There and Back Again

I almost titled this “To and Fro” and had a whole rant about how stupid that was before I changed my mind at the very last minute, but I like this title much better (probably because a much better writer came up with it). Anyway, this is my first real post about our trip to London and Paris and while the things we saw and did there were amazing, I also took notes about the go-between to share for anyone who might be researching for a similar trip. As I mentioned a few months ago when we visited San Jose, Kalen and I both enjoy flying and the various logistical aspects of travel almost as much as we enjoy exploring destinations once we arrive, and we did some serious research into making the transportation part of this trip as comfortable as we could, and it only seems fair to share our findings so you don’t have to also make a color-coded spreadsheet to pick the best flight (unless that’s just your jam; then you do you).

When I was a young thing of only twenty years old, I set off to London for my semester abroad, bright-eyed and full of hope. I planned to sleep on the eight-hour overnight flight from Charlotte to London Gatwick and wake to the sunrise over a new land. Well, it was a very old land, and long since explored and settled and reconquered and on and on, but new to me. It would be poetically beautiful and full of weighty symbolism. I was thrilled to find the other two seats in my portion of the row were empty, which meant I could put the arm rests up and spread out over three economy seats. It really wasn’t too uncomfortable, especially for a spry youth, but my biggest trouble was that, even though the cabin lights were dimmed shortly after takeoff, the person in the row behind me kept their reading light on for the entire flight, and I had yet to discover the miracle of the eyemask. (I suspect my eyelids are a little on the thin side, and even if they aren’t, they don’t close all the way when I sleep, so if it’s not dark, I still get flashes of what’s around me and it makes it hard to sleep. Kalen says seeing it makes it hard for him to sleep too.) I got about an hour of heavily interrupted sleep and arrived in London a delirious zombie. Had I not had two classmates on the same flight (who apparently were better rested or more used to sleep deprivation), I’m not sure I would have made it from the airport to the school. I remember very little of the journey (holding my giant suitcase on a crowded train full of people going to work, not knowing if the commuters were unhappy about my suitcase or if I smelled bad or if they just hated their jobs, and standing at a taxi rank in the rain outside Victoria station), but I remembered that it wasn’t ideal.

Ever since Kalen began traveling for work, we’ve been building and saving points for this trip. When we originally booked it in 2020, we had enough points to fly to London and back in Business Class (which, with American Airlines, on transatlantic flights, is like flying first class, because they don’t offer first class, and when you try to get a straight answer on it, it gets very convoluted, but the point is, we flew fancy). After the pandemic, though, flight prices have increased and even though we had even more points from our credit card, this time we only had enough to fly Business Class out and instead flew Premium Economy on the way back.

I’ve shared before that I’ve technically but not really flown First Class before on small planes where an upgrade to First Class means a minutely wider seat, a little more leg room (which doesn’t matter when you have short little hobbit legs like I do), and complementary booze served to you in a real glass with a selection of fancier snacks. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice, but it’s not so much nicer that I would specifically pay for it or insist on it.

Remembering my sleep deprived state from 2009, though, and upon the glowing recommendation from Kalen’s aunt and uncle, we decided that for this eight-hour flight, we would cash in our points to try and have the most restful journey and hopefully minimize the time it took to shake our jet lag. We fly with American Airlines because that’s who flew out of our little regional airport when Kalen started traveling for work, so we just concentrate our rewards there. I don’t know that they’re any better or worse than any of the other major airlines, but that’s what we’re working with. As I mentioned, for flights from the US to UK (and I think most of Europe in general, maybe a few other places as well), the highest class offered is Business Class (which traditionally is a step below First Class). Some of the information referred to it in this situation as “Flagship Business Class” but not always, so if you really want to get nit-picky, go ask the airline. I looked and read and I’m still not totally sure, but here’s what flying Business Class got us: the priority check in and security lines, entrance to the Flagship Lounge at the airport during our layover, priority boarding, big fancy seats that reclined all the way flat, a fancy meal on real dishes with real silverware, a goodie bag on the plane with items to make the flight more comfortable, and access to the arrivals lounge when we landed in Heathrow. I’m sure there were a few other perks in there, but these are the ones that stood out the most.

We began our journey at the Columbia Regional Airport in Columbia, Missouri, so we didn’t get the fancy check-in. I mean, we got to go right to the front of the line, but that’s because there was nobody else there yet. It’s a brand new terminal building and pretty nice, a vast improvement over the old building, but it’s still a pretty small regional airport, so there isn’t much going on and arriving with plenty of time means you’ll be waiting for airline staff to show up for their shift. It was a nice laid-back way to start our trip. Likewise, we didn’t do priority security because there were only like three TSA agents anyway, so rather than skipping the line, we sat in the comfy lobby chairs with my mom for a few extra minutes while the other seven people went through security first.

Once past security, there still isn’t a restaurant or anything yet, but there are a couple of vending machines, nice big bathrooms, and they had free rice cake snacks, which was cool. They also had a station that, in the mornings, had complementary coffee, but we flew later in the day.

Our connection was at Chicago O’Hare, and while our arrival gate changed between take-off and landing, it didn’t change as many times as it had done when we flew through Dallas-Fort Worth last time, and it wasn’t so bad. We had about an hour and a half before boarding our big flight, so we went to see the lounge. I’ve written before about the benefits we’ve enjoyed with a membership to the Admirals Club lounges, but we were especially intrigued by the more exclusive Flagship Lounge, which we were allowed to access with our Business Class tickets. Videos we had seen online showed vloggers getting fancy black envelopes and passes at check-in to get into such lounges, but Columbia didn’t have anything like that. Instead, we proceeded to the general check-in desk for the Admiral’s Club where they scanned our boarding passes and handed us each a laminated card for entry. The Flagship Lounge was a floor above the main lounge, accessed by the same elevator, and we gave the passes to an attendant when we exited the elevator.

The lounges must be a significant part of the price of such tickets because they feature complementary food and drink, including alcohol, starting with an offer for champagne when you first walk through the door. The lounge also has showers, but we didn’t use these because we weren’t stinky yet. I was pleased to find that the toilets, though, didn’t creak threateningly when I sat on them, as the ones in DFW had done, and after taking care of those needs, we accepted an offer of champagne and found a place to sit for a bit. We had eaten lunch before our first flight and were going to have dinner on our upcoming flight, but we couldn’t resist checking out the food on offer. We found some very tasty options, all kept at the appropriate (hot or cold) temperature and neatly labeled. We tried and enjoyed samplings of Moroccan couscous, Za’atar vegetables, orzo shrimp salad with feta, fennel-artichoke salad, and Louisiana crab remoulade. We also had some petit fours for dessert, which were a little dry. The real food was all delightful though and there were far more options that, had there not been a multi-course meal awaiting me over the Atlantic, I’d have loved to try. There was also a full service bar and a self-service bar which had whole bottles of wine and champagne on ice, in case the glass at the front door wasn’t enough. The relatively short layover helped us maintain our self-control, though, and we soon made our way to the gate for boarding.

I hadn’t been across the border since my half-marathon in 2017 when we ran across the border from Detroit, Michigan, into Windsor, Ontario, and back, but the border control for that was all done by race officials behind the scenes. We also drove across the border the day before that to explore, but aside from those relatively low-key checks, I hadn’t been outside the country in 14 years. I don’t remember how it worked back then, but we were told to have our passports ready with our boarding passes for this flight. Maybe it was because we were in Business Class or maybe we had entered our information in advance, but we didn’t have to show our passports. We did walk through a turnstile that scanned our faces before letting us on, though. It worked very smoothly for both of us, thankfully, and we soon found ourselves in the most spacious airplane cabin I’ve ever experienced.

The way the cabin is arranged, having a window seat meant that Kalen and I couldn’t sit next to each other. The seats in the middle of the cabin had a partition so you could chat with your seatmate, but since we hoped to be sleeping for most of the flight anyway, we opted for window seats, one behind the other. We each actually got two windows which had digital shades, providing the perfect opportunity to show what a rube I am, playing with and marveling at the feature. The seats also had lots of storage (and because there were so few people in the section, the overhead storage was more than enough as well). The goodie bag had an eye mask, chapstick, lotion, shoe shine, toothbrush and toothpaste and a pair of socks, and we were also supplied with a pillow, blanket, and noise-cancelling headphones which they collected at the end of the flight. I thought mine were broken at first, because I couldn’t hear the movie I was watching, but they were just turned way down, and once I figured that out, they worked great. The seat controls were digital, and because the in-flight entertainment screen was so far away, there was a wired controller to drive that (or serve as a game controller) as well.

The flight attendant came around and introduced herself to each of us individually and asked if we wanted to be woken for breakfast if we happened to be sleeping when the time came, and we were offered more champagne. They must really count on you to have self control because you could be pretty sloshed by this point if you were letting loose. Before I knew it, we were in the air, and they began bringing us so much food.

It started with warmed nuts, which took every ounce of maturity not to giggle about. I also thought, “Why do they need to be warmed? Mixed nuts are good at room temperature.” But it turns out they’re extra nice warmed. Who knew? I wasn’t starving, but I was anxious for the meal service to begin so that I could try to get to sleep sooner rather than later, and the meals did come around before much longer. We had chosen our meals ahead of time online, and apparently we both chose meals that were new and special even for Business Class. Kalen had some kind of chicken, and mine was a “greens and grains” option. I tried to go back and find more specific information but it eludes me. I was a little surprised that my meal was all cold, like a salad, since a lot of the vegetables were cooked, but it was still very good and when I was almost finished, the flight attendant came by and apologized profusely because my meal was supposed to come with a hot filet of salmon, and a green salad. The meal was a new one and no one on the crew was familiar with it and so they didn’t realize which pieces all went together. I told her it was no problem and I had the salmon, which was tasty and would have been extra delightful with the rest of the meal. I didn’t have room for another salad (and my meal was basically a salad anyway?), but then after a little while they came by asking about dessert, which was an ice cream sundae, which I managed to eat about half of because so much food. And you know it must be a lot because I’m very good at eating, but I just couldn’t do it. I mean, I had also had an extra meal/snack in the lounge, but still. Wow.

Eventually I reclined my seat and did my best to get some sleep, though not as much as I would have liked. While it was nice that the seat reclined fully, it wasn’t especially comfortable, especially for a side sleeper (me). The pillow and blanket helped, but I did get a little too warm, and a couple years ago I saw a standup comedy bit (the internet tells me it was Nicole Byer) where the comic talks about how she unfolded her blanket on a Delta flight to find poop on it. We weren’t flying Delta, but it’s the kind of thing that sticks in an anxious mind and didn’t encourage easy sleep. My blanket and pillow seemed perfectly clean, I’m just neurotic, and a light sleeper even in the best situations.

But I got to watch the sun rise over the clouds, the best part of any flight that happens during the early morning. I knew we weren’t quite to England yet, though, because I had a cup of tea that was… not great. But it was the only food and beverage of the flight that I wasn’t impressed with, and I took comfort in the fact that I was only an hour and a half away from good tea.

Customs arriving at Heathrow was disconcertingly simple. As US citizens, we don’t even need stamps or anything in our passports to visit the UK and didn’t talk to any border control agents, unless you count the ones politely directing us to the various computerized stalls. The stalls had a surface where you scanned your passport and then, once the computer was happy with the scan, you were asked to step forward, stand on the mark, and remove any mask, hat, or glasses you might be wearing. A second screen scrolled up and down a stand while a camera found the correct angle to scan your face. It was a lot like when you try to get a picture of a pet or baby and you hold a squeaky toy or a slice of salami above the camera (babies love salami), but instead of getting a snack for looking at the camera, you get to go through border control without being shouted at and accused of smuggling.

Before catching our train from the airport into central London, we sought out the American Airlines Arrivals Lounge. Typically, we wouldn’t mess with a lounge once we had arrived at our final destination, but we hadn’t showered since yesterday and had spent about 10 hours on airplanes. It was also about 8 a.m. and our hotel check-in time wasn’t until 2:00, and even if I looked okay (I didn’t), I didn’t think I could stand the airplane smell on my clothes and in my hair for that long. The promise of a hot shower and free breakfast meant that we needed to find the Arrivals Lounge. Because this was American Airlines and we were now no longer in America, the lounge had much less importance within the airport in general. It was, in fact, much smaller than most of the other lounges we had seen and honestly felt a little forgotten and tucked away. In spite of the teetering-toward-rundown feeling, the staff were very friendly and helpful, and we were appreciative. We were shown to individual shower suites which felt very much like just the bathroom portion of a hotel room with a toilet, shower, sink and mirror, and with provided towels and toiletries. We had a little difficulty coordinating our luggage so that we each had complete clean outfits to change into and weren’t really keen on the idea of just plopping down in the hallway to dig through our suitcases, but we managed it. The lounge also offers a service where they’ll iron your clothes for you while you shower, but they weren’t doing it at the time that we were there. It wasn’t something we needed, but if you were traveling for business and needed your suit refreshed, it could be very helpful. The door to the suite had a pass-through cabinet built into it, like the little door at the doctor’s office where you put a urine sample, so you can pretend you have some anonymity even though the nurse knows it’s you because you’re the only one in there and the cup has your name on it, except this had a towel rod and a coat hanger in it instead of a cup of pee. The shower was appreciated, even if the showerhead looked like maybe it was on the struggle bus. It was enough to remove the airplane smell, and then we had some breakfast.

The breakfast didn’t look like much, but it was very tasty, and hit the spot. The English are very fond of including mushrooms at breakfast (and often beans as well, though I seem not to have documented any at this point), and I honestly wish that both of those would make their way across the pond because I love both beans and mushrooms and if you think, “Yeah, me too, but at breakfast?” you really should just try it. I don’t know why it works but it does. There was also some very good orange juice with a healthy amount of pulp, which I like, except that they don’t call it “pulp,” they call it “juicy bits,” which I like even more.

Showered and breakfasted, we made our way out of the lounge to the Heathrow Express which would take us from the airport to Paddington Station. We booked our tickets ahead of time which made the process much smoother (and cheaper), and we just had to scan the passes that were on our phones. There were options for fancier class of tickets, but we didn’t mess with that, and the best part was that we didn’t have to pick a specific time. The train runs “four times an hour” (which is basically every fifteen minutes, though maybe not on the quarter hour every time), and gets you into central London with just a 15 minute journey. Not having to pick a specific time meant that even if our flight was delayed or we had taken more or less time at the lounge or customs or gathering our luggage, we didn’t have to worry about missing a train. The Gatwick Express, which I took in my school days, was a bit longer of a ride and I’m pretty sure it stopped at other stations along the way (from what I recall through the mental haze). I don’t remember whether it had a specific time, but I don’t think it did.

We easily found seats on the train, stashed our luggage, and listened to a mother and young boy play “guess what animal I’m thinking of” as we sped into London, tired but refreshed, and excited about the adventure we had just begun.

That seems like a good stopping point, doesn’t it? And if I was going strictly in chronological order, it would have been, but for the sake of any other travelers reading this, I’m going to skip to the very end and compare the flight there with the flight back again.

We took the Heathrow Express back to the airport, from Paddington Station, which was very easy, although the signage within Paddington directing us to the platform could have been a little bolder as I almost walked right past the platform and the two purple trains waiting there. There were fewer people on the train to the airport, so that was even easier, and I think the service, being at least partially connected to the new Elizabeth line on the Underground, is either itself new or recently renovated, because it was a very smooth journey in both directions and the trains showed no signs of wear.

Getting through security into Heathrow was… less fun. Because it’s the second busiest airport in the world, we were not at all surprised that there were a lot of people in the security line. We were a little surprised though, after both hearing about and experiencing the British mastery of queuing, that the line had arbitrary splits and junctures that made it impossible to tell if you were picking the most efficient line.

I got excited about not having to take off my shoes because we weren’t in the US, and the guard overseeing the conveyor belt where we put our carryon items was friendly. He saw the picture of Pippin on my phone’s lock screen and asked me about him, but everything was so chaotic and noisy that I couldn’t really say much, and in his interest over Pippin, he didn’t see my watch (and I didn’t think about it, because TSA never cares, and that’s kind of the international joke: that the US is so much more stringent about flight security), but then I went through the metal detector and the woman overseeing that acted like I was a fully armed battle droid, and began shouting, “Apple watch! No watch! Take off your watch! Take off your shoes! What’s in your pocket?!” I pulled off my watch and shoes as quickly as I could and explained that the square in my pocket was my passport, which felt more prudent to keep on my person than send away through the conveyor belt. She continued shouting and pointed behind me about where to put my shoes and watch, but I misunderstood and she shouted again, “IN A BIN!” and had I not been so tired and overwhelmed I would have sassed back, “I’m sorry I didn’t just reach over the barrier to drop my things in a passing bin; that seemed like it absolutely would have gotten me tackled and handcuffed.” She then yelled at me for not getting my feet perfectly alined on the yellow footprints in the full body scanner, shouting, “On the yellow! On the yellow! The yellow!” I think the Trunchbull has thrown kids in the chokey with more kindness and patience.

After a few more minutes I was deemed safe and we plodded on through the airport to find the Admirals Club lounge, which was a nice quiet comfort after the battlefield that had been security. We settled into a corner and took a deep breath, especially grateful that we had spent those points for the membership. In addition to the dressing down I had gotten, I was also feeling a little puny from the tail end of a cold I had picked up a few days prior. I had taken a test to confirm it wasn’t covid and I was already past the worst of it, but when Kalen asked what I needed, I couldn’t make any decisions and just said, “Tea, or coffee, or juice, or some water, whatever. And then we’ll get some breakfast.”

That was a mistake because they were all options and Kalen, also suffering from decision fatigue, brought me a coffee, and then when I expected him to come back with a plate of breakfast, returned with some juice, and then returned a third time with two glasses and a carafe of water. So there are plenty of drink options in the lounge, but if your traveling partner isn’t as accommodating as Kalen is, I can’t help you there. We did finally get some food as well, and the roasted tomatoes (another traditionally English breakfast item) helped make amends for the warden security agent.

A little later we made our way to our gate, keeping an eye out for a vending machine or shop to buy some of my favorite British candy that I had neglected to buy over the course of our trip. We were unsuccessful on the candy front, no Double Decker bars anywhere, and the one machine with a Crunchie bar resolutely told me I could choose any item but that one.

The gate was in its own little room, unlike the long open hallways I am used to in American airports. We were greeted by an American Airlines representative, who asked to see our boarding passes and passports right off the bat (it wasn’t time to board yet, we were just going to sit at the gate, but I guess if we were in the wrong place she’d have redirected us), and then asked us to see her “colleagues at the desk.” We headed in the direction she asked, toward the only two desks we could see, which were both behind passport scanner turnstiles. The attendants at the one desk looked at our questioning faces and said, “No. We’re not boarding yet.” And then realized that we didn’t know what we were doing either, and directed us to go through the one turnstile that was open but had a big red “x” on it to approach the second desk. At that desk, another attendant informed us that he needed to inspect our carryon items and we had to open all the zippers on our bags, because apparently airport security wasn’t enough, and I might have acquired something dangerous in the last hour and a half that I’d been sitting in the lounge. I didn’t protest because I’d already been shouted at for *gasp* leaving on my clearly visible watch and putting my passport in my pocket, but I never figured out why they had to look through our bags again. I didn’t see them do this for the rest of the people who boarded the plane, but maybe I was too distracted getting reprimanded yet again when our boarding group was called and failing to predict which direction the previously nonexistent line was going to go. If you’re on the left side of a large crowd of people, and two dozen people, including yourself, are summoned, but 20 of them happen to have been in the middle of the crowd, when you emerge on the left side it doesn’t mean you were trying to cut, it means that was just where you came out of the crowd. That was probably a convoluted explanation, but, friends, I’m not a troublemaker. I’m a terribly bland follow-the-rules gal, and have been since I was a tiny child, so I was exhausted from being treated like criminal when I was trying to get the fuck home.

Against the apparent wishes of the whole of Heathrow airport, we finally boarded the plane and took our seats. We had booked Premium Economy this time, not Business Class, which was the level directly below Business Class. We weren’t in individual pods this time, but we got to sit next to each other in comfortably roomy seats, and the seats in front of us had little foot rests underneath. We also had plenty of space in the overhead compartment, which was reserved for only our class, and we chose the seats at the back of section so that there was a wall behind our seats, which meant we could comfortably recline without infringing on anyone else’s personal space.

Almost immediately we were supplied with chilled bottles of water and the meal selections we had reserved previously were confirmed. It wasn’t as luxurious as business class, but I’m tempted to say that it was, for us, flying together and not typically doing fantastically fancy things, more comfortable. The meal was still great, and came served on real dishes with a real cloth napkin and real silverware. We could have had free booze in our drinks but passed this time. Nearer the end of the flight, instead of the breakfast option we had been offered on our journey to London, we were given a “snack” (it easily could have been a whole meal) that consisted of fresh sliced fruit, some kind of salad that I want to say was at least Thai-inspired, and chocolate mousse. Kalen said there was ice cream mid-flight as well, but I was sound asleep and missed out, which brings me to my final point: that I slept just as well, maybe even better, in these seats compared to the lie-flat seats in Business Class. We were also provided with a pillow and blanket, but recalling how I had been too warm before (and the poop blanket anecdote), I just wrapped my scarf around myself and was perfectly cozy. Also, the bathroom on our side of the plane was the biggest airplane bathroom I’ve ever seen. I think it must have been handicap accessible, but it was a nice surprise feature on this 787-9.

We landed in Chicago and had to go through customs, where more people were shouting, and I really began to wonder why so many people who clearly detest confused and weary travelers should take a job that requires facing so many of them. The customs agent in the booth was very kind, though, once we got to him, and then we had to collect our checked baggage to carry it a hundred yards before giving it back to another American Airlines representative for it to be rechecked. We then had to take the tram to our next terminal and go through TSA security as though we had just arrived at the airport to begin our travels anew. I had to finish the water bottle that I had been given on the previous plane because it was over the 3 ounce size limit, and therefore wasn’t safe to go through security. Also, at this security check, my carryon bag got flagged by the x-ray. The x-ray in London hadn’t cared, nor had the person at our departure gate, but Chicago O’Hare was highly suspicious of the bag of granola I had tucked in my bag. At least this agent didn’t yell at me or interrogate me. She just looked in my bag and found the granola and the look on her face said, “Seriously, is that all?” and let me go on my way. Even so, it made for a long damn day, and I didn’t have the wherewithal to take pictures of the Admiral’s lounge where we passed what remained of our layover.

Our final flight was a little delayed because the frame around one of the windows wasn’t as firmly attached to the wall as one of the passengers was comfortable with, so we had to wait for maintenance to come duct tape it down, and then the man in front of us, who had made a big deal to his seat partner about specifically choosing his seat because it was his “favorite” and he hates the window seat and he takes this flight every week, quickly volunteered to change places with the passenger who had initially complained, and after all that stupid drama we were finally on our way home.

And, ta-da! that was our trip! No, I’m kidding, I’m going to be sharing details about the trip itself and the things we did in both England and in Paris, but I think this is enough for one entry, and hopefully it’s given you some information to consider if you’re booking a similar flight. Kalen and I agreed that, while Business Class was very nice, we would probably just book Premium Economy both ways in the future for considerably less cost whether you’re using points or dollars. And whatever you do, don’t forget to take your Apple Watch off when you go through Heathrow security.

Have you splurged for better class tickets on international flights? Have you incurred the wrath of TSA (or their international counterparts)? How does your experience compare? I love to hear your stories, so leave a comment below and keep an eye out for my next post about some of the things we did with our time in London!

2 thoughts on “There and Back Again

Add yours

  1. I would have sat down and cried like a baby wondering why they just wouldn’t let me go home!!! This, my child, is at the root of your mother’s fear of flying: that somehow I would never be able to get back home. 🙁

    So glad you are stronger than I am! 😘

    1. I knew I’d get home, I knew I hadn’t done anything actually wrong. I just couldn’t tell why THEY didn’t know that 😂

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