(james benedict brown) on the road

Sorry to leave so soon

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 14 December, 2007

How does a sixth year student of architecture manage so many foreign jaunts? I’ve been asked the same questions quite a few times, most recently after I returned to Sheffield following my mid-term jaunt to Canada. The simple answer is that I don’t quite know… perhaps I just spend less on other things?

But this winter trip was made possible with a stack of ‘miles’ – points earned over several years with the bmi Diamond Club. bmi is a British airline (note the small letters – bmi has a distinctive ‘brand’, don’t you know). Although bmi don’t fly to Edmonton, they’re part of the Star Alliance of airlines, as is Air Canada. And earlier this year, Edmonton International Airport joined the league of big cities in Canada with a direct flight to London every night. The best part of a day can be saved without the need to travel to Toronto and connect. Earning air miles with bmi (through credit card purchases and by travelling with Star Alliance airlines), I was finally at a point where I had enough ‘miles’ in the bank for a substantial trip.

Although it varies from airline to airline, frequent flyer miles are often most useful for short notice trips. The cash price for a flight will generally start off low and get more expensive the nearer one gets to departure. But the price in air miles is always the same. If there is a spare seat available to a mileage spender, then you will pay the set price for it. And if you want to travel in business class, you pay one and a half times the number of miles of an economy seat. Notice that if you every buy a business class seat with cash, you can end up paying ten or twenty times the price of an economy class seat.

If that isn’t tempting enough, bmi also allow you to use a mixture of cash and miles to make redemption bookings. So if you don’t have quite enough air miles, you can pay half the amount of miles and a fixed amount of cash (the table of prices is online here). Air miles are simply better value when booked at relatively short notice, using a mixture of cash and miles, and preferably in business class. So this is how I managed to fly back from Edmonton to London in the expansive comfort of an Air Canada ‘Executive First’ class seat. I don’t enjoy flying west to east across the Atlantic, since the night time flights are simultaneously too long and too short. Too long to enjoy being on a plane and too short to get the necessary sleep to adjust to the time difference. Having now had a trans-Atlantic flight enhanced by first class, I can appreciate why some may choose to pay ten times the cost of an economy ticket for a bit more comfort. There are no queues at the airport security check; there’s a very well stocked complimentary bar in the cosy lounge at the airport; and the seats on the plane are big enough and have enough room for someone who is tall and lanky like me to sleep comfortably in. Air Canada’s first class food is not that impressive, but the amenities on board and the big seats make sleeping through an overnight flight a doddle. For the first time in my life, I managed five hours of solid sleep during a flight. If I hadn’t had to rush to a connecting flight at Heathrow, I would also have savoured the very agreeable ‘arrivals’ lounge, where first class passengers can eat a leisurely breakfast, have a shower and change clothes for the start of the day. Suddenly, long hall flying seems more agreeable.

There is one catch. If you do choose to spend the four figure sum on an ‘Executive First’ suite on board Air Canada, you may find yourself sitting next to someone like me. The rule of thumb on a budget airline is that the guy sitting next you paid half what you did. On Air Canada it may be that he paid one tenth what you did (in my case, £170).

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