A Budget Traveler Bites Back

On my first 14-hour flight to Bangkok from Los Angeles I became aware that I’m not at the top of the food chain. This is a place reserved exclusively for first class passengers. In another era, all were probably Sun Kings. Today, they’re movie stars, business tycoons and mules for the Colombian drug cartel.

More than anything, I yearn to join them.

First, there’s the noise. In first class, there isn’t any (or so I fantasize). Peace reigns. The only sound you hear is the p-u-r-r-i-n-g of the privileged as they uncork the lavish life.

In economy, it’s never quiet. Once the doors slam shut, infants squall, couples squabble, and teenagers who’ve spent years perfecting their silent, sullen routine suddenly start yapping.

Another difference. The cabins for the elite are awash in every state of the art amenity and all the bells, whistles and bling known to humanity. I wipe tears from my envious eyes whenever I picture them blissfully snoozing in their lie-flat seats. Some—I’m told—are even wide enough for some discreet canoodling.

In coach, we make do with bare-bones service and second-rate perks. Sure, we’re shown movies, and there’s nothing I enjoy more than watching fuzzy images flickering on a teeny tiny screen. But it’s true that on tedious flights a blurry, two-inch tall James Bond is better than no James Bond at all.

Most of the time, the blankets we’re given aren’t even large enough to cover our genitals, nor does a blend of polyester, shredded newspapers and lint really warm our cold bones.

And there’s this. When the captain speaks to the lower orders in economy it’s always about altitude, weather, and flight times. Fascinating. When he communicates with first class it’s usually something like this: This is your captain speaking. The co-pilot and I are throwing a party in the cockpit. We’ve got cold champagne, warm canapés, and the hot tub is cranked up to 110 degrees. Please join us.

Oh, dear, I need to pause for a minute. I’m sobbing uncontrollably. This never fails to happen whenever I think about the vast discrepancy in meal service between the sections. Have you ever dined en route on foi-gras-stuffed chicken breast, wasabi pea crusted fresh catch, and molten chocolate cake? I thought not. Neither have I. Enough said.  

The biggest discrepancy—the one that I grumble about most—is the difference in comfort. I’ve no legroom, no elbowroom, and an armrest only as wide as a Sharpie pen. And I don’t even own it. Every 15 minutes or so I must engage in a fierce combat—The Battle of the Elbows—with my seatmate to regain possession of this slim piece of real estate. Excuse my bragging, but often I emerge victorious. I’ve a lot of dominatrix in my DNA.

This serious lack of space is the main reason I begin all my flights, especially the long ones, with this prayer.  Please, please, please don’t let me be seated next to a big, beefy guy nicknamed The Refrigerator.

Sitting upright in such a small space isn’t easy, but trying to catch 40 winks is a nightmare. Still my fellow travelers often do sleep—and soundly, too—despite the cramped conditions. Of course, in order to do so, they must contort their bodies into extraordinary positions. On each trip I sashay up and down the aisles just to check out the amazing variations.

Last time, I observed that oldsters favor the fetal, pretzel, and curl. Understandably, the younger set incline to the corkscrew, triple twist, and an awesome cobra/corkscrew combo. To my surprise, most are able to return their bodies to upright positions by arrival time.  

I’m grateful we do have some distractions. Right from take-off, I seek them out because anything is better than my own mind-numbing thoughts especially when traveling. Did I pack my toenail clippers? Should I go to the restroom now or after lunch? Will I be able to buy flavored floss in Florence? Tweezers in Timbuktu?

I used to break the boredom by reading in-flight magazines, but I don’t any more because they only seem to feature articles that cater to the affluent. Some recent examples while on a flight to Asia: “Tokyo on One Billion Dollars a Day,” “Roughing it at the Ritz,” and “Best Botox Destinations: A Millionaire’s Guide.”

Occasionally, editors do include some aimed at the less affluent, but the last one I read really hurt my feelings.   It was titled “Hawaii is for the Thin, the Gorgeous, the Rich: Why Are You Going There?”

Regrettably, once aloft, I’m suffused with envy: I want to be a first class passenger, damn it! I deserve to be pampered and promptly, too!

One way I make myself feel better is by demanding a lot of attention from the flight attendants/slaves. I’ve yet to run out of questions. How do you adjust the air? Where is the light switch? When will we be eating lunch? Dinner? Breakfast? Snacks?

Recently, a close relative suggested it’s because I pack my brains into my stowed luggage (reminder to self: rewrite will). So, in answer to your question, is that obnoxious, whiney  b_ _ _ _   (rhymes with rich) who’s constantly buzzing the flight attendant, me? Probably.

Just for fun, I also demand—in my loudest voice—a copy of The Wall Street Journal. I know they won’t have it especially if I am flying on Hooters Air, but I ask anyway. This is my subtle way of making certain that my seatmates know that I’ve a first class mind even though I can’t afford a first class ticket. Of course, this has a downside. For the sake of my image, during the flight I must eschew my favorites: Us and People. Frankly, it’s not too much of a hardship. Most reading material in coach is dog-eared and out of date. Is Priscilla really going to have Elvis’s baby?

Alas, even when I debark, I can’t shake my envy of the elite. Take the first time I arrived in Bangkok after a torturous 14-hour flight in coach class. I knew they were being whisked away from the airport cocooned in air-cooled limousines, taxicabs, and private cars. Me? Like all budget travelers before me, I had to make my grand entrance into this exotic city in a van once used to haul pigs.

Life’s not fair. Life enroute is even less so. 


When Dolores Banerd is at her home in Los Angeles she lives a blameless existence. She adamantly refuses to disclose any details about her behavior when she’s on the road in Asia and Indonesia.

Categories: Airplanes, Airlines

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