My sister and I impulsively decided to upgrade to first class on a recent trip to Chicago, when we logged on to print out our boarding passes and learned it would cost just $75 extra. "Let's go for it!" she said. It was a splurge for a two-hour flight, but in 50 years of flying, I'd never flown first class, and I'd always been curious. How different could it be?
It's certainly different when you board. No standing around, clutching your carry-on and jockeying for position with your fellow passengers, waiting for your zone to be called. Instead, the moment boarding begins, you and a small group of other privileged passengers stroll onto the plane and settle into large comfy seats with ample leg room. There's a pillow and a neatly folded, plastic-wrapped blanket on every seat. Not to mention scads of space in the overhead bin. There's even a special place to hang your coat.
"Here we are, as usual, in first class, " I remarked loudly as we settled in.
"You'll be surrounded by celebrities," one friend had predicted. "Bruce Springsteen and Adele can afford private jets, of course. But you'll probably be flying with Snooki, a couple of Desperate Housewives, a local newscaster and a Phillie or two, at the very least."
Alas, there were no celebrities. Or else they were such minor celebrities that we failed to recognize them. The 10 other first class seats were occupied by ordinary-looking, middle-aged dudes in suits, communing with their iPads and smartphones.
Once seated, we watched less-fortunate flyers slowly file by on their way to the back of the plane. Many glanced at us enviously. (They were probably wondering if we were minor celebrities.) As they shuffled by, Javiar, our very own first class flight attendant, welcomed us aboard. "Can I serve you a drink?" he asked.
"We're impeding traffic," my sister soon observed as we watched Javiar bringing first class passengers their drinks. Every time he took an order or served a drink, everyone trying to board had to stop to let him use the aisle. "Getting us served quickly," my sister concluded, "is apparently more important than getting them seated quickly."
You usually have to wait an hour into a flight for coffee. In first class, I was barely in my seat before Javiar was handing me a cup of fresh hot java.
"This alone is worth that extra $75," I told my sister. "Especially on an early morning flight."
In first class, your coffee is refilled instantly, without your having to ask. I have always believed that The Right To More Coffee is so important it ought to be enshrined in the Constitution. First class is clearly where I belong.
I looked out the window at the tarmac as I sipped my coffee and joked, "This first class view is SO much better."
Next, Javiar brought us a basket packed with snacks and urged us to take as many as we wanted. My sister selected the fruit and nut mix. I went for the biscotti. Over the next two hours, he brought that basket back many times. You can get the same snacks in coach, but you have to pay for them. We consulted the price list in the In Flight Magazine and calculated that we'd have to eat every snack in the basket just to break even.
We decided against this.
When the plane took off, I'm sure everyone on it experienced a certain amount of anxiety, if not downright, stomach-churning fear. That part of flying isn't any easier in first class.
But once airborne, we were in our own little world. The rows and rows of coach seats didn't exist for us. Occasionally the sound of a wailing baby or the snap of an overhead bin wafted forward, but the first class cabin was pleasant and relaxed. There weren't too many of us, everyone was quiet and well-behaved, and we had all the room (and all of the drinks and snacks) we needed.
Flying coach means your seat is too small and you're sharing a limited amount of space with far too many people. When the person in front of you reclines, his head ends up in your lap. When you recline, the person behind you starts swearing and punching your seat. The man next to you is too obese to lower the armrests and the woman across the aisle won't stop talking about everything she's doing to prepare her children to get fabulous SAT scores. You're packed in with a bunch of smelly strangers who eat foul-smelling food and spill diet soda on your laptop whenever there's turbulence.
You probably think that I'm exaggerating for comic effect. But I'm just describing our return flight, when we didn't get a first class upgrade.
Even without the coffee and the snacks and a dedicated flight attendant, just feeling that you have enough space is relaxing. In first class, you can actually enjoy the experience of flying rather than enduring it.
I know you're wondering -- was the first class bathroom extra special? Diamond-encrusted sinks? Gold-plated toilets? Alas, no. It was an ordinary airplane bathroom. But with only 10 other flyers to share it with, there was never a line. (Which was a very good thing, considering how much coffee I was drinking.)
The flight was over in no time. When the doors opened in Chicago, we first class folks were out the door and on our way before anyone else.
Was it worth that extra $75? Perhaps not. But at 59, I'm old enough to have learned that when life offers you a new and pleasant (and relatively affordable) experience, you go for it. I'm too frugal to ever pay full price to fly first class. But would I pay a little extra for an upgrade like this again?
Just ask me.
(This essay first appeared on Womens Voices for Change.)