For all our previous trips we’ve gotten ourselves into business class by one of two ways: (1) booking an economy ticket and using AA’s systemwide upgrades or (2) using miles to book a business class award ticket. Our hope is that at some point in our lives we can outright book business class tickets using cash, but we’re not there yet! The average business class ticket to Europe from SFO runs anywhere from $5k to upwards of $8k, which is close to our airline budget for an entire year. When British Airways (BA) had a $1100-$2000 business class airfare sale in October last year, it was clear we needed to drop everything and start booking. Quite literally we did drop everything, because the number one mistake people can make booking flights is to not book soon enough. Fares can change drastically on a per-hour or even per-minute basis. So the next time you find a great airfare don’t wait to go home that evening and discuss with your friend or significant other – most airlines will give you the option to put a fare briefly on “hold” for a small fee and, of course, federal law requires that all US airlines provide a refund on any flight within 24 hours.
To that point, by the time we reacted (slight disadvantage being on the west coast) many of the fares were not actually ticketing, despite showing up on Google Flights. At that point we started frantically putting multiple flights on hold, grabbing whatever fares we could get our hands on at a reasonable price. Originally we found President’s Day flights to Barcelona and Edinburgh for $1470 and $1648, respectively. However, since the sale spanned so many different cities and also included the summer months we decided to be a bit pickier and passed on those flights (Barcelona we wanted to do a longer trip and Edinburgh…well, our hearts weren’t exactly racing to go there).
Eventually we settled on on a quick Memorial Day trip to Milan via a London layover along with a week in Greece over the 4th of July (the latter we’ll cover in our next post). Our London-Milan itinerary departed SFO Friday at 7pm to arrive in LHR the following day at 1pm. That Saturday was technically a layover before departing LHR at 7:30am Sunday morning to arrive in Milan (MXP) at 10:30am. We’d then have exactly 24 hours in Milan as our departure flight was at 10:30am on Monday, putting us back in SFO around 8pm Monday evening. The entire flight (minus the quick hop from LHR-MXP) was fully lie flat so we’d be refreshed to head back to work that Tuesday. The SFO-LHR-MXP outbound was operated by BA while the return MXP-JFK-SFO was operated by AA The round trip per-person fare was $1442, an incredible deal since economy fares to Europe routinely exceed this. To break down the metrics of this flight:
- Total Cost = $1,442
- Base Miles = 12,532 (e.g. “butt in seat” miles)
- EQMs = 22,089 (the return AA portion of the flight earned double EQMs since it was a paid business class ticket)
- Redeemable Miles (David) = 29,843
- Redeemable Miles (Sarah) = 61,843 (she somewhat accidentally registered for a business & first promotion on AA.com that turned out to be very lucrative)
- CPM: 11.5 cents per base mile (a “retail” priced flight if you’ll recall), <7 cents per EQM (a great deal given the painlessness of the flight)
Apart from the math, we were excited about this itinerary for several reasons. First, London is always a good idea for the food / bar scene, global culture, and ease of getting around via the Tube. Certainly London deserves a week of sightseeing – time we had dedicated last November – but it’s also a great place even if you only have a few hours. Secondly, neither of us had been to Italy before but from what we’ve heard Italy really has an embarrassment of riches as far as sightseeing goes and on a typical 10-12 day itinerary we might have been able to spend a day or two at most in Milan anyway. As such and given our travel schedule didn’t permit any vacation days at this particular time, this was the perfect opportunity to take advantage of the long weekend without impacting our work schedules.
Part of the fun of flying business or first (or flying economy internationally with high airline status) is to take advantage of airline lounges. Unfortunately, our Friday evening departure from SFO was uneventful. The BA lounge at SFO is quite sad / small and was so full that we struggled to find a seat. Popping over to the Cathay Pacific lounge next door wasn’t any better as they weren’t serving food on that day (typically all CX lounges have a made-to-order noodle bar which is always a nice pre-flight meal).
In the travel blogging community, there is a LOT of complaining about BA. From the service to the seats, it’s hard to find anyone who has a positive thing to say apart from the price. BA has an enormous international business class (or as they call it “Club World”) with anywhere from 56 to a whopping 97 seats. It’s no wonder that they have to heavily discount in order to fill the seats; we were certainly happy to take advantage of the sale and form our own opinions.
The single biggest complaint that people have about BA Club World is that you’re packed in there like sardines and there are few private seats, especially as a solo traveler (often the case for business travelers). As you can see in the picture above, the seats are arranged in a 2-4-2 layout. As a solo traveler your only attractive options are the window seats (in the aisle seats you’re practically sitting IN the aisle and have flight attendants constantly reaching over you and in the middle seats you have almost no privacy with your seatmate). On top of that, because of the alternating back and forth seating, during taxi, takeoff, and landing – when the middle divider must be down – you get to awkwardly stare into the eyes of a complete a stranger. Luckily, as a couple, the middle seats are quite nice once the dividers were down and there was a lot of privacy and made it easy to talk to each other.
Speaking of service, we echo the general sentiment that BA isn’t out to win any awards. Sarah was dismayed to learn that her gin and tonic would not be pre-mixed, something even domestic carriers do.
Separately, a tomato juice was ordered but received an hour later because the flight attendant “completely forgot.” Bottom line: flying BA isn’t an experience like it is on some of the other carriers and, all else being equal, we’d likely choose business class on AA over Club World on BA. BA’s idea of an amenity kit is a cloth bag as opposed to an actual “kit.” However, it gets the job done and once you get to LHR their Terminal 5 is fantastic as are the BA lounges. While security is a real obstacle course at Heathrow, it’s key to note that if you have OneWorld status you can go in fast lanes in many areas.
2 Hours In: 3pm Saturday
We arrived in London’s Soho district after an hour ride on the Tube. We purposely chose to stay on the Piccadilly line so that we had direct access to LHR without having to change trains. Typically we opt to stay in an Airbnb in Europe but for such a short trip it wasn’t worth the hassle. The Nadler Soho did the trick and while we barely had room to lay out suitcases flat on the ground (unfortunately a common occurrence in European hotels) we would only be spending about 7 hours in the room.
4 Hours In: 5pm Saturday
David’s favorite restaurant in London is a Spanish restaurant called Barrafina (HIGHLY recommend). The line builds early and they only have counter seats so we camped out around 4:30 and it was well worth it – if you miss the first seating you have to wait 1.5 hours.
6 Hours In: 7pm Saturday
Perhaps the best part about visiting Europe in the summer is the abundance of daylight. The sun officially sets around 9pm but you still have light until after 10pm. This is in stark contrast to winter; last November it started getting dark around 4pm. Since it was a beautiful evening we strolled around Soho going nowhere in particular. We happened upon Grosvenor Square Garden which, ironically, is a bit of an ode to the US In the garden itself is a statue of FDR and September 11th Memorial Garden; next door is the US Embassy along with a statue of Ronald Reagan. The garden was a great example of a small corner that we would have missed (and in fact did miss) on a longer trip with a packed itinerary of all the major sights.
7 Hours In: 8pm Saturday
It was time for a second dinner as Barrafina proved challenging for Sarah’s dietary restrictions. We decided to repeat Sagar, an all vegetarian South Indian restaurant, that was discovered on our last visit to London. The food was solid and a reminder that Indian food in the US is sadly lacking in comparison to Europe. One of the other things we really like about short trips is that you don’t feel as bad repeating restaurants. Versus a 10 day trip where you want to eat somewhere new every night, if you’re just visiting for a weekend (or a day) you typically just go to your favorite spots.
8 Hours In: 9pm Saturday
We strolled around Soho looking for a place to grab a drink and eventually settled on a French wine bar. Walking around just a few blocks there are so many different types of cuisines and languages being spoken (as well as a few very British pubs). As great as the food scene in SF can be, it doesn’t quite stack up to a truly international city like London.
9 Hours In: 10pm Sunday
With a 7:30am flight and a full day ahead of us in Milan it was time to call it a fairly early night.
15 Hours In: 4am Sunday
Neither the Heathrow Express nor Tube operated early enough on Sunday morning so we took an UberX from our hotel to LHR. London transportation has really been transformed by UberX. As anyone who has been to London knows black cabs cost an arm so, for many tourists, the Tube has been the primary mode of transportation. With UberX (similar to SF), travel by car is now much more affordable.
16 Hours In: 5am Sunday
We arrived at LHR with plenty of time to spare which gave us time to check out the BA lounges in LHR Terminal 5. These lounges can get packed but luckily Sunday AM is slow time at LHR. As OneWorld Emeralds we had access to the BA first class lounges which didn’t disappoint. They had an ample breakfast buffet, including eggs benedict made to order. As part of our fact-finding mission, David sampled some of everything and Sarah appreciated that certain items were labeled “suitable for vegans”.
18 Hours In: 7am Sunday
Full but tired, we were looking forward to passing out on the short LHR-MXP flight. Not having done research on this, we assumed that “Club Europe” (i.e. intra-Europe business class) would be similar to US domestic first class – two seater vs. three seater and more legroom than economy. It turns out that Club Europe seats are the exact same as economy but with the middle seat blocked off for the entire cabin. Objectively speaking, these may be the worst business class seats we’ve ever seen (Main Cabin Extra seats on AA are better in our opinion).
MILAN (the clock resets)
1 Hour In: 11am Sunday
Upon arrival we hopped on a direct train to our hotel, which was directly adjacent to the main train station in Milan. For short trips such as this it’s key to minimize transit time as much as possible. We stayed at the Excelsior Hotel Gallia, which is part of SPG’s Luxury Collection. Booking via AMEX Fine Hotels and Resorts gave us an early check-in when available, upgrade when available, and 4pm late check-out. Unfortunately neither the early-check in nor upgrade were available and we wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the late checkout as we had a 10am flight to JFK. We did however have an 85 EUR food and beverage credit (in addition to free breakfast) which we planned to take advantage of.
2 Hours In: 12pm Sunday
While we originally planned to do some light sightseeing but Milan was pouring rain the entire day. We walked passed the Duomo but an extremely long wait coupled with crowds visiting for UEFA final made us head for the adjacent shopping center. Shopping was in fact our top priority for Milan as we try to purchase any and all of our luxury items in Europe. Not only is the Euro (and now Pound also) super weak currently versus the dollar, but you also get 10-12% back in VAT refunds, which effectively means everything in Europe is on sale. Milan has a beautiful covered shopping center so we spent a couple of hours there, taking advantage of the prices for Italian designers like Tod’s and Armani.
6 Hours In: 4pm Sunday
At this point we had already been up for 12+ hours and were tired, hungry, and wet so we took the train back to our hotel to have a nice dinner that evening. We called the hotel concierge and asked them to make a dinner reservation for us around 5pm. We were politely informed that the restaurant didn’t open until 7:30pm – silly us, of course only Americans (sans New Yorkers) eat that early! Since we did have an American sized hotel room, we took a couple hours to rest and freshen up.
10 Hours In: 8pm Sunday
We arrived at the hotel restaurant to find it completely empty as we clearly were the first seating. We had an excellent waiter who provided us with free wine and dessert. The chef made an off the menu simple pasta dish for Sarah, as the standard menu was full of dairy and egg. Our entire dinner was nearly three hours; we kept waiting for the bill to arrive and finally had to ask our waiter to bring it over. (Again, impatient Americans who always rush through meals!)
13 Hours In: 11pm Sunday
After an excellent dinner it was another early-ish night as we were tired and there wasn’t any nightlife in our immediate area (we are old souls).
20 Hours In: 6am Sunday
We caught the train early to allow plenty of time at the airport as we had to visit the tax refund center. Our gate didn’t open until three hours prior to departure and we had to spend roughly an hour of that time waiting for our tax refund. Cash in hand we headed to another uneventful non-airline affiliated business class lounge.
24 Hours In: 10am Sunday
After our BA experience, this MXP-JFK flight felt more like Cathay Pacific than AA! We got an actual amenity kit, as opposed to a cloth bag, as part of AA’s new partnership with Cole Haan. Additionally, we realized that AA has an entirely different magazine for their international premium cabins – Celebrated Living versus the standard American Way. The former is catered to individuals paying full price for business/first class so the magazine featured things like $10k-per-night water bungalows and generally other destinations/experiences that were just a tad out of our price range.
The flight landed in JFK right in the middle of Memorial Day so immigration, customs, and security were a mess. Fortunately for us, we have Global Entry/PreCheck and were in and out in just a few minutes and off to the Admirals Club (if anyone reading this does not have Global Entry/PreCheck stop reading and go apply right now). We had a three hour layover in JFK and then boarded our final leg to SFO, which is always a comfortable flight in business class.
This was our second international three-day weekend (first was President’s Day in Tokyo) and based on these two trips, we expect to do many more to come. As long as you find a way to fly in a premium cabin, it’s really not very tiring and in many cases the flight itself is part of the trip. We’re currently in the planning stage for President’s Day 2017 so be on the lookout for details in a future post!