Flying in style
Even the shortest hop to the Med can leave an indelible impression on air passengers of average height or build – poor legroom, narrow seats and service levels that shame a fast food restaurant can sum it up. No wonder many want something more for that once-in- a-lifetime experience to ensure that the dream trip to New York, the Maldives or the Caribbean is not spoiled by the process of getting there.
The good news is there has probably never been a better time to travel in style at an affordable price and with a few simple tips, it need not be out of reach. Gone are the days when if you wanted a fully-flat bed on the flight, you had to travel first class, and equally distant is the time when if you wanted a little more legroom than economy, it meant the quantum leap to business class. First class has disappeared on many airlines, as its chief selling point, a flat bed, is now almost the norm in business class. Further back on the aircraft, the recession prompted many airlines to fit or upgrade premium economy cabins for business travellers who weren’t allowed the expensive seats any more and these seats are a great option if your budget won’t stretch to business or even first class.
At its most basic, premium economy provides an extra six or seven inches of legroom and a wider seat. In airline speak, that means a 38-inch seat pitch compared with the usual 31 or 32 inches in economy. Some airlines, like Virgin Atlantic, upgrade the service in premium economy, with more drinks and better meals, while others, such as British Airways, provide only the same as in economy.
Premium economy travellers usually get their own cabin with fewer seats in it than economy, but some airlines, like United and KLM, offer a premium economy section that is just part of the normal economy cabin layout, so remember to check exactly what you will get. This particularly applies to legroom. Most airlines offer a seat with at least six inches more, but United’s Economy Plus offers five inches and KLM’s Economy Comfort only another four inches.
The pick of premium economy cabins probably goes to Air New Zealand, whose new Spaceseat has a real wow factor. It allows couples to face each other when eating and is a hard shell design, which means that the seat in front does not recline onto your knees.
Premium economy generally means a dedicated check-in, but no admittance to the business class lounge. You can make up for this on the outbound journey by paying to access one of the generic-branded lounges. Some have the charm and décor of a 1980s motorway service station, but others, like No.1 Traveller, are superb. No.1 is at Gatwick and Stansted and opens in Heathrow’s Terminal 3 in August, complete with bedrooms for transit passengers, although these will cost more than the usual £15-£20 entrance fee. Holiday Extras offers 37 lounges at 21 UK airports, with access from £12, and has also started offering lounges overseas. They can be booked through travel agents, as can the 150-plus lounges offered by Lounge Pass in the UK and worldwide.
Getting lounge access on the way home is trickier, but membership of schemes like Priority Pass overcomes this obstacle. Priority Pass covers 600 lounges in the UK and worldwide, including No.1 Traveller. A £69 annual fee permits visits for £15 and guest entry for another £15. Snacks and drinks are free, as is Wi-Fi, so if you travel a few times a year, it’s worth considering.
However, if you want it all in one package, that means flying business or even first class. Other airlines have caught up with BA and Virgin Atlantic in fitting seats that convert to fully-flat beds, so your choice is unlimited, but there are a few notable exceptions, such as American Airlines, Lufthansa, and some flights by Emirates, Qatar Airways and Qantas where inclined flat seats are still found.
In particular, there is far more choice of good business class products to the US now that Delta, United and American Airlines have upgraded cabins, although their lounges at either end will not match the scale and opulence of BA’s and in particular, Virgin’s, whose Clubhouse lounge at Heathrow has so many amenities you will hesitate to board your flight.