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

Such a simple solution: easing hip pain during air travel with inflatable seat cushions

Here’s a simple solution to try if you are prone to joint pain during the forced immobility of air travel. Add at least one inflatable pillow to your carry on kit. Even better, carry a pair of different shaped inflatables.

While I’m frustrated by the amount of “stuff” that is now a mandatory part of my travel experience, I carry it all because it helps with different manifestations of my autoimmune condition. I’m not going to stop exploring the world, and I’d prefer not to suffer too much as I go about it.

Inflatable pillows of different shapes and thicknesses can be arranged to buffer hard armrests, prop up feet to change the angle of the legs, support the lower back, or (the most tradition option) cushion a lolling head for a much-needed nap.

This time, my Klymit “Cush” pillow deployed under my knees took the pressure off of an aching hip and spared me from another hour of excruciating pain or resorting to opiates during a trip where I’d prefer to stay in full command of my faculties.

The Klymit pillow differs from most I’ve seen due to its shape. It’s long (~30 inches, inflated) and narrow (9 inches) unlike typical, chair-seat-sized rectangular seat cushions. It’s easily wrapped around, or folded and layered, for varied types of support, and it was exactly what I needed in the moment.

This same feature is oft cited by other reviewers as a negative, but my own experience proves the value in making and marketing a new kind of pillow.

A few hours into a recent flight, my right hip started to ache in a miserable way. It was a stabbing pain, almost severe enough to make me cry out. Exactly how I’d like to behave on a full flight!

The hip is not even one of my main “problem areas” for joint pain, but I’ve been experiencing a prolonged period of more frequent flares in my small joints, and that usually means spikes of pain in the larger joints for me, too. In spite of the flare, I had a trip that couldn’t wait, requiring a flight across the country.

I opted for a layover instead of my usual direct flight to allow myself a mid-journey movement break. I even splurged on a first class seat for one segment of the trip, but sitting for seven hours is sitting for seven hours. Joint pain and stiffness was inevitable.

While the short walk to the restroom and a set of stretches in the galley paused the worst of it, this was a stop-gap solution that couldn’t be prolonged or easily repeated. There just isn’t room on a plane for a body in crisis.

After experimenting with my Therm-a-rest “Trail Seat” cushion, the standard airplane pillow provided by the airline, a blanket, and the Klymit, the winner was clear. Extended to its full length across the front edge of my seat cushion, the Klymit changed my seating angle enough to stop the spasms wracking my hip for the remaining hour of the flight.

The 91-year-old gentleman seated next to me was quite gracious in his silence about my odd maneuvers as I attempted to get comfortable. I’m sure he was curious about all the pillows and props I kept pulling out of my bag!

A pair of airline pillows might have duplicated the effect, but I only had one. With the airlines providing ever stingier accommodations, I wouldn’t want to count on even having that single courtesy pillow.

I could try folding the Therm-a-rest to double its thickness, but it wouldn’t raise the angle of both knees, nor am I sure that it would hold up well to a sharp fold.*

Rolling the blanket would be the next best option, but I was already using it to keep warm. Yes, when my arthritis flares up, I also suffer from both warm and cold spells wherein I can’t seem to regulate my own body temperature properly. That’s why a small down throw blanket is another vital element in my travel kit.

My tote full of inflatable cushions earns me a few stares, but also quite a few envious comments from people wishing they’d thought to pack something similar along. That’s why I offer this post today.

I have personally bought and used the following inflatable travel pillows.

*Later, I experimented with folding the Therm-a-rest “Trail Seat,” and it held up fine to this abuse. It didn’t result in a thick pillow that would stay in position, however, like the Klymit Cush, so wasn’t the best tool for this particular job. I have found nothing to complain about with Therm-a-rest products or build quality.