The Truth about Flying

Costs, Frequent Flyer Points, Upgrades, Awards and the Magic of Flight

Flying Above the Clouds Enroute to London
Onboard an Airbus A320 enroute to London

Griping about the discomfort of flying is a thoroughly modern first-world phenomenon. Here’s how you can relax and enjoy the magic of flight, whether you’re a frequent or infrequent traveller.

The Truth about the Cost of Flying

Flying is an expensive business. In fact, it’s likely to be the most expensive impediment to your travel. As I remarked in “How to Get the Money to Travel“, affording the flight is the hardest part, because once you’ve arrived somewhere there are many ways to stay cheaply. In fact, for many destinations it’s cheaper to be away from home than at home, particularly if you can sublet your place back home, get someone to house-sit your place back home, or if you don’t actually have a place back home!

But still, there’s that pesky flight to afford. There’s no doubt that flying anywhere in an aeroplane commands a serious portion of your yearly income. And for many people, they are disappointed to part with their hard-earned cash only to reach their gate and find that the plane is jam-packed, that they are treated like cattle, the seat is uncomfortable, there’s no legroom, the food sucks and the cabin crew are tired and indifferent to their plight.

Here’s the problem: despite what you paid for your ticket, the airline is actually making only small change from you. Flying is an expensive business. In fact, it’s a business model where it’s bloody hard to make ends meet. Think of the capital outlay for aeroplanes: giant multi-million dollar machinery. There’s licences and certifications, maintenance and insurances associated with running this machinery. Then think of the cost of the fuel required to propel these mammoths into the atmosphere. Then there’s a labour force involving ground staff, cabin crew, flight crew, pilots, management. Airports. A network of air traffic controllers to regulate their airspace and air safety bodies and so on. All of these costs find their way through airport taxes, fees and surcharges to the passenger. Then volcanoes erupt or storms hit the airport or a riot happens and the plans have to change and the airlines have to foot the bill. It adds up.

Above the Rocky Mountains, USA
Above the USA’s Rocky Mountains

But in any commercial venture, you can only charge what consumers can afford to pay. Travellers pay these outrageous fares because they want to travel, and the price points are a stretch but doable for most in the developed world.

In other words, operating an airline requires such a business model, that in earnest, is almost not worth it for anyone financially. I’ve read reports suggesting that airlines are making, on average, less than $1 profit per passenger. And undoubtedly many of the flights you take are actually operating at a loss. That’s right- despite the fact that you had to take out a mortgage or spend your life savings to get the ticket, the flight you are on might actually be losing the airlines money. That’s the problem with the business model of flying- lots of people paying lots of money and nobody making any real solid gain out of any of it.

So to keep these companies afloat, and us travellers travelling, the shareholders want belts to tighten. The airlines cut costs wherever possible,  they overbook cabins, and the passengers get treated like numbers, because in the end it’s a numbers game like anything else. I’m not saying you should be happy about it, but that’s the reality of flying and the reality of travel.

And if you’re the sort of person who takes a trip only once in a blue moon, and flies only once a year, or every few years, or even less frequently, you’re likely to feel the most hard done by. Because the airlines know that they’re going to make a buck or two off you and then they won’t see you for another five years, or longer. You won’t lead to repeat business for them, you won’t represent any great opportunity for them in the same way a regular business traveller would. If you’re lucky enough to be on the plane and not bumped off then you’re in the crappiest seats down the back smelling the vacuum toilets and listening to the stewardesses bitch about their job.

Because here’s the thing- there’s more than to airline classes than just First, Business and Economy. Even within Economy, there’s a bunch of price classes denoted by a letter (for example “Q”). The divisions might not be obvious, but each class is entitled to certain sections of seating, and has differing legal conditions regarding refunds, changes, upgrades, frequent flyer points and the like. If you’ve shopped around for the cheapest possible fare, chances are you’ve put yourself in this lowest of low low discount economy. But you shouldn’t let this get you down.

The Miracle of Flight

Cool clouds somewhere over central Brazil
Cool clouds somewhere over central Brazil

The truth is, flying is an amazing thing to be doing. In the age of technological evolution it’s so easy to forget how far we’ve come since the Industrial Revolution. Particularly in the first world, we are so used to amazing products and amazing services being at our beck and call. We flick the switch and the light comes on. We can choose from oodles of bright and colourful food sources, none of which we have to prepare ourselves if we don’t feel like it. We walk around connected to the entire sum of mankind’s knowledge on our smartphones and tablets. All of this daily convenience is at relatively little financial cost to us and almost none of it existed in the lives of people who lived a century ago.

Above the Sydney Opera House, Australia
Over the Sydney Opera House

I’ve sat on overnight flights from LA to Sydney and watched the silvery moon rise over a canopy of silvery clouds far below. I once flew from Chicago to Shanghai, and the flight went over the North Pole in winter. The light disappeared and the plane was surrounded by the beautiful green glow of the Northern Lights. The daylight returned and the sky was clear, and we were flying over the icy wasteland of Siberia. Eventually this gave way to the Steppes of Mongolia far below. It was surreal. I’ve flown on A380s where there was only 50 people on board and everyone had a row of seats to themselves. I spent the whole flight chatting with a flight attendant who just happened to have grown up 10 kilometres from where I did. On the other hand, I’ve sat on 14-hour flights with turbulence, screaming kids, and the gut of the person next to me intruding into my seat-space. Economy class is a lucky dip.

I’ve listened to stories from my aunty of backpacking in Europe when she was young and she had to take a ship all the way to England. A month at sea. Even the voyage from New York to Southampton across the North Atlantic takes a week. It’s nothing short of a miracle that we are now able to those journeys in less than a day, reliably, repeatably, and safely.

And it is safe. Maybe you’ve had your heartrate increase when flying through turbulence or bad weather, or the thought of flying at all fills you with terror. Back the factory, these things have been engineered to the point of obsession.  They’ve had their wings bent back until they break. The designers know exactly what forces these planes can withstand. It might help to know when you’re sitting up there bouncing around that this thing has seen it all before- both on previous flights and in the wind-tunnel. It’s fitted with the latest and greatest everything- another reason your ticket costs so much.

Flying might not always be particularly comfortable, but any discomfort can be endured for a day or less, particularly when it allows us to see the world. You’re jumping in a metal tube, weighing hundreds of tonnes, and that thing is lifting you into the air and taking you to an exotic destination somewhere else on the planet. The physics and technology behind what we are doing is close to magic.

Flying over Siberia, Russia on the way to China
Flying over Siberia on the way to China

The Truth about Business Class and Premium Economy

I’ve travelled a few times in Business Class flying internationally and First Class on some domestic flights, and later in this article, I’ll talk about how you can go about doing it. There’s no doubt that flying at the pointy end of the plane is waaaay more comfortable than going Economy. The seat is wider, the service is better, you get a tablecloth (woo hoo!), good wines, and one time we even had freshly baked choc-chip cookies. I came off those planes feeling pretty swell.

Dubai from the Air, UAE
Dubai from the air

But here’s the thing. I can get freshly baked choc-chip cookies from Subway for a couple of bucks. I have a really nice tablecloth on my table at home, it cost about $20, and I can get an awesome bottle of wine for $50. The bed in any 2 star hotel anywhere in the world folds out completely flat (hopefully) and big enough to stretch out in. Even most hostel beds are better than anything you will find on a plane in business class. I don’t care if you have a fricken suite on an A380, I guarantee that my Posturepedic mattress in my bedroom at home is more luxurious, and so is every 4-star hotel bed I’ve ever stayed in. The difference is that the 4-star hotel doesn’t cost $20,000 a night.

My point? For most flyers, you don’t actually need any of these things, you just think you do. Like having a cool phone or wearing a nice pair of sunglasses, these products become status symbols. There’s a reason why the airline walks you past all those nice business class people, kicking off their boots in their “massive” leg-room area, sipping on their glass of water as they check out their “massive” flat screen display, on your way to Economy down the back. It’s because you’ll be jealous that they have something you don’t. I’ve seen it from both sides: the nonchalant “yeah I’m cool-as bro, I do this shit all the time” kinda look on the guy folding up his suit neatly into his business class locker, and when I’m in biz, the wandering look from the middle-aged middle-class: “How did that guy with the beard and long hair afford to sit here? He’s much younger than me!”

People love to fly Business so that before the stewardess orders phones-down, they can fire off a quick status update to Facebook telling everyone how big their seat is. That’s after they’ve checked in on FB from the airport lounge, just so that the people back at home understand they’re dealing with someone of obviously immense status.

Ah yes, the airport lounge. Where you can get a nice comfy chair, a cold beer from the fridge, some Wi-Fi access, maybe even a hot shower. All things that you’ve got in your apartment at home, and chances are the hotel room you are going to has that too, even down to the cold beers in the minibar. The point is, if you don’t fly very often, you don’t need any of that stuff. You just need to arrive with enough money in your pocket to be able to enjoy your destination.

Flying over New Zealand's South Island
Over the mountains of New Zealand’s South Island

Once you begin to travel more regularly, perhaps every couple of months, maybe even monthly or weekly, these kind of comforts become more necessary, both for sanity and general health. Flying is not a particularly healthy business if done too often, as you are dealing with jetlag, extreme tiredness, airport stress, partner/family issues, sedentariness and deep vein thrombosis. So some companies are willing to fork out the extra for their high-flying employees. A $6000 ticket might sound expensive, but for a company paying a salary of $100,000, another $20,000 on top of that for a few business class flights is not exactly a massive imposition. That’s why it’s called a business class ticket. It’s 5-7 times the price of an Economy ticket. The airlines know that the companies can afford to pay and they offer a product for that. Mind you, with the economic troubles, many companies these days have cut business class flights from their balance sheet, and you’ll find the frequent biz flyers schlepping down the back with the rest of the plebs.

Flight over Sydney's Northern Beaches, Australia
Flying over Sydney’s Northern Beaches, where I grew up.

If, on the other hand, you have reached a point in your life where you refuse to suffer the indignity of economy class, then I can understand that, but unless you’re a frequent flyer you’re going to pay big bucks for it. A tip in case you feel so inclined: consider paying instead for Premium Economy, which might only be double the price of the cheapest economy ticket. Or fly on a newer A380, where Premium Economy is like Business and a regular economy seat is like Premium Economy.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that those people in Biz have “made it” and you haven’t. In this age of economic disparity, anyone who’s ever stepped on board an aeroplane has “made it”. Congratulations! Besides, most of them didn’t pay for their ticket themselves. Either their work paid for it, or they use their frequent flyer status to score the seat.

The Truth about Frequent Flyer Programs

Frequent flyer programs are extremely effective marketing programs for airlines, not to mention hotel chains, rental car companies, supermarkets and credit card companies. The cold hard truth about frequent flyer programs is that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You’re damned if you participate, because frequent flyer miles are hard to accrue, and even harder to redeem (if you’ve ever booked an award flight you’ll know what I mean).

Landing at Galeão Airport, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Landing at Galeão Airport, Rio de Janeiro – one of the most spectacular descents.

But if you fly semi-regularly or all the time, or even if you do the occasional trip to the other side of the world, it makes little sense to not have a frequent flyer account. And you can also get all sorts of points for doing all sorts of mundane daily tasks like doing the grocery shopping. You just have to make a decision about what programs you can be bothered with.

For example, I use a frequent flyer credit card program which is quite a good deal. Most of these accounts will come with one or two cards. Generally, the American Express card gets you more points than a Mastercard or Visa. In my program, I get 1.5 Qantas points for every $1 I spend with the Amex, and 0.5 points for every $1 I spend with the Visa. So the Amex card gets me three times as many points as using the Visa card, but it still doesn’t sound like very much, right? Well, whenever I spend money, I put everything through my credit card. Especially if I have big purchases. Some of the biggest purchases? Trips! Pay for a flight using one of these credit cards, and you get points for the purchase and points for flying! Double score! If your work allows it, why not purchase all of your work trips with the card and then get reimbursed.

Over the atolls of the Maldives
Over the atolls of the Maldives

But I don’t pay any interest, because I have a 45 day interest-free program, and I pay off the balance each month. I might sound like a disciplined so-and-so, but I’m really not- I just set up my internet banking to automatically pay this balance every month.

After a year, I have accrued enough points just with the credit card for a return flight from Sydney to Dubai or Sydney to LA. That’s not including the points I earned from actually flying. That’s better than a poke to the eye. It’s possible to do better of course, with more energy applied to the quest for points, and if you live in America, it’s even easier than elsewhere due to intense competition in the plethora of credit cards/banks/hotel chains/supermarkets available. Typical cool deals involve getting a bunch of points just for signing up to a product or service. Although not as common outside the States, you might be surprised what you can find- for example I found this example of a 30,000 point sign up bonus for an Aussie credit card whilst fact-checking on the Qantas website. A deal such as this might get you a couple of domestic flights within your own country or a short international flight, for example from Sydney to a South Pacific Island or from the US to the Carribean.

On the other hand, I can’t really be bothered with hotel chain programs or rental car programs. Most of the big rental car companies that have such programs suck anyway. And with hotels, I’m flying to too many varied destinations to really be bothered with loyalty to any one brand. Some might say I’m being naiive, and maybe I could be maximising the points I earn in other ways too, but personally I just prefer to occupy my mind with more worthwhile things.

Flying over Vitória, Brazil
Flying over Vitória, Brazil

In any event, you should know that it’s not really your points balance that matters, it’s your status credits. Status credits, unlike frequent flyer points, can only be earned by taking flights. And it’s status credits that determine how simple and comfortable your flying experience is. If you have status, you’ll find yourself getting better seats, more legroom, more baggage allowance, and maybe even a quicker path through check-in/boarding. If you have Gold or Platinum status, you’ll also have lounge access.

So how can you increase your status? The truth about status credits is you get more of them by taking shorter flights and more of them. For example, if I take a 500 mile Qantas flight, which would be a very short domestic flight, I get 20 status credits. Flying from Sydney to Hawaii is about 5000 miles, which is ten times as far, but only gets 70 status credits, only 3.5 times as many as the shorter trip! What this means is that you should rely on many short hops to get your status up and longer flights to get your points balance up. There are some ways you can bump up your status, for example by flying LA to Chicago to New York instead of LA to New York direct. Again, you need to question whether it’s all worth it to you.

One more hot tip- look at the partnerships airlines have with other airlines. This can work for you in two ways. The first is that flights you take on one carrier give you status credits with the frequenty flyer programs of their partners. You should therefore check to see which of the partners has the easiest path to elite status. Once you’ve attained elite status, the second way these partnerships work for you is that having elite status on one partner will be honoured with all the other partner airlines.

One of my favourite examples of this is the Star Alliance network. Sign up for a frequent flyer program with Aegean Air, a member of this network. Don’t worry if you don’t live in Greece. Status credits you accrue with Singapore Air, or any of the other partners in Star Alliance, will count towards elite status on Aegean Air. Aegean has a really nice chilled out pathway to Gold Status, the highest status within Star Alliance. Once you get there, you can get Gold benefits with every other Star Alliance partner! How good is that?

The Truth about Getting Upgraded

Handstand pilot and plane
It’s important for a pilot to have correct orientation with respect to the ground

The only problem is, getting seat upgrades is not easy, even if you have elite status. Most of the time, even elite status flyers don’t get free upgrades, they pay for it with points. However, free upgrades, though uncommon, are possible.

As previously mentioned, I’ve flown Business and First and never once paid for it. In fact, my work has never paid for it either. The truth is that probably 95% of the time I’ve flown, it’s been in Economy with the plebs. But I’ve scored free upgrades and I’ve used my points for upgrades.

But here’s the thing. If you’re looking for an upgrade, either free or with points, the number one thing that will help you is your frequent flier status. If you have Gold status, you’re more likely to get an upgrade than someone who has Bronze status. That’s the way it works.

Landing in a stormy Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Landing in a stormy Rio de Janeiro

There are other things that can help you. The first is choosing a flight that has fewer people booked on it in Business class. Occasionally I’ve been lucky in that Economy was overbooked and someone’s been cool enough to move my seat into Business. Secondly, you can be really polite and cool to the person checking you in. These people deal with stressed out weirdos all day long, so you might just be the breath of fresh air they are looking for.

Lastly, you can dress the part. Though much maligned, if you had to choose between two people to upgrade and one was in a collared shirt and nice shoes while another looked like he/she just got out of bed, who would you choose? Would you piss off the other poor paying sods in Business by sitting a bum next to them? Of course not.

In general, if you’re flying you should dress for the magic of the occasion. You wouldn’t walk around the street or a cruise ship in your pyjamas, so why is that acceptable on a plane? Packed cabins are not nice, but if everyone makes the best of the situation the discomfort is minimised and morale goes up. There’s only one acceptable place for you to wear your tracksuit pants, and that’s in your loungeroom at home.

Upgrade or Fly for Free?

This is an interesting question. Given a stash of frequent flyer points, should you redeem them for a free flight or buy the flight and use the points for an upgrade?

Flying over Africa
Flying over Africa

Returning to Qantas for illustration, a “Classic Award” Economy flight from Sydney to LA is 48,000 points. Meanwhile if you buy a regular Economy fare on the same flight, you can apply to upgrade to Business for 45,000 points. In other words, the upgrade itself is generally about the same amount of points as getting the whole flight. This might sound like a rip-off, but if you remember that a Business class flight usually costs about 5-7 times as much in dollars as the equivalent Economy one, you can see that the points upgrade offers good value.

Whether or not you should actually upgrade or get a free flight depends on your flying habits. If all of your travel revolves around work, and they will pay for an Economy class seat, then it makes good sense to use your points to upgrade. Likewise, if you fly very often, the cost of Economy seating is not really a problem for you but you baulk at paying for Business, but you’d like to increase your general comfort and health on long trips, then using your points to upgrade also makes good sense.

On the other hand, if a vacation is something of a special treat for you, and you fly only once or twice a year or less, and you’d like to offset the cost of travelling, you’d do well to accumulate points through disciplined credit card use and use them to get a free flight. Alternatively, save up and buy the flight, sign up for a frequent flyer program, and then use the points to take another smaller trip next year.

Take your place up the back, ignore the smug looks from the business class as you pass by, watch the sun set over the clouds, block out the roar of the engines and the screaming babies with a good set of noise-cancelling headphones, and try to enjoy the magic of flight. When you arrive at your destination you’ll have a nice big soft bed waiting for you and a new city to explore.

The Future of Flight

Flying home... the sweetest destination of all, sunrise
Flying home… the sweetest destination of all

Before I go, one last tip. Go by train wherever possible. It might be tempting to avoid that 6-hour train trip, and scour the budget air-carrier sites for details, but by the time you’ve made it to the airport, arrived 2 hours in advance of your flight, spent an hour or two in the air, waited to pick up your bag, got out of the airport, and then travelled another hour into the city, that 6-hour train trip suddenly seems like the better deal.

Even that most structured of train trips, London to Paris under the English Channel, is infinitely more relaxing than flying. You have to check in and pass security, but you don’t need to check in until 30 minutes before departure, the security check is another 10 metres, and then there’s a comfortable waiting room another 10 metres beyond that. When your train is ready to board, a conveyer takes the passengers up to the platform.

It is also undeniable that a train journey makes you feel more connected to wherever it is you are going, allows you to see more and will almost always be more comfortable. Want a break from your seat? Hey, let’s go and sit in the restaurant car!

Airlines are also on a polluting path to nowhere. If the availability of crude oil and its ever increasing price does not do them in, green sentiment among the flying public will. The airlines know this and the better ones are researching the use of new biofuels and such things. In my opinion, the future belongs to high-speed rail, or at least I hope it does.

While I enjoy the miracle of flight and the physics behind it, I look forward to the day when the airspace is reserved for joyrides and space exploration.

Happy travels!

What do you reckon? Had any horrible or wonderful experiences flying? Click “like” and then let me know below!

Sunset above the clouds
Sunset above the clouds



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Matt Edwards

Australian solar power scientist travels the world for 15 years, takes photos, writes stuff, has toothpaste confiscated. I like adventures that involve art, history, science, music, technology and partying. Sometimes all at once...


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