Before my first-ever trip to Europe, I thought flying business class was overrated. Lie-flat beds, gourmet meals and fancy amenity kits seemed excessive and not worth the astronomical prices that airlines charge for business class. Economy is just fine for me, thanks. I’ve even developed a tried-and-true system for adjusting my seat to just the right angle for a good snooze.
Even after two years working at TPG, I’m still relatively new to the world of points and miles. Like most travelers, I typically look for the lowest airfare rather than pay top dollar or use points for a premium experience.
I’d much rather use the money I save toward unique experiences in various destinations and stock up on points for stays at nicer hotels than I’d ordinarily be unable to afford.
Booking a business-class flight is easier (and cheaper) than I expected
Back in August, American Express Membership Rewards offered a 30% transfer bonus to British Airways Executive Club. I found a business-class award on British Airways’ partner, Iberia, flying nonstop from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas Airport (MAD) for 34,000 British Airways Avios. Thanks to the transfer bonus, I only needed to convert 27,000 Amex Membership Rewards into British Airways Avios and use those to book my flight. That’s fewer points than most transatlantic economy flights require.
Even more than the value I was getting, I was thrilled at the opportunity to fly a non-U.S. airline for the first time. While I’ve flown to other countries before, including frequent trips to see my family in the Dominican Republic, it has always been with American carriers.
In short, I was eager to try something new, and my Madrid trip would be a journey with many firsts. My first time to Europe, and Spain in particular, my first time on a foreign carrier and my first trip in international business class.
When booking my flight, I picked an off-peak time to go to Madrid. Had I picked a peak period to go to Madrid, I would’ve had to fork over more points since demand would’ve been higher. The flight I booked was Iberia Flight 1652, departing New York at 10 p.m. and arriving in Madrid at 10 a.m. the next day. Needless to say, I had a long night ahead of me.
I went in with an open mind and more than a little excitement, and I’ll be the first to admit that the business-class experience most definitely lived up to the hype.
Here are other things that surprised me on my first non-U.S. business-class flight that became the highlight of my entire trip.
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Early boarding and a predeparture drink
Since joining TPG, I made it a mission to earn airline status at some point during my tenure; I wanted to enjoy perks like priority access at airports and boarding as well as a shot at upgrades.
I didn’t expect to hit lofty levels like Delta Diamond or United Premier 1K, but if I could at least get my hands on Silver status, I’d consider that a win. After having many animated conversations — and witnessing firsthand as some of my colleagues reaped the benefits of airline status — I wanted in on the fun. (Seat-selection bingo? Upgrade roulette? Yes, please.)
While I’m still on my journey to achieve some form of airline status (Delta Silver, I’m coming for you), flying business class gave me a taste of the perks I can look toward achieving. It was fun to experience the life of a frequent airline status-goer without putting in the actual work to achieve said status.
When I checked in for my flight online, received my boarding pass and saw that it was labeled Group 1, it hit me. I was actually going to be one of the first people to board the plane. While that might not be most people’s dream before a long-haul flight, for me it meant more time to enjoy the comforts of business class. It also meant I wouldn’t have to worry about finding a rare but coveted spot in the overhead for my carry-on bag.
My ticket also entitled me two free checked bags of up to 23 kg (50 pounds) each. However, my trip was relatively short, and I’m very much team “stuff-your-carry-on-to-the-brim.” You know those people who sit on their bag to get it to zip? That’s me.
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KEVIN MARTINEZ/THE POINTS GUY
There was barely a line when the gate agents called Group 1, and I practically floated onto the plane, put my bag up top and settled into my seat. It was wonderful not to rush for overhead space; I had a moment to relax and breathe before takeoff — which is why this was the first highlight of the experience.
As soon as I sat down, a friendly flight attendant came by and offered me a selection of orange juice, water or cava. Since I was already fueled with adrenaline and excitement, I figured I’d keep it light with an orange juice. There would be plenty of nights for cava samplings in Madrid, I thought.
The flight attendant returned moments later with orange juice inside an Iberia-branded glass. I don’t condone or promote theft whatsoever, but to tell you the truth, I wanted to take that cup home with me so badly. I had never had a beverage on a plane in a glass, just the plastic ones you get in the back.
Actual cutlery and glassware? Much like the Jeffersons did in the ’70s, I really was moving on up — to the seat up front in the sky. I’ve also been scouring eBay for Iberia glasses so I can have a little memory of my flight anytime I want.
A smooth takeoff
When sitting in the rear of the plane, you can feel, hear and physically see when the plane takes off as you notice the cabin tilt upward. However, sitting toward the front was a whole different story. The engine sounds were much fainter, the angle of lift felt gentler and there were fewer bumps from the wheels along the runway.
The best part about takeoff is, of course, looking out the window. Given Iberia’s seats’ design and its layout in a forward-facing 1-2-1 pattern, I had a solo side seat with two windows all to myself; this was a great alternative to being jammed against the cabin wall by two other passengers, as I would have been in coach. I could take in the views from both portals and not worry about invading anyone else’s personal space.
Dinner and a movie somewhere over the Atlantic
I’m no stranger to airline food and inflight entertainment systems, but the amenities in business class were still surprisingly great.
Although not the largest in the industry, Iberia’s business-class IFE screens are still respectable at 15.4 inches across, diagonally. The airline also offers a wide range of popular Hollywood movies and some classic Spanish films, so I started browsing them, figuring I had a few hours before I would want to sleep.
I put on my pair of provided Iberia-branded noise-canceling headphones (which really did work) and binged away as if I were back in my New York apartment on a casual Thursday night after work.
About 45 minutes after takeoff, the flight attendants came around to take orders for dinner. I’m not the biggest airline food fan, but then again, I hadn’t had international business-class fare. Iberia’s options might have converted me to a plane-food devotee. A bag of stale Sun Chips tossed my way and a can of flat Coca-Cola with a plastic cup of ice this was not.
Instead, I received a paper menu with a selection of options — not just chicken or vegetarian, either.
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KEVIN MARTINEZ/THE POINTS GUY
When I hear the phrase “airline food,” my mind used to jump to a plastic- or aluminum-wrapped meal, nothing fancy whatsoever. However, Iberia showed me dining in the front of the plane is a whole other world.
After having a serious internal debate about whether to get a main course of beef cheeks or gnocchi, I settled on the beef cheeks with polenta and a glass of red wine (Spanish, naturally).
When dinner came around, the flight attendant placed a white tablecloth on the tray table with metal cutlery, actual glassware and the most adorable little salt-and-pepper shakers shaped like Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas. (Yes, I did ask if I could take them home, and the flight attendants gave me a new set as a souvenir.)
I was pleasantly overwhelmed with how many options Iberia offered, from different types of cheese to a separate plate for a bread roll. Not to mention the fact that I was eating off actual plates rather than plastic or aluminum trays like the passengers in economy. It really is all about the details. Do I think it may have been just a tad excessive? A little. But hey, that does not mean that I didn’t enjoy a little excess.
The beef melted in my mouth, and the smoothness of the polenta mixed with vegetables was a remarkable combination, especially considering I was enjoying it at 35,000 feet.
To top it all off, I had a choice between fresh fruit or a passion-fruit panna cotta for dessert. I instantly picked the panna cotta and enjoyed a nice cup of mint tea with it to help me digest.
I never really anticipated the idea of falling into a food coma on a plane before, but I guess this was just another first for my trip. Let’s just say that the delicious dinner helped get me ready to sleep (until breakfast, that is).
Here at TPG, many folks love to collect and talk about airline amenity kits.
Since I’d never received one before, I was indifferent to them. They kind of felt like mini toiletries you can take from the hotels that don’t use more sustainable refillable product containers.
However, I was hooked as soon as I got to my seat and saw a beige-colored Iberia amenity kit waiting for me. I love free things (granted, this wasn’t necessarily free, but you know what I mean). I opened it up and found an assortment of goodies that included an Iberia-branded eye mask, socks, a toothbrush, an interesting hybrid of a brush and comb, lip balm and rose-scented face mist.
Was it the most over-the-top amenity kit out there? No. But I completely understand the hype behind an amenity kit now. What’s not to love about trying new travel-size products and getting a handy pouch to take them home in, too? In fact, to this day, I saved that lip balm and rose-scented face mist. You’d best believe I will be bringing it with me on my next economy flight, trying to relive my Iberia glory (and stay fresh and moisturized).
The unexpected comfort of a lie-flat seat
As an anxious flyer, I’ve tried it all to help me sleep on flights. From natural supplements to doctor-prescribed medications, not much has worked. I’ve simply given up on trying to sleep on planes.
However, for the longest flight I’d ever been on — and an overnight one to boot — I knew I had to at least try and get some shut-eye. My flight took off around 10 p.m. New York time, and while I would not have minded pulling an all-nighter on the plane, I wanted to make the most of my first day in Spain. I had things to do and limited time to get them done. Arriving sleep-deprived would not have helped.
As an economy-until-now flyer, I could not figure out how to recline the seat into a bed. There were lots of buttons and none of them seemed to do the trick, and no matter how many times I pushed the preset positioning button, it would not work. For a brief second, I almost waved the white flag and was about to declare that I was not meant for the lie-flat life.
Finally, after lots of tampering, I decided to call in support and flagged a flight attendant. In two milliseconds, they helped me figure it out. Before I knew it, I was watching “Ocean’s Eleven” — lying down.
After about two hours of entertainment, I felt my eyes getting heavy, so I took the eye mask out of my amenity kit, fluffed the thick pillow, snuggled up under the lightweight gray duvet and promptly fell asleep for about three hours. In lie-flat mode, the seat was 76 inches long and nearly 19 inches wide — not enormous, but plenty spacious for me to get some zzz’s without banging my arms or legs on anything.
It wasn’t 100% like sleeping in a real bed, but it was just so much better than my experiences in economy. I arrived in Madrid feeling at least moderately well-rested and ready to take on the Spanish capital.
My first time flying international business class was full of pleasant surprises. Until my trip to Spain, my main point of comparison was JetBlue’s notorious 6 a.m. service from JFK to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (if you know, you know).
But this was an entirely different experience and the highlight of my entire trip (yes, of course, Madrid was wonderful too). While I’ll probably still fly economy most of the time, I will definitely be on the lookout for good business-class award availability on longer flights. This way, I’ll have even more opportunities to squeeze value from my points while enjoying the finer points of flying up front.