Fish Out of Water

I fly just frequently enough to be annoyed by the indignities of air travel, but not enough to have premium status with any airline. The result is that I spend a lot of time in the back of the plane.

While I’m normally able to avoid the middle seat, I’m not so good at avoiding the Ebola-afflicted passenger next to me and the kicking toddler behind me. It would be fine if the guy in front of me wanted to recline the entire trip, reducing my already-limited legroom with some consistency, but the constant up-down-up-down is enough to make me want to punch him in the throat.

In order to fly from DC to Johannesburg on our chosen dates, we were staring down no fewer than 21 hours of travel time, with at least one leg of twelve-plus hours. There’s a direct and affordable flight out of Dulles of a mere 17 hours, but that wasn’t available when we needed it. We were in for a long haul. I’ve done ‘em on a few occasions before, most recently to Tokyo in 2007, but I’m a decade older, 50% more brittle and 100% grouchier than I was then, so when we locked in our plans to go to Africa about a year ago, we also started to look at the flight options with a bit of trepidation.

Having flown business class or first class on a handful of occasions, I knew the difference between the front of the plane and where I usually sit, and I heard that it was even better on some foreign carriers. With that in mind, I made it my mission to find a way to fly biz class to Jo’Berg. It wasn’t going to be easy. We’re price-sensitive, so we typically fly whoever offers the best fare at the best times, and in many cases that turns out to be American Airlines. We consulted an expert, and he informed us that while we wouldn’t be able to fly American the whole way, we would be able to use their miles to buy tickets on a partner airline. We just had to come up with 150,000 of them apiece.

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At that point, normal people probably would’ve either given up on the idea or resolved to pay the (not-insubstantial) difference in cash. We are not normal people. I started reading websites like The Points Guy and Million Mile Secrets and I’ve learned that there are actually hobbyists-slash-obsessives who make it their mission never to pay to fly…and never to fly economy. I’ve always been the type who believed that I’d rather get 1% back in cash than a 1% value in miles. You can spend the former on the latter if needed. Through my web searches, though, I realized that with careful credit card sign-ups, purchases of products that you were already going to buy through pass-through sites, and a few other methods, it’s possible to accumulate mileage very quickly if you engage in some careful planning. After a few months of work and purchases, we had the necessary mileage and we were able to garner business class tix on Qatar Air.

Was it worth it? From a purely financial standpoint, I think it was. The few credit card sign-ups didn’t hurt our credit scores and we didn’t purchase anything that we weren’t going to purchase anyway. More importantly, the flight experience itself was amazing. We had lie-flat seats, a generous amenties kit (pajamas anyone?), approximately 8,000 entertainment channels, and unlimited food and drink, served whenever you wanted it (I particularly enjoyed the champagne, the soup made with a recipe from Nobu, and a Seinfeldesque hot fudge sundae). At each airport, we had access to lounges with even more food, drink and comfort. For people like my brother who fly three or four times every week, have seven-figure mileage balances and experience this constantly, it’s probably easy to take it for granted, but I loved every minute of the Robin Leach treatment. In fact, coming off a particularly rough few weeks of work at home prior to the trip, upon landing in South Africa I immediately remarked that I would be happy to spend the next 20 hours on a similar flight. It was the most restful period I’d had in months.

Next we head to Chicago, and then to Mexico, both times in coach, but I’m ready to play the game again, just need to come up with another long trip to get me in the mood.