There are simply some sentences you don’t expect to hear about travel. “Pyongyang is lovely this time of year.” “I really wish the guy sitting next to me could snore even louder.” “I don’t care if there’s been a last-minute cancelation; do not upgrade me to the Penthouse Suite.”
But now, I find myself confronted with a travel sentiment I never thought I’d say, let alone hear: I might prefer flying premium economy to first class.
Even though I fly a lot, I haven’t had a lot of experience flying first class. Until recently, my only time flying first class was back during the Clinton Administration when, on a Miami-to-Atlanta flight, I scored a last-minute first class upgrade (thanks to my attractive French travel companion who smiled at the ticket agent). I’m sure it was an enjoyable flight, but I’d spent spent the previous night partying in Key West and wasn’t exactly able to fully take in the experience.
I recently got a chance to revisit first class luxury during a trip from Los Angeles to London aboard Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class cabin (no flirting was required this time). To say I was excited about it would be an understatement. For one, this would be my first commercial flight with lie-flat seats; back in the days of my introductory first class flight in the `90s, the only way you could lie flat on an airplane was if you had a whole row to yourself or passed out in the aisle.
Virgin Atlantic’s new Upper Class cabins (Photo: Virgin Atlantic)
Then there were all the frills Virgin Atlantic offers aboard its Upper Class Dreamliner cabin: amenity kits, pajamas, pre-flight champagne. There’s even an actual stand-up bar, which I’ve been fantasizing about ever since I saw James Bond get wasted at one during in Virgin Atlantic’s nice product placement in Quantum of Solace. Making things even more exciting: the flight was aboard Virgin Atlantic’s spiffy new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, which I hadn’t flown yet.
With all the luxurious accommodations, the comfy-looking beds, and the new plane aura of the Dreamliner, I had visions of arriving in London the morning after that 10-hour overnight flight refreshed, relaxed, and ready to get my U.K. on. In the days leading up to the flight, I was doing A.V. geek cartwheels. I hadn’t been that stoked for a flight since I took my first one at 5 years old.
In short, I was really excited. And that was my big mistake.
On the big day, I boarded the flight after hanging out for two hours in Virgin Atlantic’s lounge at LAX, where I stared out the window and snapped pictures of he plane in lustful anticipation:
The new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner that ferried me to London. Isn’t she dreamy? (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
When it finally came time to board, I was giddy at the sight of the tastefully red interior, the gold-accented mood lighting and, best of all, my roomy Upper Class seat. This was going to be the best flight ever!
As we took off, I gorged on the luxury. I visited the bar and enjoyed a single cocktail (no getting sloppy drunk like 007 did in Quantum). I watched The Avengers: Age of Ultron on the in flight entertainment system. Remembering comedian Hannibal Buress’s bit about not sleeping in first class so you could fully enjoy the experience, I made sure to soak up as much high-flying goodness as I could before my lie-flat bedtime.
Virgin Atlantic’s gold Upper Class mood lighting (Photo: Virgin Atlantic)
After about three hours of enjoying the Upper Class life, I finally decided it was time for a snooze. I hit the “recline button” button on my seat, got out the blanket and pillow (after shooing away the flight attendant, who almost seemed disappointed I’d opted out of the turn-down service), and then stretched out for what I thought would be a good night’s sleep in Air Force One-style luxury.
And then… nothing.
I could not sleep. At all. While most of my fellow Upper Class passengers were snoozing comfortably, I was as wide awake as the flight attendants and, presumably, the pilots. Which is weird because I’d never had trouble sleeping on flights before. Heck, I’ve been known to fall asleep at boarding and not wake up until final approach.
At least somebody got sleep on this flight! (Photo: Virgin Atlantic)
It’s clear what had happened. My excitement over the flight had left me too pumped up to sleep. The pre-flight adrenaline from the anticipation of flying in such a new fashion doomed my sleep plans (that loud, explosion-heavy Marvel superhero movie probably didn’t help matters either). It was the ultimate irony: the excitement of flying Upper Class kept me from enjoying what was supposed to be its biggest perk — the ability to stretch out and sleep.
I eventually gave up on my sleep quest. I moved my seat from lie-back mode back to seat mode. (The flight attendant’s eyes seemed to say to me, “If you’d let me do it, you’d be sleeping right now.”) I read a Robert Crais mystery novel on my iPhone for the rest of the overnight flight. It was truly no sleep `til London.
After my improbably sleepless flight, I was left wondering what kept me from fully enjoying a treat that everyone else desired? I remembered how my friend and Yahoo Travel editor Paula Froelich once did a video about how flying Singapore Airlines’ First Class Suite forever ruined flying for her. Now, I imagined her looking at me saying, “Siddles, what the hell is wrong with you?” I wish I knew, Paula. I wish I knew.
The flight home from London was a different story. No spiffy new Dreamliner, this time; my Virgin Atlantic flight back to L.A. was aboard that old reliable Airbus A340-600. And no Upper Class seats. I was on Virgin Atlantic’s Premium Economy class, which was more like what I was used to flying. There were no fancy cocktails, no stand-up bar, and the in-flight entertainment system seemed slightly older and clunkier than the Dreamliner’s.
But what it lacked in amenities, Premium Economy made up for in a familiar comfort. It has the standard, upright, partially-reclining airplane seats I’ve known and flown with my entire life. Its 38 inches of legroom (as defined by A.V. geeks as “seat pitch”) and the 21-inch seat width are downright decadent compared to the less than 31-inch seat pitch and roughly 18-inch seat width you get in most airlines’ (Virgin Atlantic included) standard economy classes these days. Like in Upper Class, you get stainless steel, not plastic, cutlery for your three-course meal. And there’s an after-dinner liqueur with which to enjoy your coffee.
In fact, while Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class service provided a new experience for me that proved distractingly thrilling, its Premium Economy — which took me back to a more luxurious period of economy class travel in the not-too-distant past — proved relaxing. That familiar vibe, plus the window seat I had (to me, the most effective in-flight pillow remains the mollifying vibration of the plane’s fuselage), made falling asleep on that flight as easy as falling asleep in my old room back at my parents’ house.
Speaking of sleep, I did just that — all the way back to L.A.
Saying “I’m a First Class Guy” sounds so much cooler than saying “I’m a Premium Economy Guy.” And yet… (Photo: Virgin Atlantic)
Could it be that I’m an anomaly who prefers the stripped-down luxury of a slightly-tweaked economy class flight instead of the full-blown, pimped-up extravagance of first class? Maybe for me, it’s like the difference between digitally recorded music or vinyl: one experience may be slicker and technically superior, but the flaws and the nuances of the other might make for a richer and more soothing experience. (Granted, Virgin Atlantic Premium Economy has fewer flaws than many cattle-car coach seats.)
I’m not declaring myself a first-class-phobe just yet. I’m thinking there’s a simple solution to curing me: I just need to fly first class more. After all, I doubt Jay Z has trouble sleeping aboard a private jet. And I’m sure after six years, President Obama has figured out how to nod off in Air Force One’s bedroom. I need to fly in style so frequently, it’s not an exciting, sleep-depriving novelty anymore — it’s as common or second nature as ordering expensive champagne, making it rain in a strip club and all the other accoutrements of the baller lifestyle I want to emulate while flying.
Either way, my sleepless night of luxury made me appreciate a good economy class experience, too. Maybe the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the curtain. And maybe the simple pleasures of flying — a comfy window seat to rest my head, a nice 5-degree recline, and a smooth, turbulence-free flight —are all the bells and whistles I really need to have an enjoyable, and restful flight.
But probably that’s all just b.s. I plan to tell myself the next time I’m stuck in a cramped seat in coach.