2019 was a blockbuster year for me in terms of travel, and the first time I ever flew over 100,000 miles in a single year. I started the year off strong with a 15-hour, 7,400-mile flight from Shanghai (PVG) to New York (JFK) on January 4th and never let off the gas. Over the course of the year I crossed the Pacific Ocean eight times and took a total of 13 flights over 10 hours long. That’s nothing compared to some of the true road warriors out there, but for me it was an entirely new experience.
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Thanks to a large stash of points and miles I was able to do nearly all of that travel in first or business class, meaning I had good food, a lie-flat bed, and more often than not, a closing-door suite as well. Still, flying that far and that frequently takes a toll on your body no matter how you do it. As I start to nail down plans for an equally jam-packed 2020, here are a few ways I’ve noticed my travel preferences start to change.
Individual air vents make all the difference
I chalk this up not just to the amount I’ve traveled, but to the destinations as well. Asian airlines are notorious for keeping their cabins nice and toasty during flight, and in 2019 I had the pleasure of reviewing long-haul flights on Korean Air, Asiana, China Eastern, EVA Air, Air China, and more. I can’t even tell you the number of times I’ve woken up midflight drenched in sweat under a heavy blanket and pajamas, with my sleep ruined for the night and my trip off to a groggy, jet-lagged start. Not only do warm cabins make it harder to sleep, but they dehydrate you faster and exacerbate any jetlag you might feel.
After my most recent trip to the US, I flew back to Shanghai in Delta One Suites on the carrier’s flagship A350. I found the seat itself to be fairly comfortable, the but the individual air nozzle at each seat allowed me to get truly cozy and sleep about six hours, more sleep than I’ve gotten on a plane in quite a long time. All else being equal, I’m going to start making more of an effort to book flights that feature individual air nozzles at every seat so I can actually get some sleep on the plane.
Book nonstop routings whenever possible
Unless your home airport is JFK or Newark, there aren’t a whole lot of nonstop flights available between Asia and the east coast of the US. I grew up in D.C., and there are currently no nonstop flights available between Shanghai, where I live, and Washington. There are plenty of one-stop routings, but in my quest to take the most luxurious flights possible or to take advantage of award-chart sweet spots, I often find myself with a two-stop routing like the following:
The real prize here was a JAL first class flight between Tokyo Haneda (HND) and New York, but the only way to make that work was to tack on a flight from Shanghai to Tokyo and then a connection from New York to D.C. Not only do these extra legs tire you out even more (especially when you go from five-star first-class bliss to the last row on an Embraer regional jet), but every additional flight segment increases the chances that you encounter weather or mechanical delays, your bags get lost, or something else goes wrong. It also leads to a lot of poorly-timed layovers or forced overnights, when all I want to do is get home and see my family.
This year, I’m trying as hard as possible to stick to one-stop routings, which will mean more direct flights out of Shanghai on U.S. carriers (when I can find saver-level award space) or even Air Canada, with a quick connection to get home.
Business class gets the job done
We’re seeing an undeniable trend in the commercial aviation industry, as many airlines are phasing out first class entirely and opting instead to invest heavily in an upgraded business class experience. If you’ve ever flown Qatar’s Qsuite or ANA’s brand-new The Room you’ll know what I mean when I say that some business-class products are becoming so good that they make first class seem obsolete. We’re seeing more and more fully enclosed suites in business class, including the aforementioned Delta One Suites and British Airways’ new A350 club world suite. Virgin Atlantic’s new A350 Upper Class suite isn’t quite fully enclosed, but it’s not far off. Add in other proprietary products like United Polaris, and you get a business-class experience on many airlines that would have been unrecognizable a decade ago.
Now this is not a knock on flying first class, which is still an absolute treat. The feeling of sipping a $300 champagne and delicately enjoying a tin of caviar in a $16,000 seat that you paid nothing for will never get old, and it’s something I strongly recommend every award traveler try at least once.
Maybe I’m saying this because I’ve already gotten to fly most of the truly aspirational first-class products on my bucket list, but at this point business class more than gets the job done. I won’t turn down the opportunity to fly first class, but I won’t go that far out of my way for it either. In the past I had no problem tacking on a transcontinental flight in the US or even a ~4.5 hour hop from Chicago to Los Angeles to seek out better airlines and better aircraft, but at this point I’m only willing to do that for a truly out-of-this-world product. To put it another way, I’d be just as happy flying Cathay Pacific business class on the carrier’s A350 nonstop from Hong Kong to D.C. instead of routing through Chicago or New York to fly first class.
Next-generation aircraft are worth seeking out
My first-ever flight in long-haul business class also happened to be my first flight on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. I’d heard rave reviews about how the combination of mood lighting and higher cabin pressurization helped fight jet lag and leave passengers feeling more rested on arrival, but I’ll admit I was skeptical.
It took exactly one flight (and one perfect seven-hour sleep) to convince me that there was something to it. Now I go out of my way to book flights on 787s and Airbus A350s whenever possible. I even have a slight preference for the A350, as most airlines choose not to install overhead bins in the center section of the business-class cabin. This makes the cabin feel more open and spacious, making the flight even more comfortable.
Departure/arrival times can make or break travel
On some trips your flight options are limited and you simply have to take what’s available. Unfortunately, I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible for me to sleep on daytime departures no matter what combination of exercise, melatonin and champagne I try. While Korean Air’s 747-8 first class was one of the best flights I’ve ever taken in my life, not sleeping a wink on that 15-hour journey didn’t leave me feeling fresh as a daisy when I got off the plane.
United Airlines operates two daily nonstop flights between Shanghai and San Francisco. Ignoring the fact that one of them is operated by the 787-10 which features the real Polaris seats in business class (as opposed to the older 2-2-2 layout on the 787-9), which flight is better?
I would pay a lot more money or miles to get myself on the 11:35 p.m. departure. This way I know I’ll be able to get a good sleep on the flight, and the arrival time in San Francisco is much better for fighting jetlag as well.
While some people are gifted sleepers and would have no problem dozing off on a 1:30 p.m. departure, I know that I can personally expect two to three hours of sleep on that flight if I’m lucky. When you add in the early morning arrival in San Francisco, I’d be setting myself up for failure before I even left.
Staying healthy on the road is a must
One of the fun things about working for TPG is that it blurs the line between work travel and leisure travel. The downside is that if I take too many “vacations,” it’s easy to overeat, overdrink or fall out of shape pretty quickly. As I work harder to minimize the physical effect of all my travel, I’m making a concerted effort to stay healthier on the road, whether I’m on vacation or traveling for work.
This means limiting my alcohol consumption on planes (one of the simplest things you can do to sleep better and fight jetlag), waking up early to take advantage of hotel gyms, and not having dessert with every meal (unless I’m writing a review and need to take pictures in the name of science).
Related: The best hotel gyms on earth
Travel can be invigorating if you listen to your body and give it what it needs, but there’s nothing worse than feeling run down while you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself on vacation.
My flying in 2019 nearly doubled from the year before, and I have no plans of slowing down anytime soon. I’m thankful to be able to travel primarily in first or business class, and that certainly helps, but there’s definitely more that I can do to reduce the physical toll that traveling takes on the body. A lot of this boils down to selecting my planes and routes a bit more carefully, but I also plan to eat healthier and make more time for the gym when I’m traveling so that I’ll have enough energy to do everything I want to.
Featured image by Ethan Steinberg / The Points Guy