Business Premier eases chronic pain on 13 hour Air New Zealand long haul flight: Part 1 (OneUp upgrade bid win)

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.”

Air NZ Business Premier pix - airport espresso

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.

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Jigsaw puzzle as travel diversion: Wentworth offers tiny wooden treasures you can work on a tray table

I’ve written about the joys of wooden jigsaw puzzles before.

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth Artifact Dowdle Liberty Ravensburger - 1They are exactly what you’d expect if you’ve ever done a modern cardboard puzzle. Visualize a similar product cut from thin sheets of wood instead of flimsier paper. For those who get annoyed with ill fitting or torn pieces in the Springbok or other puzzles sold at the local big box store, wooden puzzles offer a much more satisfying experience.

Ordering my first wooden puzzle was a leap of faith. They cost a lot more than mass market cardboard ones. No one I knew had any experience to share, and the least expensive choices seemed to have tiny numbers of pieces compared to my usual 1000 piece behemoths. I was afraid I would feel I’d wasted my money.

I didn’t. Now I own about a dozen, and I covet a great many more.

While its true that the most common wooden puzzles are smaller—and made of fewer pieces—than the typical paper version, this didn’t affect my enjoyment of the new type. In fact, I found they offered a whole new realm of possibilities for portable puzzling.

Something about the cut of a wooden puzzle, and perhaps its more three dimensional nature, makes me focus more on shape and less on the image. I feel like my brain gets a different kind of workout from doing a wooden puzzle.

But aside from that difference, my wooden puzzles are so small, I can work them in more places. Instead of needing my much loved but bulky Jigthings Jigboard 1000 plus half of the dining room table, I can sit on the couch with a lap desk or a half sheet baking pan to complete most of my Liberty and Artifact puzzles.

I ordered my first Wentworth wooden puzzle for $16.99 from Amazon when I noticed how tiny its listed dimensions were. I wondered if they could possibly be accurate. They were!

Wentworth 40 piece puzzle retail price appears to be $19.99.

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth AirNZ tray table - 3

Wentworth 40 piece wooden jigsaw puzzle on Air New Zealand Premium Economy tray table

The finished puzzle is about the size of a printed photograph: 4 x 6″. A 40 piece Wentworth puzzle is easily completed on an airplane tray table, and the pieces themselves take up just a bit more room than a deck of cards in their roughly 3.5″ square box.

The 54 piece Artifact puzzle, Kessel Shells, with which I’m comparing the Wentworth in most of these photographs is scarcely any larger. It just comes in a bigger, higher quality, tissue lined box with an elegant magnetic closure. I paid $18.

Small (< 90 piece) Artifact puzzles retail for $18-40.Jigsaw puzzle wood Artifact shells inside box - 1

Assembled, it fits easily inside its own box with an inch or more to spare in all three dimensions. Please note that this wouldn’t be true of all Artifact puzzles; they use one type of box for puzzles from this size on up to a medium.

Note also that the particular Artifact puzzle that I photographed for this post has a unique conceit: all of the pieces are very similar squares, and straight edges are used in the middle of the puzzle as well as for edges.

It turns out that I don’t enjoy this type of puzzle as much as a standard cut ideally with whimsies, like most other Artifact options, but it does make for pieces that are easy to re-package and transport in a small cardboard jewelry box or one’s Wentworth 40 piece box if one so desires.

Say, for example, to bring along on a plane!

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth Artifact travel - 6

Re-packaged Artifact Kessel Shells puzzle’s 54 pieces into Wentworth puzzle box to show how compactly they could be stored for travel

For use after re-packing in this manner, I tried assembling the Kessel Shells puzzle using a photo stored on my iPad for reference, and that worked fine. If your puzzle fits in your carry on bag but its box won’t, just snap a quick picture.

Harder core jigsaw puzzlers than myself are known to work puzzles without using the finished image at all. It is harder that way. Personally, I don’t enjoy the process as much, but I have done it to test myself. I find it boring with a paper puzzle’s usual standard shapes, but better with a wooden one; the pieces are almost universally more interesting when cut from wood. More care and expense goes into a typical wooden puzzle’s hand- or laser- cut craftsmanship, after all.

The smallest Liberty wooden puzzles retail for $39; they aren’t sold on Amazon, but direct from the manufacturer. I think all of their XS options are round, and most contain more pieces than other brands’ size Small.

I’ve given a few Liberty XS puzzles to my mom for gifts, so I’ve laid hands on them, but don’t have any to photograph for comparisons. They had 107-115 pieces and I found them wonderful to assemble. The attractive gift box would be bulky for travel, however, like the Artifact boxes are.

The tiny Wentworth 40 piece puzzle comes in a much smaller box than any of its competitors. It also proved to be cut from noticeably thinner wood.

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth Artifact travel - 14

Wentworth piece (top) compared to Artifact piece (bottom); both from wooden jigsaw puzzles

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth Artifact travel - 7

Storage box sizes for wooden puzzles of similar finished size; Wentworth (top) & Artifact (bottom)

Though this might affect my overall ranking of “best wooden jigsaw puzzles” for gifting purposes or in terms of total quality, it doesn’t mean Wentworth is a low quality brand! The pieces click together well enough to make for satisfying puzzle building. They just aren’t quite as luxurious as Artifact or Liberty puzzle pieces, and the whimsies seem a bit less special.

I would absolutely consider ordering another Wentworth puzzle if I liked the image depicted. My ideal puzzle size is at least several hundred pieces, and I’d love to try a really large 1000+ piece wooden puzzle someday. I do lean toward a brand with thicker pieces for the high price a large wooden puzzle commands, however.

A thinner puzzle does make for one which is easier to transport. For example, to bring along on a plane.

Jigsaw puzzle wood Wentworth cardboard Ravensburger zoom

Compare jigsaw puzzle pieces of Ravensburger cardboard (top) to Wentworth wood (bottom)

A “thin” wooden piece from Wentworth is still thicker than that of a high quality cardboard puzzle. Here’s a picture of one to compare with a Ravensburger piece in cardboard. You can judge for yourself.

My recent trip to New Zealand was my first time bringing along an actual jigsaw puzzle for entertainment in midair. I’ve tried an iPad “jigsaw puzzle” app, but found it unappealing in practice.

Usually, I find the hours of a flight pretty easy to while away with a few books loaded on a Kindle to conserve weight and space plus some saved video content and a few casual games on my iPad or phone. I stocked up on digital and other distractions much more heavily for the marathon Transpacific flight where no wifi was available even if I got desperately bored.

When I get very tired on a long flight, my eyes stop wanting to read before my brain is willing to sleep. That’s about the only time I resort to screen time, or, more often, the crossword puzzle from the in flight magazine. This time, I followed up a lot of reading with some jigsaw puzzling. It helped me to pass the time in a fun and novel way.

If you take particular enjoyment from completing jigsaw puzzles, like I do, you might consider packing along a small one on your next long haul flight. It’s definitely better for your brain than more screen time, and it’s strangely satisfying to do something tangible with your hands instead of spending all those hours inside your jetlagged, slightly muddled mind.

I used to knit on a plane for similar reasons, but I gave it up when I couldn’t carry my mini scissors any longer. Also, I heard horror stories about knitting needles being confiscated as weaponry. There’s no way I could stay calm if the TSA made me dispose of a project well under way with the argument that my slightly pointy wooden sticks were sufficient to bring down a plane.

I would be livid, and, deprived of my project, I might also be bored.

I’m a pretty creative thinker, but I find it hard to imagine even the most overzealous security agent seeing wooden puzzle pieces as a credible threat. I’ll just avoid any puzzles with scenes of soldiers or battles, or overtly political themes, just in case.

Happy puzzling!

Managing chronic pain on the 12+ hour flight to New Zealand

Since developing chronic pain that accompanies an autoimmune condition, I’ve continued to indulge my love of travel, but learned to adapt my bookings and my belongings to minimize pain and maximize comfort.

 

Flights of six hours or so are regular occurrences for me and my family. I’ve had a couple of very painful trips of this duration, but, more typically, I can tolerate them by adjusting my medication slightly and employing a few aids such as wrist braces, inflatable cushions, and hot water bottles.

 

This winter, I faced the longest single flight I’ve ever taken: 12 hours and 40 minutes just for one leg from Los Angeles, CA to Auckland, New Zealand. The combination of traversing the United States from our New England home (6.5 hours), crossing the Pacific (12.7 hours), then connecting to our final destination of Christchurch, NZ on the South Island (1.4 hours) made for a total time in the air of 20.5 hours.

Of course, one must also add to that total the requisite airport waiting time required by international flight connections, customs, security, and the necessity of allowing adequate buffers in case of delays. At least two full days of my calendar were bound to be eaten up by this voyage in each direction.

After considering many options, I elected to travel in two distinct stages for both directions of travel. This meant parting ways with my husband entirely for the domestic portion of our trip. His schedule doesn’t allow for an unnecessary day spent in transit where tighter connections are possible.†

I was away from home for a total of fourteen days; DH, by taking his domestic and international flights serially on the way out—and heading home on a red eye straight off the international leg—traveled for twelve days.

Though this post isn’t really meant to be a trip report, it must be said: even two weeks is barely adequate for visiting the antipodes. If you can squeeze more days out of your schedule, use them for a trip of this magnitude.

New Zealand is awesome, and well worth every hard won vacation day.

My itinerary outbound:

BOS-PDX on Alaska Air 33, Saturday 16:20-20:10

Three night stay with family in the Pacific NW

PDX-LAX on Alaska Air 568, Tuesday 10:50-13:22

LAX-AKL on Air New Zealand 5, Tuesday 21:40-Thursday 07:20*

AKL-CHC on Air New Zealand 527, Thursday 09:00-10:20

My itinerary for the return:

CHC-AKL on Air New Zealand 574, Friday 20:00-21:20

AKL-LAX on Air New Zealand 2, Friday 22:50-13:35**

Overnight hotel stay at the Crown Plaza LAX

LAX-BOS on Virgin America flight 1360, Saturday 07:05-15:34

Itinerary adaptations to reduce pain

I’ll repeat what I feel was the single most important adaptation I made to my itinerary to accommodate my autoimmune condition and its symptoms: I took extra time.

Travel. Stop. Recover. Repeat.

Heading west, I took advantage of family who live near the Portland airport who don’t seem to mind my visits, spending three nights at their home. This sleepover gave me time to recover from the initial cross country flight and ease my body’s adjustment to a change of three time zones.

NZ Crowne Plaza LAX hotel room - 1Upon arrival in New Zealand, I had already acclimated from the Eastern to Pacific zone (USA West Coast) which represents half of the total time shock. Though the flight is lo-o-o-o-ong, most of the travel between California and New Zealand is in a southerly direction. You only drop three more time zones on that 12 hour flight.

Heading west is also usually less difficult in terms of jet lag.

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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. Continue reading