Flying in Coach After Three Years Up Front

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I have to acknowledge up-front that I feel totally silly and petty writing about the merits and drawbacks of my recent economy flights to Spain given the devastating events of Germanwings Flight 9525 that left Barcelona the same morning we did.  I’m writing about our flights as I normally would, because this is what I do, and fixating on the Germanwings Flight doesn’t seem appropriate either given that I have virtually nothing to add to that discussion other than my own shock and heartbreak for the families. 

For the last couple of years I have had the luxury of doing all of my long haul travel in a premium cabin.  Of course, I still have flown in coach plenty domestically and on shorter international routes, but if we were going to be flying on a TransAtlantic or TransPacific flight, I have had the luxury of doing it in business or first class thanks to using miles, upgrade certificates, etc.  My last flight to Europe in economy was on a Lufthansa operated flight from LAX to Frankfurt on Star MegaDo 4 in 2012, and I ended up so tired that I booked a whole new ticket using United miles at the last minute to fly back to the US in Lufthansa First Class just so I could sleep instead of sitting upright for another 12 hours in coach.

In the three years since that trip, I have firmly equated flying coach on long-haul international flights to total and utter exhaustion.  As a parent of a young kid, I was often teetering on exhaustion anyway, and never have the luxury of zonking out on the couch for a day or two when I return home.  I have had the miles and upgrades to make long-haul flying more comfortable, and it has been great.

When the Numbers Don’t Add Up to Sitting in a Premium Cabin:

However, there comes a time when if you travel regularly enough, the math just doesn’t work out to fly up front.  I mean, maybe that’s not the case if you are dealing with virtually unlimited budgets of cash and/or miles, but for most of us operating in the real world, there are limits to what is realistic and smart.

I hit that limit in October of last year when some United fares popped up for around $600/each to fly round trip from Houston to Spain.  I immediately thought of taking my retired former Spanish teacher mom to Spain for a Christmas present when I saw the fares, and at those prices it was virtually impossible to justify instead spending 100,000+ miles round trip each to fly in business.  If I did that, it would essentially be like getting .6 cents return for my miles, albeit in a much more comfortable seat.  No matter how you played with the numbers, it just made more sense to suck it up and sit in the back.

The $600 fares booked into a fare class that was not eligible for using United Global Premier Upgrade certificates, so there was not going to be a “free” route to upgrade us to business class.  I decided I was okay with that, though totally expected in the end to hate the flying experience and vow not to do it again in economy on a similar flight for quite a long time.  I looked at it as a bit of an experiment to see how much I hated it after three years of being spoiled upfront.  If I’m being totally honest, when I found out a few weeks after booking the tickets that I was pregnant, and would be almost six months pregnant at the time of the trip, I had a moment of weakness and put in to have the three of us upgraded on the outbound overnight fight using a combo of cash and miles.  That was not economically sound redemption, but it represents how badly I did not want the exhaustion that I associated with flying in economy.  It is not at all about wanting to be pampered, or the food, or free drinks, or lounge access, or being “too good” for coach, or anything like that.  It is a total aversion to avoidable exhaustion.  Those upgrade (thankfully) never cleared, though I still don’t have the miles/money back from United….story for another day.

We were left with the original plan of flying to Europe and back in economy…almost six months pregnant and with a five-year-old.  It really looks a bit like a bad idea on paper, but we pressed on anyway.

The 3 (or 4) of us, ready to fly!

The 3 (or 4) of us, ready to fly!

Making the Most of Sitting in Coach:

I followed my own advice outlined here of how to have my kiddo have a successful flight to Europe, and it pretty much worked flawlessly.  She sat between my mom and me and stretched out with her head on one of us and her feet on the other for much of the overnight flight.  She slept in that position a little worse than she would have probably slept in her own lie-flat seat, but not by too much.

Sleeping on flight to Europe

Sleeping on flight to Europe

My own experience on the outbound flight was not fun.  Sleeping while sitting upright with a kid laying on you isn’t going to be comfortable in good circumstances, but doing it with a pretty large and uncomfortable pregnant belly was really not fun.  I didn’t sleep much on that overnight flight at all, but the upside was that since we connected in Newark, the flight to Madrid was only around six hours long anyway.  Had I slept in a business class seat, I still would have at best maybe 4.5 – 5 hours of sleep and would have been tired either way.

My kid, my belly, and me

My kid, my belly, and me

On the way home, the flight was a daytime flight and my kiddo slept for maybe 45 minutes of the 9+ hours of flying back to Newark, which means that was all I was able to sleep, too.  However, even when she flew back from Paris last year in a lie-flat business class seat, she didn’t sleep much on the daytime flight then either.  Of course laying down would have been more comfortable for me than sitting up on that leg of the journey, but sitting in coach really didn’t result in significantly less rest that we probably would have gotten up-front.

Coach Was Not Fun, But Not Horrible:

The food in the back was pretty bad.  The drink service was less frequent than in first.  The line for the restroom was a little longer.  The cabin was brighter due to more people leaving their shades up.  The overnight flight specifically was not fun, especially with a pregnant belly.  However, it wasn’t horrible.  It wasn’t this energy sucking force that I had built it up to be in my mind.  Yes, I was tired after landing in Europe, but it wasn’t that bad given our route.

Economy meal to Europe

Economy meal to Europe

Before I start trumpeting economy, let me clarify a few things.  First, I think knowing the people you are sitting next to helps tremendously.  If you have a row just for your family (or yourself on a relatively empty flight), it isn’t that bad.  My last overnight coach experience to Europe had included sitting next to a stranger who snored, smelled bad, and kept leaning his head on me.  This experience was much better than that basically sleepless night.

Second, we were in Economy Plus seats, so we had more legroom than if we were in the true back of the plane.  We are only talking a few extra inches, but they really helped us wiggle into a few stretched out positions that wouldn’t have worked otherwise.

IMG_8603.JPG

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our routing wasn’t really that long.  Flying from the East Coast to Western Europe isn’t a short flight, but it isn’t terribly long either.  I would not have been as happy with our seats if I had to stay in them for many more hours.  I think that if you are going to fly to Europe in economy, there is something to be said for connecting on the East Coast to shorten up the duration of sitting in your seat.

I still have absolutely no desire to fly somewhere like Australia in economy, but I’m happy that I’m not so far gone being spoiled up front that I can’t handle a relatively short flight to Europe.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Is that last picture from your seat? I ask because although I love the bulkhead seats on Economy Comfort for the extra legroom I hate that the armrests don’t move so it is not a good option if you will have your kid stretching out between two people. After flying MSP-JFK-MXP 3 times this year on coach I can survive that flight on the bulkhead on Economy Comfort but not in the middle seat of the regular coach unless you have plenty time to rest after your flight.

    • Good catch. That was the row in front of us (bulkhead) since we trashed our row in short order. Totally agree on the arm rest issue!

    • Laura, I have Platinum status with United so they were complimentary for us, but otherwise without status you would have to pay for them.

  2. Wow, the only thing that amazes me more than how self entitled you come across in this posting is how unaware you are of your self entitled-ness.

    • J, hardly. I readily admit I was fortunate and spoiled to have the miles and such to sit upfront the last few years. I fully realize how fortunate that is, as well as how lucky we are to travel at all.

  3. @J seriously?? You stab a pathetic jibe at a pregnant nice young lady, who’s husband recently was made redundant who writes poignantly and humbly.

    There was less than zero self entitlement in her post. Why don’t you (struggling not to swear here) take a nice little trip yourself to somewhere where no one has to read your ridiculous hateful spite. Loser.

    Sorry everyone else, I snapped. Tired of nasty people.

  4. I guess when it comes to long haul economy travel I really look at which airline it is too. If it is Air Canada and their high density 777s, you can bet I’m going to pay extra for the Y+. But something like QR/CX/SQ I can happily take on in Y since they take great care of you and experience is actually quite good. Nothing beats the gorgeous feeling of flat over the Pacific/Atlantic though.

  5. I enjoyed the comparison as I have recently began wondering about the option of flying economy to Western Europe. Husband and I are traveling to Milan in July, on points/miles. Husband sleeps easily on a plane and decided, on the return, to fly economy from Milan to JFK rather than making a stop on the way home. His reasoning is that his vacation is over, it’s not a long flight and he will be coming home so he won’t mind so much that he is tired. Options for business class on points were too high for our taste and I have also been eying cheapie fares. I have been wondering, however, if I have been spoiled by my points and miles hobby.

  6. Great post. Because of blogs like Lucky’s, everyone seems to think these days that economy class seats are all terrible and that it is beyong dignity to fly in Y.

    First of all, to places like Europe, flying J or F is a complete waste of miles IMO in most cases. And that is if it is even available.

    What I have decided for myself is that if I can fly with the wife and kids on an airline that has a comparatively good Y product like TG or SQ, there is really no need to pony up the substantial number of extra miles required. Also, traveling with kiddos and wife, I have foind out over the last decade that the most direct routing trumps flying in J or F over Y. Nothing is more exhausting than having to shlep your kids, bags etc to an airport hotel for one night to fly J the next day. I would rather rip through it as dire tly as possible and spend an extra day at the destination.

    And that is exactly how I am booking for myself now and for the last year or so. And I have yet to take a trip where flying Y overshadowed the positive experience at the destination.

    The “need” to fly J is a figment of our imagination. Is it nicer? You bet. But if it comes at the expense of not taking another trip I would otherwise be able to take, then it’s a no brainer not to worry about it.

    • Sorry, but even relatively decent Y product like SQ cannot compare to a lie flat in J.

      For long haul flights, premium Y (I’m not talking about Y+ like on UA/AA/DL) is a good medium between Y and J. I would look at airlines offering premium Y if J is out of reach.

    • Agreed, 100%. Some people simply have so many miles, and not much desire to take a lot of trips with them, that it makes sense for them to fly J. For me it’s all about the destination, not about being pampered for a few hours on the way. Give me two trips in economy over one in J any day of the week, and yes on any airline. Of course I come from a background of overnight trips on chicken buses in Latin America packed with standing room and drunks singing loudly all night, so nothing in the skies is remotely as uncomfortable – or such grand adventure – by comparison.

      • Of course anyone can do the trip in Y, especially from the East Coast where a TATL isn’t much longer than a transcon. But the difference between miles in Y vs J isn’t necessarily 2x, the best example being Aeroplan (an MR partner)where to Western Europe, economy is 60k while business is 90k. This I think is where miles shine and where you really unlock value, because the cash price delta is much more than 50%.

  7. I focus much of my credit card spend on hotel programs, and on maintaining my Southwest Companion Pass; and fly most of my international itineraries on awards, so I don’t earn as many legacy airline miles each year as many of your readers. So I look at it strictly from the “how much extra is it costing me” perspective. If I can fly lie-flat Biz for a 20,000 mile premium over Coach (or, even better, in the rare cases when premium cabin is actually cheaper because Saver seats are available in J/F, but not Y), I’ll fly premium. But if the cost is greater, I’ll gladly fly Y to make sure I always have enough miles for future trips. (Another factor: I don’t sleep all that well on flights even in a lie-flat seat. So I arrive tired even after an overnight premium cabin flight, and have to plan a day of recovery at the destination before I can get serious about business or pleasure. I wouldn’t survive more than 48 hours of Lucky’s travel schedule!!)

  8. We live on the East Coast and my SO doesn’t get as much vacation time as I do, so we do a lot of short trips to Europe over long weekends. Since we’re based in Philly, it’s nice to fly direct on US, but I think I actually prefer flying United out of EWR because UA offers those premium economy seats (never mind that they’re not premium and are just what you’d have gotten free 10 years ago). A little bit of sleep makes a big difference in being able to hit the ground running on a 48-72 hour trip.

    Usually I’ll book coach with $ or miles and then pay to upgrade the overnight flight so I can get some sleep. It’s usually $150 or less, which is a trade off I’m willing to make. We fly coach on the return, since I can handle the suffering on a daytime flight. And it is suffering. Jammed in like sardines, served crappy food, little to no drink service. We’ve learned to buy a decent sandwich in the airport and the biggest bottle of water we can find. (This came in handy when our outbound last Friday was delayed 2 hours for de-icing. No snacks or water were given out the entire time, but we had our dinner. I kinda felt bad for everyone else.)

  9. Hi Mommy Points! We live on the East Coast and for us, flying to eastbound to LHR for example is not that much longer than going to California. We almost always take the day time flight as I think the flight is almost “too short” to get any overnight sleep regardless of the seat you are sitting in, especially if you don’t decline the meal service. I have found the day time flight to LHR in E+ to be totally doable with kids and almost a waste of points for business or first class. We have never attempted Asia with kids (yet) but I agree it would be very painful in coach as the duration of the flight from the East Coast requires some sleeping!

    The one thing I will note is that you should be very careful with DMT when pregnant if you are traveling in coach on long haul flights. When I was pregnant with my first I traveled extensively including several trips to Asia and Europe. We flew coach on a short trip to Germany when I was 8 months pregnant and I got a terrible blood clot in my leg, even after stretching and moving around constantly during the flight. I had no issues traveling to Asia the week before (in business and first) because I could keep my legs elevated during the flights due to the seats. So please be careful if you have more flights planned for coach while pregnant!

  10. Life is a matter of priorities. For some people, it’s worth spending the money on fancy hotels and premium seats on flights, because that’s an important part of their vacation. For me, I travel to experience the local culture and see the sights, and hotel is just a place to sleep and the plane ticket a way to get there. Yes, traveling in luxury is certainly nice, but I just find it not the best way to use my money and miles.

    As an United 1K, I usually have a good amount of miles, all of them earned on my own dime. It’s easy to blow them on a few luxury trips. But I spend the miles on my children (both away at college), and my parents (treating them to vacations they would never take otherwise).

    It’s unfortunate that economy seats are really torture seats in disguise, but my priorities say that I should grin and bear it, and save money for other priorities.

  11. MP,
    Well, thanks to reading your blog over the last two years and learning how to earn and redeem points, my family of 5 just got back from a trip to New Zealand and Australia with one night in Hawaii on the way home. I patched together flights on points for all of us the whole way! Yippee!!
    For our longest leg (SFO-SYD = 15 hours) we were on the United waiting list for a saver-level business class award for me and my hubby, but it never cleared so we rode in the back with our kids (17, 15 and 11) in coach. Economy plus was an extra $199 per passenger for that flight alone so we did not seriously consider that. Honestly as we walked past the economy plus seats I could not detect any difference between them and the ones we were seated in so I am glad we did not spend the money for them.
    My husband and I had a couple excellent years where we were treated to business class seats on overseas trips via a volunteer position he held and we knew what we were missing. However, I agree with your post that it wasn’t as terrible as I thought it might be.
    To make it more fun I packed a homemade version of the amenity kits that you get in business class for each of us and handed them out at the beginning of the long flight. My husband and I also purchased a couple glasses of wine. The coach seats on our flight had outlets and personal entertainment available, too. My kids didn’t complain during the flights and we all feel that the chance to go to such exiciting places was worth the short term discomfort and sleep deprivation.
    We had 3 nights on airplanes during our trip and on the bright side, after the long 15 hour flight, the two 9 hour flights over the next couple days seemed shorter than they would have otherwise. By our final redeye home from Hawaii to Chicago, I did not even try to sleep, watched two movies and couldn’t believe how fast it went. Bring on the 6 hour flight to Europe in coach, I’m ready!

  12. It sounds, to me, like you’re saying that sitting up front is nice, but sitting in the back isn’t torture, and I have to agree. I have 3 long trips and 50,000+ miles on United metal, plus some other connector airlines for cheap(ish) and get 3 interesting trips and retain my *G status at the same time.

    I’m also flying on miles at the front of the plane to New Zealand, deliberately routed through IAH so I could do so. Returning I’ve got 14 hours in Cathay Pacific First, blended in with business class flights. And I’m going to wallow in every minute of it.

    The back of the plane is fine – but up front is fun.

  13. I am also a mommy and all the trips we have taken so far are on economy. Our little one is 3 now and with him we’ve been to UK, Thailand, Aussie, NZ, Italy, Paris, India and everything on economy! I totally understand you but I just wanna say I do love travelling in economy 🙂

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