On the economics of getting into business class for members of the 99% with chronic pain: how I did it for 37% of the paid fare with an upgrade bid, and why every penny was totally worth it.
I didn’t know until I arrived at LAX for my 13 hour flight from the USA to Auckland that my bid for upgrade to business class had been accepted. Air New Zealand might surprise you with such information at the very last minute. Luckily, this is the best kind of surprise.
I am a frequent flier in US domestic economy who occasionally splurges or upgrades with miles/status to first class. I also live with an autoimmune disease and chronic pain.
In spite of this, I continue to indulge my love of travel as often as I can. Now, however, I must sometimes make adjustments to accommodate my body’s varying demands.
What follows is my assessment of a very long haul flight in the Business Premier cabin. I’ll try to specifically address the experience of a traveler with chronic pain.
While I’ve found a plethora of reviews sharing the opinions of healthy business and luxury flyers, my own sometimes odd and very specific wonderings are rarely addressed.
Air NZ awards upgrade bids up to the last minute
Last year’s Swiss International Airlines (SWISS) upgrade from economy to SWISS Business was awarded several days before my flight. SWISS may even have provided a full week’s notice.
This time, I received a “too bad, you lost” email from Air New Zealand in the days before my trip. I took off from an intermediate stop at PDX with no knowledge of the highly beneficial change of plans.
Try to imagine my delight upon receiving a text message of congratulations for having my OneUp Business Premier upgrade bid accepted by Air New Zealand at the last minute. I learned of it as my Alaska flight touched down in Los Angeles and I resumed cellular connection to the world.
Having chatted with my nearest seatmate about our respective travels during lunch on Alaska 568, I couldn’t help but turn to her to share news of my good fortune:
“I just got the upgrade from Premium Economy to Business Premier for the long flight to New Zealand!” I crowed
“That’s great!” She replied. “Now your husband won’t have to feel guilty or to share his better seat.”
It was reason for both DH and myself to celebrate, indeed. He is a gentleman, and he worries about me.
Of course, a man who will wait in line to buy an espresso for his tired wife in a busy airport even though he thinks caffeine is a pernicious addiction like heroin that shouldn’t be catered to or socially acceptable will always give his seat up to a lady.
To be crystal clear, however, on our return, when we were seated in different classes of service, I never did ask him to shove over or swap with me. I spent 13 hours in Premium Economy flying AKL-LAX towards home. I’ll add a link here to my post on the subject once I’ve finished writing it.
DH was heading to New Zealand for work of course. He rarely travels for any other reason except love for me. His employer, like many, would allow use of their funds for business class tickets if flight duration exceeded a certain threshold. I think 12+ hours in his case, but I’m not going to call his HR department to check facts this trivial.
I, on the other hand, was merely coming along for the ride. If DH was visiting New Zealand, I was sure as heck going to see it with him.
Economics: flying business class on a budget
My ticket was a minor splurge for Premium Economy. It happened to cost about the same as the Economy fare I’d perused the week before I actually booked which is how I justified the added expense to myself.
I have never regretted spending more for a better seat after a flight or, if I’m honest, at any moment except when the credit card is in my hand. I have, however, often wished I’d parted with the cash for an upgrade during an uncomfortable trip.
At any rate, my Premium Economy fare was about double the lowest Economy fare on offer the day I booked, but roughly equal to the Economy fare of the week before. DH’s Business Premier ticket cost 7.5 times the lowest coach price I saw, and about four times as much as my Premium Economy seat.
More evidence for the oft cited fact that it pays to check and re-check fares when considering an expensive trip: it’s called dynamic pricing. Dynamic pricing is designed to maximize profits for the airline selling the seats. Oh yeah, and it’s about to get trickier for a consumer to score the lowest fares.
Upon booking, I selected a window seat in the front row of Premium Economy for myself, and another at the back of Business Premier for DH. This would put us only a bulkhead apart, if miles away from each other in terms of expected in flight service.
Air New Zealand only allows upgrade bids for jumping up one single class. If I’d booked in Economy, my best hope for an upgrade was to Premium Economy. Coming from Premium Economy, my three figure bid was a reach for the best section on this particular plane: Business Premier.
There is no “First Class” section on Air New Zealand. Business Premier, however, with its flat bed seats and exceptional staff, offers everything an average passenger could wish for.
Those who demand world class dining and dedicated sommeliers have written their own reviews of various first- and business- class cabins. Perhaps, if I were shelling out my own cash for five figure tickets, I’d be grousing about skimpy portions of foie gras* and caviar, too.
You get a lot more space, a proper flat bed upon which to while away the long hours of the night, edible food including a range of choices that should suit most special diets, as well as better access to uncrowded lavatories and more attention from the crew.
Which of these perks you find most important will determine whose business or first class service you find most satisfying.
For a bid of less than 50% of my base fare, I won—by however slim a margin, and with very little time to anticipate its pleasures in advance—a seat in the Business Premier cabin.
Put another way, my cash outlay was about 37% of DH’s paid round trip business class ticket cost. I got one Business Premier journey and one Premium Economy flight for the fare I paid. I did not get a similar paid upgrade on the way home.
Upgrading each leg of one’s journey is bid for—and won/lost and paid for— separately.
Ease what ails you with a better class of seat
Flying on a red eye flight with a lie flat seat is a complete game changer. I think it is fair to say that most people—even the healthiest—find sleeping on a plane less than ideal. For those of us with chronic pain and other medical conditions, the benefits of extra space and adjustable seats are even more immediately obvious.
I was suffering from real anxiety about how I would handle the longest flight of my life. LAX to London-Heathrow was my previous record at around 11.5 hours, but I was 16 years old then. That time, I ended up with a middle row of four seats to stretch myself over through dumb luck. Even so, I was a jet lagged zombie upon arrival.
Attempting to maximize my chances at a comfortable Transpacific flight, I made a few adaptations and booked Premium Economy, but it didn’t feel like enough. I was full of trepidation before the trip.
Though I have always longed to see the world, and I’ve enjoyed more than my fair share of fantastic travel luck and fascinating glimpses into foreign locales, I wasn’t feeling particularly great this winter. In the weeks leading up to my trip to New Zealand, I was doubting my ability to even enjoy it.
I thought that I was going to suffer too much on the voyage from the US to New Zealand to make the trip worthwhile. If I hadn’t lucked into the upgrade, that might have been true.
Having made every possible accommodation I could think of in advance of our trip short of paying 4+ times more for a Business Premier seat, and then winning the upgrade to enjoy a relatively restful night in lie flat bed seat, I was still very grateful to have a wheelchair escort between gates when we transferred in Auckland, NZ.
Thirteen hours is a long time to be seat-bound for a person with joint pain that has seen fit to flare; I stiffened up rapidly after about the twelve hour mark. An enormous business class airplane seat is still a cramped space for an adult human body with an autoimmune disease.
Even if you are willing and able to upgrade between the US and the South Pacific, I urge anyone with a chronic condition to devote plenty of time for rest and recuperation upon arrival. I gave myself permission in advance to see and do nothing on our first day—1/10th of our time in New Zealand—and that was the right call for me.
Know thyself, and take care of your health without self-recrimination. If you’re traveling with someone who needs or wants to follow a more aggressive schedule, consider flying a day or more ahead to take the time you require.
Coming up in Part 2:
What Air New Zealand offers in Business Premier, or, what is it that you’re paying extra for?
*WordPress autocorrect really, REALLY thinks I mean “food grad” instead of foie gras. Many pardons if my cut and paste to fight this digital monster continues to look funny. Stupid autocorrect…