Five great upgrades

I’m fortunate but I’ve also got to apologise. I’m fortunate in that I’ve enjoyed lots of interesting business travel often in business or even first class. At one time I had three gold cards: with BA, KLM and SAS which meant that even when I was travelling economy I still got to avoid the long economy class check-in queues and was able to use the business class lounges.

I do though have to apologise because I have contributed towards climate change but I’m sorry what’s done is done. In my defence I’ll offer my efforts to minimise car use, my complete non-use of bottled water, my avoidance of plastic packaging and my imminent installation of solar PV (I’m having the survey this week).

But I have enjoyed flying and have sometimes managed to do so with the benefit of an upgrade. Here are five notable ones.

1 First time in first class: New York to Houston on Eastern

It was early 1974, the year of the miners’ strike and the 3 day week. I’d been with Shell for a little over three years and I was getting itchy feet. One of my commercial colleagues had just moved to Mobil Oil and suggested that I do likewise so I gave it a go and was invited to New York for interview.

In parallel I’d been talking to Bonner & Moore, a consultancy in Houston, Texas, and when I’d fixed the date for my interview I reckoned that it would be a good idea to visit it as well. That was agreed and I was told to pick up a ticket at an Eastern Airlines office and fly on down.

The good news was it was a first class ticket, sadly there was bad news too: first class was full. That meant an agonising wait by the gate until it was deemed late enough that at least one booking could be declared a no-show so that I could be allocated a first class seat.

It would have been a two or three hour flight and we got a good meal for dinner. Doubtless I enjoyed a glass or two of wine but my overriding memory was of being offered a digestif. I asked for a Cointreau and was offered it on the rocks. For me that was unheard of but I gave it a go. Ever since it’s the only way.

2 So this is how you do. It: Tokyo to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific

I worked for Dow Chemical for 16 years and for most of that time I travelled economy. We could travel first class long haul but that excluded transatlantic flights. That changed when business class arrived in the middle of the 80s but that was nothing like the business class of today. It was more of an economy class with wider seats and better service.

Every so often, if you were senior enough, you got to attend global meetings and I did and attended one in 1987 in Tokyo. I turned this into a round the world (RTW) trip with an en route stop in the US before heading on up to Japan.

I had a business class ticket but the seats weren’t great for sleeping. On the Chicago to Tokyo leg I went back into economy and found four adjacent cente seats to stretch out on. An upgrade would have been good for that sector.

I travelled on to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific with a colleague who had a Marco Polo club gold card. As we were checking in he suggested that because of this and because I had an RTW ticket we be upgraded to first class. That was the way it worked in those days, you asked and, if they liked the look of you, your wish was granted. And so it was and that meant a very pleasant four hour evening flight with dinner

I tried to repeat the trick on my own when I checked in for my final Hong Kong to Zurich flight home but no such luck.

A post script: the colleague was Andy (later Andrew) Liveris who went on to become President and CEO of Dow. I guess he rather left me behind.

3 Off to the carnival: London to Rio on BA

In the late 90s I enjoyed lots of travel with Linx and the company paid for me to travel business class on both long haul and short haul flights and by then business class looked more like it does today with a generous seat pitch. I appreciated the privilege and reckoned that I should somehow repay the company. I did this by buying a business book to read on my travels and that why I have so many such books all with a book mark some half or two thirds of the way through.

I formed firm friendships with business contacts around the world and in 1998 one invited me to enjoy the carnival in Rio. That was not an opportunity to ignore so I quickly arranged some business for the trip and booked my flights. However my sense of what was right and appropriate led me to book economy out and then business class back.

That was rather foolish because it’s a twelve to fourteen hour flight from London to Rio but I had two things working in my favour. Firstly I had a British Airways gold card and secondly my ticket was full fare. So I checked in and remembering my lesson above in Tokyo I timidly asked if an upgrade might be possible. I suspect that my request was unnecessary but if it was it was granted and I enjoyed one of those relaxing long haul business class flights when you alternate between eating, sleeping and watching movies. Very satisfactory.

4 End of my Machu Pichu trip: Rio to London on TAM

I was up for re-election in 2013 and I promised myself a trip to Machu Pichu if I was successful. I was so I went and it was a truly memorable holiday. I still had a gold card for the Star Alliance so I flew with TAM from London to Lima via Rio. This necessitated rather a long transfer in Rio but at least with my gold card I could access the lounge even though I was travelling on a pretty cheap economy ticket.

My flights out were OK, I’m sure the anticipation of my trip helped me tolerate the trials of long haul economy travel, but I decided that it would be better for my return flight to pay a premium for an emergency exit seat with its associated extra leg room. I sorted this out when I checked in at Lima and it took some time. The check-in lady who did this was most helpful and after I’d paid the extra hundred or so USD I acquired a new ticket and appropriate seat allocations.

Rio is not a big modern airport but it does get busy when multiple flights are due out at the same time so boarding my flight to London was a bit of a scrum. But with some patience and a little more forceful boarding behaviour I got myself on board a rather full flight.

It seemed to take for ever for boarding to be completed and then a man in a uniform came and demanded my boarding pass. I had no idea why but I complied and he gave me a business class seat in return. There is a god I thought because such upgrades are not supposed to happen when you’ve got a cheap economy ticket. I can only believe that the ticket had been reissued in Lima as a fully endorsable ticket and that this worked with my gold card to put me at the top up the upgrade list when the computer looked for candidates.

So instead of a fitful night in economy I got a comfortable near horizontal seat in business. I had dinner to start with excellent wine, a good night’s sleep and then breakfast before disembarking. It was an excellent end to a stellar holiday experience.

5 Lucky dip: overnight to Muscat

I decided a few years ago that it was good to take a holiday in a warm place early in December. You obviously get the advantage of a warm break before the worst of a UK winter and you also get to step back from the excesses of the commercial run up to Xmas. So when an opportunity for a week in Oman in December 2018 came up it was not to be missed.

It was a package tour and a business class upgrade was offered but that would have just about doubled the cost of the holiday. However the Oman Air website offered upgrades to celebrate some anniversary and that seemed like a good deal. Although my application was at first rejected because we had the wrong sort of tickets I persisted and somehow found a way to persuade the system that we were a deserving case.

This was all some weeks in advance and I didn’t really expect anything to come of it but when I went to check-in online for our flight there they were: two business class seats for the overnight flight to Muscat. That meant we got to enjoy the business class lounge and an absolutely super dinner. I managed to sleep though breakfast so I was in great shape for the first day of our holiday.

Our return flight was daytime so I didn’t look for an upgrade option which is a pity because we enjoyed an excellent week and that would have rounded off our vacation nicely.

There have been other upgrades. Charles and I went business class both ways when we went for a week to Boston, Juni and I had air miles trips upgraded from Tokyo to London and from Johannesburg to London, and amazingly our entire family was upgraded when we flew from Zurich to London when we moved from Switzerland to the UK.

Our last two long haul flights in economy were both in 2015, early in the year we went to see Charles in Australia and later in December of that year we had an out of the blue invite to a wedding in Indonesia. Both trips were with Singapore Airlines and although both holidays were memorable the journeys home were a challenge. That’s when I decided to put aside a small reserve from our savings to fund future upgrades, I reckoned on five trips to Australia.

We’ve used this so far for one trip to Australia on Cathay Pacific in 2017 when we celebrated my 70th birthday and then a trip at the end of 2019 just pre-Covid to Indonesia on Qatar Airlines. I also confess to buying an upgrade on Jet Airways when I went on my Taj Mahal trip (another re-election reward) in 2018.

I have my fingers crossed that we will be able to start travelling again next year but who knows. I really would like to visit Australia again. There’s lots I haven’t seen yet. And of course I’ve been reprived my essential annual dose of Italian food, fashion and culture. There’s a limit to how long I can do without that!

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