The last time I visited Luton airport I regretted saving a few quid by flying with a low-cost airline. If you want to be treated this badly, commit a crime and get arrested, rather than pay for the privilege.
It’s not surprising it’s been voted the UK’s worst airport by Which? for three years running. “London” Luton’s solution to the hordes is its Aspire Lounge, which allows passengers to “ travel like a VIP”. Clearly designed by people who have never been VIPs, or learnt design, at about £25 for three hours access it’s not a good deal. It’s a horror.
You would need to drink quite a lot of the “complimentary” lager to get value for money. It is proof, if it were needed, that local councils should never be put in charge of running a leisure centre, let alone an airport. And, more importantly, that cost isn’t the only factor when deciding your travel arrangements.
Last-minute getaways, “team bonding sessions”, stag weekends or a fourth ski trip of the year — because the snow is that good — have convinced me to look again at the ultimate dilemma: how best to travel when going abroad. Is it worth the money to turn left on long haul or upgrade to business on short haul? Are top hotels worth the cash? Wealthy people may tell you that they fly on low-cost airlines, but they only do so when in larger or visible groups. Slumming it in a chain hotel is rarely acceptable.
Recently, I was staying at the bank account-emptying Hotel Cipriani in Venice. It’s an exclusive destination. Belmond, the group that owned it and 40 other hotels, as well as train services such as the Orient Express, has just been snapped up for a cool $3.2bn by LVMH. Even the cheapest room will cost you more than €1,000 a night.
Conversation at lunch with friends turned to travel arrangements. I explained that I’d booked easyJet and saved a few pennies to get over the shock of the hotel bill. They replied that they were also flying home on a jet — their private jet. “Rich” is a relative term.
The feudal system is alive and well on commercial airlines. Those on private jets tend to own hedge funds, are world famous or founded an internet unicorn. For the rest of us, commercial airlines control our lives and plans. Courtiers and landowners generally use first or business class, as do minor royalty, business executives or those simply born stack-loaded — that is, for whom someone else is paying the bill.
Choose economy and you are truly a vassal or a serf. You will be herded on to planes like cattle, fed indefinable gruel and, worse still, on a short flight they will try to charge you for your rations. Meanwhile, your baggage is chucked around as if it’s a sport. There must be a better way.
Airport lounges aren’t exactly a novelty. However, for the international traveller they have become a necessity. With airports looking increasingly like refugee relocation centres and not-so-cheap retail emporia, you’ll need somewhere to escape to.
This is why my Amex Centurion Card comes into play for the times I haven’t forked out for a business class ticket. My card gives access to lounges across the world where the food and Wi-Fi are free, there are stacks of magazines for you to steal and you can often get a haircut or massage.
Airlines have wised up to people clearing the supplies as if they’re being handed food parcels after an earthquake. Cans are opened for you; nuts and crisps are already in bowls and chocolates and biscuits unwrapped. Very few things are in packets. This is a shame, because there’s nothing better than a free snack or eight to shove in your minibar fridge when they are charging you a tenner for a Mars bar at the hotel.
To travel in a civilised manner, collect airline points. When you are travelling for business the general rule seems to be that you’ll fly business class during the day on long haul and first class overnight, if you are due into work the next day. So what do many executives do? Arrange their travel so they can fly first class as often as possible. If you pay for this on a personal credit card (or one where you get the points), ker-ching. Then you get the airline points for travelling as well. Ker-ker-ching! All points are tax free. Ker-ker-ker-ching!
Savvy travelling allows you to play the system. Many friends of mine extol the virtues of British Airways. I am not so sure. I gather their points for European flights. Recently, I managed a business class upgrade with points on a return flight to Geneva that cost me £80 plus tax. Longer haul, you’re better off selecting another carrier. Personally, I have always found Virgin Atlantic the easiest airline with which to spend points. Flying to the US or Caribbean? Buy a premium economy return ticket and do a cheeky upgrade to upper class with your points. Winner.
But it doesn’t stop there. Always examine your company’s travel policies and find out whether there are hotel discounts. Work for an international corporation and there will almost always be a “corporate” hotel rate. It makes staying at the Four Seasons in New York so much more palatable, knowing that your rate was half what most other people are paying.
If I travel to a place regularly, I always ask for a special rate. I usually get one. At one stage I was doing a lot of business on the US west coast. If you are staying in LA, I am rather keen on Shutters. It’s so much nicer than the overpriced Hollywood veneer. Chain hotels, no matter how expensive or “exclusive”, don’t really do it for me. Often their “green” credentials have ensured that every lightbulb is LED and every pillow isn’t Hungarian goose down.
If you manage your business travel effectively, you’ll find the airline status cards, credit card points and hotel preference points all add up. And then, when travelling for holiday, you really can turn left, drink cooled champagne all the way to paradise. And back. Your travel will have been part of the experience rather than penance for daring to take a few weeks off.