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A Comfortable International Flight No Matter Where You Sit

Upgrading your overseas flight can be worth it, but if you aren't ready to pony up the money here's how to make your flight time more productive and comfortable.
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I won't fly coach for overseas business travel anymore. Not even when it's packaged as "world vagabond," "intrepid class" or some other name created by crafty marketers to conjure up the image of a cost-conscious sophisticate on the move. My time is just too valuable to hit the ground staggering.

I made that pact with myself more than a decade ago and haven't broken it over a span of nearly 50 intercontinental trips, even when I'm paying the tab. Life's just too short. And a bus-seat trip to Europe, let alone Asia or Africa, is just too, too long.

You can call me elitist, but I prefer to think of it as a preventative measure: The last time I flew long-haul in the rear of the plane, I ended up at a doctor's office with a back that wouldn't straighten. My body no longer bends into the oblique configurations necessary to sleep in a confined space. What's more, it needs several days to adapt to a new time zone. Those 36-hour, three-layover itineraries that used to get me to Europe for a song were cost-effective in their day, but for me, that day has passed.

During a recent three-month period, I flew to Europe three times on different carriers. In some ways, transoceanic business class is better than ever, though it isn't nearly as good as it could be. My Chicago-London trip on American Airlines had the best food: chicken with purple potatoes from a recipe by Richard Sandoval, the highly regarded chef-owner of a multinational restaurant empire. Otherwise the flight wasn't much different than domestic business or first class, which is to say that the sleeper seat wasn't flat, and the stranger beside me was so close I could smell his breath.

Denver to London on British Airways was better, though that airline refuses to let even premium passengers choose seats in advance without a severe upcharge. It shouldn't matter, except that the business-class configuration was 2-4-2, meaning fully a quarter of the passengers are stuck with a middle seat. But BA does have privacy pods with true sleeper seats. I landed in Heathrow and felt fully functional for my 10 a.m. meeting in Marylebone.

There's a lot to like about SAS, which I flew from San Francisco to Copenhagen the week it launched its nonstop service in April. The Danish and Swedish flight attendants were solicitous. In accordance with the Scandinavian aesthetic, the interior of the plane looked as inviting and uncluttered as a Finn Juhl chair.

But unfortunately, it was a case of form without function. There's no storage space in business class, so even shoes and handbags must be overhead for takeoff and landing. And the seats had the seesaw tilt of the first attempts at nearly flat recliners, circa the late 1990s.

Despite the flaws, on each of these trips all I needed was a nose-to-tail wander to remind me that even the worst premium service is far better than the bargain alternative. I had recollections of peeling a scalding aluminum lid off an inedible dinner, spending hours shifting my body weight from one position to another in a vain attempt to rest, then staggering off the plane with red-rimmed eyes.

And I'm not going back.


Flight Plan
Not ready to pony up the money or miles for business class? Here's how to make international travel more comfortable and productive--no matter which cabin you're in.

Use the premium lounges, especially in a hub. If you're flying coach, splurge on a one-day pass. SAS's Copenhagen lounge looks like the lobby of a modern upscale hotel. I panicked when my iPhone's European roaming function didn't work upon arrival in London, but the Wi-Fi at the British Airways lounge saved the day.

Fly European carriers and save time at U.S. customs. On my SAS return flight, only about 10 percent of the passengers were American citizens. My wait at passport control was less than 10 seconds. "If you're flying United in from overseas," the customs official told me, "you're waiting for a long time."

Get a window seat, especially flying east. The only thing worse than climbing over a sleeping stranger on your way to the bathroom is the half-awake sensation that a stranger is climbing over you. I'm an aisle man on most short flights, but I always choose the window overnight.

Don't eat breakfast. Even in business class and especially in coach, airlines put a lot more effort--and money--into the dinner service on long-haul flights than in the flattened croissant they serve an hour before arrival. You can do far better in the arrival hall of any international airport--and your breakfast there will have the added dimension of being your first meal at your destination.