10 hour airport layover teaches me: airport showers are awesome & often accessible

If you’ve never stepped foot in an airline lounge, you might not know that some of them have shower facilities. That isn’t very important for most of us who take the occasional domestic flight, but it can be a real game changer after a red eye or when laying over before an international long haul.

img_7364You don’t need a First Class ticket to use an airport shower facility, though you’re more likely to gain access for “free” if you spent a lot more for your ticket. At DFW, for example, the Minute Suites Terminal D location–a nap cubicle “hotel” past security in the airportalso sells shower passes with no private suite rental required.

Expect to pay around $30 to buy access to a fee-based airport shower facility, or around $50 per traveler if you’re purchasing access to an airline lounge like the American Airlines Admiral’s Club I used at DFW.

I probably wouldn’t have paid for a shower during my ten hour layover in July, but, having taken one in part to kill time after I’d visited every terminal and viewed all of the public art in DFW’s brochure, I would consider paying for a shower the next time I’m spending more than a few hours cooling my heels en route.

For me–an introvert with arthritis–I got about equal pleasure from two separate aspects of this experience. First, being totally alone in a room after hours of being in public. Second, the nice, warm shower itself, which always does some good at easing my joint pain.

DFW Terminal A Admiral’s Club shower

img_7366img_7367Can you ever feel really, REALLY unhappy when looking at a pile of fluffy white towels someone else has placed for your comfort and convenience? I can’t!

Everything you need comes with the key to the private shower room at the Admiral’s Club-DFW Terminal A location. Ask at the front desk to get access.

Shampoo, shower gel, Q-tips, and cotton balls are in place in the room, ready for your use. I used my own, of course, since sensitive skin is another fact of my life, but the products offered weren’t overly perfumed. This is a reasonably safe space/experience for those of us who get headaches from strong fragrances.

DFW Admiral Lounge AA shower - 1There were more towels than I needed, enough that I might ask, next time, for just what I would plan to use to save the water/energy of washing untouched linens. The space was quite scrupulously clean. There’s also a luggage rack to keep your suitcase above* the damp, and a hairdryer if you want it.

Since I was feeling quite well, I forgot to ask if there were accessible showers, but either they all are in this Admiral’s Lounge, or I just happened to get one that was. It had a fold down bench in the shower enclosure and an adjustable height hand shower wand in addition to the rain shower head. You won’t lose out on luxury if you just need grab bars sometimes, like me.

If you can’t stand at all, you might need to ask the staff to lower the hand shower to an appropriate height on your behalf. Mine was set way up at the top of its range when I walked in.

London Heathrow AA Arrivals Lounge shower

In addition to the Admiral’s Club shower at DFW, I took advantage of the same perks included with my First/Business ticket, purchased with Alaska Airlines frequent flier miles on AA, and visited the American Airlines Arrivals Lounge after retrieving my checked bag at London-Heathrow (LHR).

LHR Arrivals Lounge AA shower - 2LHR Arrivals Lounge AA shower - 3

LHR Arrivals Lounge AA shower toiletries - 1Though without a doubt the more hygienically important shower I enjoyed during the trip, the Heathrow shower room was smaller, less well appointed with little extras, and decidedly not accessible. (Again, I failed to ask specifically for a stall equipped for mobility impairments, so this is what you get without asking for special treatment.)

LHR Arrivals Lounge AA shower - 1There was no luggage rack in the compact LHR Arrivals Lounge shower room, leaving me to wedge my full size carry on next to the sink on the lavatory counter itself. I had checked a mid-size rolling suitcase, which you can see standing on the floor beneath the counter and blocking the exit door in my photo.

Perhaps there was luggage storage somewhere else for those who pack heavily, because there certainly wasn’t space in the shower room for large checked bags!

It was as clean as you would expect, however, and made the transition from night flight to the Tube less stressful than it might have been in spite of temps in the 90’s on London’s non-air-conditioned subway cars.

 

Dublin, Ireland 51st & Green Lounge shower

Upon my return from the United Kingdom to the USA, laying over at Dublin (DUB) airport, the 51st & Green Lounge, post security, was free for USA-bound Business and First Class customers, but accessible to anyone willing to pay the €39 entrance fee.

DUB departure Lounge 51st and Green shower - 1Shower use is included in the price, but there is just one accessible stall available, and it is combined with the only wheelchair accessible toilet in the space.

img_7478 This accessible bathroom/shower—also serving as the sole baby changing space— is in a different area than the main restrooms, also off the main entrance hallway but a bit further along from the front door. Thankfully, this made it a bit closer to the lounge’s seating areas. The primary restrooms felt like a real trek as my arthritis acted up during my wait.DUB departure Lounge 51st and Green showers - 1

Knowing that no other handicapped toilets were available if I opted to use the shower made someone with generally good mobility like me hesitate to even consider taking one, though I was having noticeable symptoms even before my nine hour flight home and the hot water might have felt good. There was another passenger in the lounge who appeared to be confined to a wheelchair when I was there, reinforcing my feeling that taking an unnecessary shower would be a bit selfish.

The standard shower room looked reasonably spacious for my purposes, but it didn’t have a safety hand rail. With a knee acting up that day, it didn’t seem worth taking a risk.

Fortunately, it was neither a blazing heat wave such as I suffered in London, nor a double digit hours layover like my time in Dallas, so foregoing a test of the 51st & Green shower facilities an hour after I’d left my Irish hotel was no real sacrifice, except to my ability to share the experience with readers here. There are few reviews of this particular shower, but most USA bound flights from Ireland leave in the morning, so perhaps the demand is simply low, and a single stall is adequate.

The 51st & Green Lounge was lovely, very new, and everything else was to a high standard, though, leading me to expect the showers would measure up.

*Though the shower drained properly and no water spilled out of the enclosure or anywhere near my luggage, I would advise travelers to always assume the worst with unknown plumbing and place all belongings somewhere high and dry, just in case.

I thought I was going to see a man laden with bags die in front of me on the London Underground. Ugh! 

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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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