reflecting on how airline space isn’t available bundled with the needs I prioritize. There was enough room in my single seat that a small child—even one in upper elementary school such as my youngest—could easily lie flat in the available space and sleep while I sat in the existing chair.

It’s really too bad that no airline makes somewhat larger dedicated spaces available to families without the other bells and whistles and expenses of Business or First Class.

I would gladly pay a premium for space without frills when I’m flying with my kids. Alaska Air gives me an option something like this with the availability of “comfort seats” for anyone who wants to pay for two tickets to guarantee herself extra room.

The only other program I know of that comes close is Air New Zealand‘s “Economy Sky Couch.” Sadly, the most frequent complaint with those was the failure to allow a few extra inches of legroom, such as one finds in Premium Economy, to make what is essentially a giant recliner (three adjacent seats, a whole row, that have fully extending leg rests to create a flat space to be shared by one, two, or three passengers, as decided by the purchaser of the seats, sold only as a block) into an experience for which most people think it is worth paying.

I probably wouldn’t pay $5000 for my own single ticket in Business Class to Europe, but I could imagine paying the same amount for two tickets that gave me the same amount of space to share with one other member of my family.

SWISS Business Class seat

The Business Class seat was comfortable enough for sitting. I’ve read complaints about the softness of the cushions. Some people don’t like how low to the floor the seat ends up when fully reclined into a flat bed. To use the space efficiently, the seat’s bottom cushion lowers and slides forward into the footwell instead of the headrest extending backward into the face of the passenger behind as seats do in Economy.

The people complaining probably haven’t spent seven hours in Coach for a little too long. There might be a more comfortable seat on another airline, but I found nothing to complain about on SWISS, nor no obvious comparison to make with other First Class seats I’ve enjoyed on various domestic carriers in the USA.

I fly with at least two different inflatable cushions on every flight to help me combat joint pain; often, I carry three or more. Sometimes, I feel like the Michelin Man or, worse, the grotesque, Ghostbusters version of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man as I attempt to find a comfortable position in Coach.

Pardon me, sir, while I accidentally wallop you in the face with this fine Klymit Cush seat cushion

In SWISS’s Business Class seat, I didn’t need to take out any of my comfort props to keep myself as pain-free as possible. I was about as comfortable as I would have been at home on my own couch; I was in pain, but not due to SWISS’s seat. This remained true for the duration of the flight.

When compared to Economy, the major pain-reducer for me was the adjustable leg rest. I could and did! adjust the angle of my seat enough to take pressure off of an arthritic hip with the touch of a button. I tweaked the settings on my seat many times throughout the flight.

The SWISS seat may not be as cushy as an overstuffed recliner, but it does allow for a wider range of motion than any Coach class seat I’ve ever encountered. I credit this with preventing a lot of joint pain and stiffness in my case.

Of course, even more coveted in the air than a power recliner is the ability to lie flat for sleep. On the SWISS Airbus A330-300, Business Class seats do lie completely flat.

A pillow identical to any airline pillow I’ve ever received in Coach and a fairly heavyweight, cottony feeling herringbone weave blanket were at my seat ensconced in hygienic plastic as I boarded† the plane. I mention the blanket specifically because, at first glance, I thought it might be woolen, and I know some of my followers are allergic to wool and/or lanolin. The blanket was backed with a sheet-like, cottony percale, but even the herringbone side was not itchy.

I thought the SWISS Amenity Kit was kind of cute with its offering of an acrylic neck warmer in addition to the standard (in Business Class and higher) socks, tooth brush, and eye mask. It did make me fear I was in for a cold night, however.

I’d read reports of SWISS keeping its cabins too hot or too cold in flight. I ended up perfectly comfortable wearing light clothing, using just the provided blanket for warmth while I slept. My trusty Double Diamond Packable Down Throw was in my carry on, but I didn’t need to take it out to stay cozy.

I liked the extra heft of the herringbone blanket. It made me feel more like I was resting in a real bed than a more typical, single layer fleece airline blanket would have.

And speaking of lying flat, blankets, and bedding, let’s get to the biggest question of all: was I able to sleep?

I wish I could be more definitive, but I’ll give this a qualified YES. I only slept for about three hours, but those three hours were deep, restorative sleep. It was the kind of rest where you close your eyes, then open them again to discover hours have passed in what felt like a blink.

More importantly, upon arrival in Europe, I was able to enjoy a full first day without napping. As a family, we stayed awake until a not-too-embarassing 9 PM. This was a first for me.

DS2 and I did have the luxurious privilege of sleeping in until almost noon the next day, unlike poor DH who had to rise and shine and get to his conference, but I would rate this my most successful intercontinental trip to date in terms of sleeping en route. Almost all of that I credit to having a fully flat bed on which to rest.

Food and drink in Business Class

There are more mentions of booze than I can count in travel blogs. In all honesty, the complimentary beverage that I enjoyed most in SWISS Business Class was a morning espresso. It was probably just a Nespresso pod, but this is the kind of extra I would pay cash for in any cabin.

How much? I should probably decline to answer. My espresso habit would nudge me to pay at least as much for my morning hit as I would for a glass of wine in domestic Economy class. I think that puts the figure around $7.

I had every intention of going straight to sleep when I boarded the seven hour BOS-ZRH flight. I’d eaten a light supper before departure. I knew every minute of sleep was precious. And yet…

I did eat again on the plane. I’d requested a special meal, and it was brought to me before I’d asked the flight attendant to give me the quick service option. Yes, that’s a thing in Business or First Class. I had two courses of the meal, the glass of wine, etc. It was too hard to resist, though I declined coffee and dessert.

SWISS served up a very reasonable meal. Being me, I forgot to take pictures, except of the champagne and wine, so I take back my snarky comment about blogs and booze from the first paragraph in this section.

I mainly ate the fruits and vegetables, and they were well prepared. Fresh produce of reasonable quality is a major distinction between Economy fare and the upper class cabins.

Aside from the flat bed, which must be crowned the ultimate red eye luxury, I’d declare the breakfast pre-order option my second favorite element of SWISS Business Class.

Barcelona 2017 Swiss Business breakfast orderBefore retiring, a breakfast card was made available. Aside from requesting precisely what I wanted to eat in the morning, it seemed a marvelous innovation to indicate to the flight attendants whether or not I cared to be awakened for the morning meal.

As it happened, I was awake before breakfast, so didn’t test the service, but it was lovely to be asked, and to have my preference treated with such regard. Surely a simple sticker could be offered in Economy to indicate the same: Please wake me or Let me sleep. As this asks for no extra effort on the part of the staff, it seems like a system well worth implementing on every red eye flight and in all classes of service.

Other Business Class amenities

A few other perks of traveling Business Class bear mentioning for those who might overlook these benefits without experiencing them.

First, upon arrival at the airport, our whole party of three with one Business and two Economy tickets was allowed to check in together at the Business Class service desk. There were no passengers waiting ahead of us. We walked up, we checked in, and we turned over our larger luggage, all within about three minutes. Having arrived early in a US airport, there was only a short queue for the Economy desks, but this perk could be huge if one was running late for a flight.

Second, as a Business Class passenger, I was allowed to carry on two bags instead of one. It was a relief to DH to know that, if they tried to take his wheelie bag, I could claim it as my own and stow it up front. He’d brought his smaller roll-aboard bag and boarded with it without question, but the option remained an anxiety-reducer.

Barcelona SWISS cream - 1And, finally, it was kind of nice to use a Business Class exclusive airplane lavatory with a basket of complimentary sample sized toiletries laid out. The brand was new to me, but something Swiss and—thankfully to those of us who react poorly to perfumes—unscented. There was lotion, moisturizing mist, and a refreshing moist towelette. I liked the cream so much that I used it all week in Spain instead of what I’d brought from home.

I’d read about having to wait to use the lavatory in SWISS Business Class in some other reviews, but I never experienced that. Every time I needed it, there was a free restroom. By the end of the flight, they also remained cleaner than has been my usual experience in Economy and on other airlines. Either the flight attendants are taking care of this, too, or SWISS has a tidier class of customers than the average.

Easy transition in Zurich & arrival in Spain

Zurich airport provided an easy transition, in terms of both passport control and making our flight connection, and also the tragic reality that I’d paid to upgrade only the one overnight leg of my journey.

I met my husband and son in the jetway, and sat back in my “proper place” in SWISS Economy with them from ZRH to Barcelona.

I never tried out any of the SWISS Business Class lounges that might have been available to me with my upgrade since I was traveling with my family who wouldn’t have access.

I was fairly impressed by SWISS as a standard Coach passenger, too, actually. My son walked off the overnight flight with a little breakfast box because he’d slept through the morning meal; a flight attendant made sure he had it before he deplaned. He was also given a SWISS branded jigsaw puzzle as an in flight diversion/souvenir.

SWISS Thank you chocolate - 1All of us appreciated the standard SWISS “Thank you for flying” gift: a bite sized Swiss chocolate.

Our short flight from Switzerland’s capital to Spain was uneventful. Our luggage arrived intact. Our flights kept to the scheduled timetable. It was pretty much what I would expect from the efficient Swiss.

Was the upgrade worth it?

So was the upgrade worth the approximately $800 addition to my original ticket price? For me, absolutely.

In exchange for the upgrade fee, I gained a whole day awake and enjoying Europe. Where I expected to suffer at least one day of down time as a cost of traveling while chronically ill, instead I slept for a few more hours than usual, and came away from the trip feeling about as well as I normally do at home.

Having paid for my original ticket months before, the cash outlay was within my budget for the trip.

I would recommend placing an Upgrade Bid to any traveler who can afford to pay it if she wins. Short of losing street cred with one’s communist friends, there’s no down side but cost.

*It did. I actually had pain before we left Boston from sitting around, waiting in the terminal!

**Some of my husband’s work-related trips are booked directly by the sponsoring event or organization.

In fact, because I’d unwrapped my pillow almost immediately, I took it with me when I swapped seats with the couple who wanted to sit together and passed her back the still sealed pillow from my new “throne.” That seemed like the right thing to do, though I felt a little goofy swapping pillows with this elegant European woman in designer clothes.

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