I remember something my mother used to say about travelling: “If you leave home, it has to be better.” I never really took much notice, but over time those words have become ingrained in me. I am no backpacker, I do not travel light and I have never stayed in a hostel. I would love to say that I travel First class every time I fly, but of course I don’t. I’m not too proud to travel Economy on short haul flights (still, I’m no easyJetsetter), but I try my best to avoid it when I fly long haul. Whether I am clever with my frequent flyer miles, pay for Premium Economy and then upgrade to Club, or just fork out the whole fare, I do it. I always try to be as smart as possible – I am the queen of points.
On a recent trip to Miami, I was due to fly Club World with British Airways both ways. Being a Gold Executive Club member, I get to check in at the First Suite (which I love and value) and even though I was very happy with my first row, aisle seat on the upper deck (so no-one would have to climb over me during my sleep), I of course asked the check-in agent, “Is the plane full?” He smiled: “Sadly Club isn’t, nor First.” Naturally, I asked if there was any chance of an upgrade. His screen flashed with a message: £425. Would I be interested? Flying for 11 hours, it worked out at less than £40 per hour. I hadn’t flown longhaul for a few months, I was on my own and I thought… why not? So, yes, I would be interested. 1A was all mine.
British Airways First
After fast-tracking through security at Heathrow’s T5 (nothing different there), the First Class experience begins. You make a sharp right, which takes you straight into the Concorde Room. This, by the way, connects to the First and Club Lounges and Elemis Spa, all located to the south of the terminal A, but saves you travelling down the escalators, through duty free and back up the escalators again.
In Club the Champagne is Taittinger NV, but in First it’s Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, with a Puligny-Montrachet for a white and a Château Smith Haut Lafitte for red. Impressive stuff.
The Concorde Room is, without a doubt, more luxurious than the First or Club lounges. I think that BA’s lounges at T5 are as good as it gets – I know many will say something about a lounge in Singapore or somewhere more exotic, but I think BA really gets the lounge concept right, in both upper classes. In the Concorde Room, there’s genuinely fine dining, Champagne on tap and silver service, although the magazine selection isn’t anything to write home about (on this occasion it was full of magazines that aren’t on sale anywhere I’ve been and quite frankly, I’m not sure who would buy them if they were). I asked one of the attendants for something a little more girlie and she found me copies of Vanity Fair and Hello. When asked, BA lounge staff can always produce the magazine I’m looking for, as if they may be hiding them.
One particularly cool aspect of flying First is the temporary two-week membership to Quintessentially’s concierge service, which you can use at home and in the destination you’re heading to. I asked for help with a reservation at José Andres’ latest restaurant, The Bazaar at the SLS, and advice on bars to check out (in Miami, what’s hot can change dramatically from one evening to the other). I received all the information by the time I landed, and the team were available for me throughout my stay.
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After a glass of Champagne in the lounge, I headed to the Elemis Spa – had I been flying First from the beginning (rather than receiving an upgrade at the airport), I could have pre-booked my treatment, but since I wasn’t (and this applies to all Club passengers and/or Gold Executive Club cardholders), I had to be content with a chair massage. There seemed to be a lot more rooms than therapists available, something I’ve also noticed on previous visits.
At the gate, there is a fast-track lane, which allows you to avoid the queues and provides you with a personal greeting from a smiling face (a rarity, I find, on most flights, and always a nice touch). I love a “Welcome back, Mrs. O’Reilly.” I was escorted to the front cabin by the purser, who then introduced me to the Cabin Director. I was taken to my seat, offered a glass of Champagne and then turned my attention to the pretty Anya Hindmarch washbag filled with REN goodies, slippers and a blanket (with an “in-flight use only” label, which I found curious – do people really steal them?). I was also offered some pyjamas, which I accepted. Sadly there were only men’s sizes. It was quite funny to wear a men’s size “M” when I am only 5’2” – for me and for anyone who happened to see me.
After I put everything away – you have a personal wardrobe with a hanger, but interestingly no drawer, which I often find useful for magazines and personal items – I sat down. The “new” First – introduced in 2010 – looks sleek. This is a very nice seat indeed. I hated the previous gold and brown design, which I found pretentious. BA’s navy works very well with silver, and the cabin absolutely looks the part. Shades on the windows make for a nice interior touch and are quite useful as you can open two at a time.
One has, of course, more space than in Club – the seat is wider and longer and the footrest can be used as a second seat in case you fancy a chat with a fellow passenger. The TV screen is large and, as far as I could tell, the headphones are also slightly better than those in Club. The menus were great and so was the drinks selection – it was good to have Tanqueray Ten rather than Gordon’s, which still remains a staple in other cabins.
Lunch was lovely – I had a fillet of beef, followed by tarte tatin. In Club the Champagne is Taittinger NV, but in First it’s Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, with a Puligny-Montrachet for a white and a Château Smith Haut Lafitte for red. Impressive stuff.
I slept like never before on a flight and woke up a couple of hours before landing, just as afternoon tea was being served. Sadly, no amount of luxury can prevent the US immigration queues – I only had to wait an hour, which I suppose was lucky, compared to some other wait times I’ve had to endure.
British Airways Club World
A few days later, looking healthier but slightly depressed (I hate leaving Miami, knowing I am going back to rain and colder temperatures), I headed back to the airport. Check-in Stateside is always a chore – I only had one couple before me and it took them at least 15 minutes to go through the process which is, as we all know, is quite straightforward.
I hate US airports, and Miami is one of the worst. There are no shops, duty free is very limited (we are so spoilt at Heathrow) and then there’s… the lounge. BA passengers used to be able to use the American Airlines Admiral Club (I love the name – so utterly pretentious and misleading for such a bad product), but we now use the Premier Lounge, which is for the exclusive use of BA, AA and Iberia passengers. When I hear the words “premier”, I think of nice things – and this lounge wasn’t one of them. It’s as huge as it is soulless. The food included plastic American cheese, tortilla soup, cold meats and stale pretzels. I made do with a used copy of the Daily Mail and some crisps. I didn’t wait for the boarding call, preferring to walk around the terminal and then heading to the gate early.
I boarded quickly and went straight upstairs. When flying Club World, I prefer the upper deck if it’s available – it accommodates far fewer passengers than downstairs, with its longer loo queues. I was offered a glass of bubbly and an Elemis wash bag. I stored all of my stuff, including the duvet and pillow (no pyjamas or getting the bed ready for me this time) in my personal drawer, something which I missed in the First cabin: no one needs to see what I want to keep close to me during the flight. Funnily enough, the First wash bags don’t fit in these drawers and are really difficult to close, making them tricky to reuse. To this day, I still use the older model (a proper large wash bag with a now fading-from-wear picture of Tower Bridge) for travelling as it’s large enough to hold all that I need, including makeup.
When I hear the words “premier”, I think of nice things – and this lounge wasn’t one of them. It’s as huge as it is soulless. The food included plastic American cheese, tortilla soup, cold meats and stale pretzels. I made do with a used copy of the Daily Mail and some crisps.
The meal options were great – I had steak (again), cheese and port. Nothing was too much trouble: when I mentioned I didn’t like the oatmeal biscuits served with the cheese, the cabin crew gladly fetched me some crackers from First. The service was at least as attentive as in First. I slept and totally missed breakfast. When I woke up, the cabin crew insisted I have something to eat, even though we were landing in 30 minutes, so I opted for some fruit.
The price difference – if you aren’t upgrading at the last minute – between Club and First is, at least, two-fold. If we are talking £2,500 vs £6,000, do you really get what you pay for? I honestly think you don’t. Why? BA’s Club World is a really good product with excellent service. The only real differences are in the detail.
I’ve become used to flying Club World and it matters to me. It makes no sense to me to go to a five star hotel but spend 10 or 12 hours crammed in Economy to get there. My holiday experience starts when I arrive at the airport, and I value and appreciate every minute of it. I really do. But First has to be seen as a treat – and a very expensive one at that. One of the key reasons to spend on the product is that it gives you a lot more of privacy (the seats face the wall, rather than the front of the plane). I’m not a celebrity but I can totally understand the need.
So would I do it again? For 12,500 Air Miles or £425 of course I would. But I suspect it will become an annual experience, something to look forward to on special occasions (most possibly using my annual AMEX companion ticket, which is a nice perk). The rest of the time, I’ll be in seat 60K on the upper deck.