For those who think the price of first or business class seats are too steep, there are only a couple of ways to obtain the golden fleece. You can use frequent flyer miles to upgrade to premium seats, or if you’re on a plane that’s overbooked in economy class you might be lucky enough to be selected to sit in the front of the plane. Often, the airlines will check frequent flyer status to upgrade passengers, and take those who are among the first to check in electronically.
I cannot emphasize enough how being extremely polite, well-dressed, and having well-behaved children (if you’re traveling with kids) can be to your advantage. Employees, especially those who have worked in the industry for decades, have an image of who deserves to receive better service. Think about it. A man wearing khakis and a dress shirt vs. one wearing cut-off jeans and flip flops might have different experiences from the curb to the gate. This could range anywhere from a skycap tagging your luggage ‘priority’, to an agent choosing you to check in at first class, to a flight attendant escorting you to ride in premium class if there’s still availability. You might get the royal treatment if you dress and behave like “royalty”.
If you don’t like taking chances on getting into first or business, there’s always Plan B, which is to plan ahead for a more premium experience. Here are some tips on how to travel like a first class passenger, even though you’re booked in economy. Please share any of your ideas in the comment section below.
Not all airports are created equally. Some offer more creature comforts than others. You just have to prioritize which benefits are most important to start your trip off right. Though a smaller airport might not have lots of places to visit while waiting for a flight, its amenities like speedier check-in and free parking might outweigh eating sushi or tapas in a nice restaurant, shopping at Brookstone, or sitting in a lounge for the included wifi.
- Trenton/Mercer – Free parking, short check-in and security lines, cheaper but limited fights with Frontier, and not international.
- Atlantic City – An international airport with cheaper flights (Spirit and AirTran) and parking fees, but few shopping and dining choices.
- Philadelphia – Shorter check-in and security lines than EWR, JFK & LGA, lower security fees these airports (hence cheaper flights), and less traffic to airport than other area commercial airports.
- Newark – You can take NJ Transit directly to the airport, and they have plenty of domestic and international flights, lounges, eateries, and shopping. On the downside there’s some traffic, airport delays, and the lines are long.
- JFK – Largest variety of flights, lounges and shops galore, but the most traffic and longest distance to the airport, and most delays.
- Laguardia - Large variety of domestic flights. The busiest airport in the U.S. without non-stop flights overseas, which can cause many delays. It has lots of traffic and is a longer distance to the airport.
You can avoid the long lines by checking in at a kiosk, and only bringing a carry-on if possible. Some airlines like Southwest or JetBlue offer free checked luggage. Also, some hotels will pay your baggage fee, so ask before you book.
You’ll possibly be able to go through priority security lines if you ask the TSA agents politely. They might give you a break if you’re going to a funeral, beginning your honeymoon, pregnant, traveling with young kids or an older parent, injured, nicely dressed, etc.
Buy a public pay-in lounge pass available at select airports, or a day pass at an airline lounge when booking your flight. Purchase a Priority Pass to gain access to lounges domestically and internationally (available at select JFK lounges). I have heard that some people stand outside lounges to ask members if they can join them as a guest (at times for a fee).
Visit the Newark Airport Chapel/Meditation Room without kids in Terminal C between gates C70-99 and C101-115 for quiet reading.
Simulate a lounge atmosphere with snacks, beverages, and something to keep you busy or entertained until boarding. If you’ve arrived early, check in at your gate (for upgrade possibilities) then proceed to the closet gate that’s empty, and stay there until 30-45 minutes before your flight is scheduled to depart. Another approach is to arrive early and grab a corner spot at your gate to read, work on documents, watch a movie, or listen to music. Turn your volume down 30-45 minutes before the flight to listen for announcements.
Premium seats have evolved a lot within the past two decades due to Virgin Atlantic creating Premium Economy, which was similar to the old business class. It could cost you anywhere from just under $100 to $2,000 over an economy ticket depending on the flight. It’s a lot more to pay, but it’s a fraction of the cost of business and first class, making it a deal for what you get. Perks (on international flights) could include: priority check in, security and boarding, free checked luggage, snacks, drinks, personalized entertainment screen, power outlet, 20″ wide seat, 38″ legroom, leg rest, amenity bag, wifi, reading light, and a special menu.
You can check Seat Guru or SeatExpert for the best seats available on your flight. Bulkhead seats are great for more legroom, and aisle seats can allow you more space one side. Sometimes an extra fee is charged for these two types of seats. Avoid seats that don’t recline.
You can make your seat more comfortable on longer flights by bringing a small pillow to support your lower back, like the inflatable lumber pillow, or support your neck like with the Travelrest Pillow. Also, a travel blanket is nice to have for warmth. Ladies, sometimes a Pashmina shawl is all you need to double as a blanket.
Pack food with you from home, i.e. a sandwich, nuts, granola, etc. if you’re flying during a meal time (especially on domestic flights) to avoid pricey, mediocre meals the airlines sell onboard. Another alternative is to buy something on the way to, or at the airport to eat on the plane so you eat what you want, whenever you want.
If you’re flying oversees, order a special meal up to 24 hours before your flight, including kids’ meals (tip: Hindu gets you Indian food). It will usually be served earlier than other meals, which allows you to sleep earlier on overnight flights.
Certain carriers sell premium meals in economy class. U.S. Air introduced their DineFresh program in August 2012 for flights out of Philly to Europe, South America, and the Middle East, which is supposed to rival first class meals. These chilled meals come with wine, must be ordered 24 hours in advance online, and will be brought to your seat. Hawaiian Air has an upscale snack menu, and Delta’s DineUp menu on select flights from JFK to LAX or SFO are prepared similar to first class meals. These meals must be pre-ordered 48 hours in advance online.
Standard soft drinks, coffee and orange pekoe tea are still served on flights, but if you want a specialty soft drink like a Starbucks Frappuccino, purchase it at the airport. Bring your favorite tea bags, hot chocolate mix, or instant coffee (like Starbucks Via) with you from home for better hot beverages. Place an empty Brita water bottle in your carry-on, fill it at a water fountain near the gate, and optionally add MiO Liquid Water Enhancer for a cold flavored drink. If you ask for a less popular drink on board, they often give you the entire can instead of just pouring half in a cup filled with ice. If not, ask nicely for the can and they’ll probably give it to you.
This is a great for oversees or west coast flights. If you don’t have a bag from a previous flight, buy a hanging toiletry/cosmetic bag so you don’t have to place it on the lavatory’s wet counter, and fill it with your favorite travel-size products, then pack it in your carry-on. They can be budget items from CVS or Rite Aid, or luxury products from local shops. Below are some suggestions.
- CVS or Rite Aid – Pick up some hand sanitizer, ear plugs, mouth wash, tissues, deodorant, disposable shaver, shaving cream, after shave, dental floss, emery board, toothbrush and tooth paste, moisturizer, etc.
- Belle de Masque Eye Masque - This silk eye mask is expensive, but it has 18 amino acids and copper to help regenerate your skin.
- Yoga Socks or Totes Toastie Slipper Socks – Take your shoes off and slip these on for more comfort.
- Acca Kappa Hairbrush - This anti-static small pneumatic travel brush prevents damage to hair.
- Travalo – Fill you favorite fragrance in this travel size spray or rollerball bottle. Available at CVS.
- Evian Mineral Water Facial Spray (1.7 oz) – Perfect for rehydrating your skin, making you look refreshed. Ladies, it’ll revive your makeup.
- Beecology Buzz Balm or Burt’s Bees Lip Balm - Keeps your lips from getting chapped. The latter is available at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods
- Bluemercury – This Princeton shop has many travel size products.
- Origins in Princeton – They also have several travel size products.
When booking, check to see which flights offer individual monitors with a free audio & video program for lengthy travel. Bring an airplane headphone jack adapter and noise canceling headphones or earbuds.
If they don’t offer this or charge for entertainment, bring your tablet, laptop, or smart phone with downloaded shows, movies, and apps. For kids, bring their Nintendo DS, PSP, Leapster, etc. Don’t forget to pack your favorite reading material, including an eReader.
If you can turn your phone a hot spot, you can to get wifi for your laptop or other mobile devices while waiting at the gate. Also great for the gate is a portable storage device with its own wi-fi network like the Wi-Drive (16-64 GB) pictured. The new Seagate Wireless Plus offers 1TB of storage for movies, music, and documents, and up to three users can watch three separate movies simultaneously.
The Princeton Public Library is your best friend for traveling entertainment. Not only can you get guide books and novels to read, but you can borrow an eReader (iPad 2, the Kindle Touch, the Kindle Fire, and the Barnes and Noble Nook) for a week with pre-loaded content, or if you already have an eReader or tablet, you can download audio books, eBooks, magazines, and music (including some Top 40 hits) all for FREE with a current Princeton Public Library card through their eLibrary.