When Travel Diversion Did Not Require Headphones

7953202532_85954dfb46_zI inherited a travel-sized cribbage board from my parents, and it still evokes memories from the ’60s of early evenings at motels during childhood vacations. My brothers and I would cannonball into the hotel pool, as my parents “supervised” (a term used only loosely then) while engaged in a friendly game of cribbage. Usually next to the cribbage board sat the travel flask, which appeared precisely at five o’clock, and two hotel glasses with doses of Scotch over rocks. (With four kids on a road trip, who could blame them?)

Travel requires–or perhaps invites–hours of diversion, and today that diversion is mostly digital consumption. We stream movies, we play games, we shop online, we read books on tablets. It’s even packaged for us in our seat backs or we preload it on our devices before a long flight. Now, power management is an essential skill set for travelers.

At the risk of sounding ancient, I bemoan this. When we’re playing old-fashioned games, sans headphones, there’s room for conversation and shared experience. That cannot happen when we’re plugged into our own little worlds.

I’m certainly no analog saint. I binge-watch movies on international flights as often as the person in the next seat. And I have said literal prayers of thanks for digital entertainment when my kids were little and could be occupied for hours on a transcon flight with movies on a laptop. Today, the iPad has transformed the travel experience for parents, never mind their kids.

Maybe I get too much digital entertainment at home, but even for business trips these days I like to unplug. I like having the time to read an actual book. I can’t remember the last time I turned on a TV in a hotel room. And, honestly, my favorite flight activity is looking out the window. This all feels a little shameful to admit. So very unproductive.

Yet, travel is the perfect time to go analog, at least for a little while. What’s in your carry-on? There’s a simple beauty in pulling out a deck of cards. Or a pencil and paper (Hangman, anyone?). Or a magnetic chess board. When all else fails, word games can be pulled from thin air. Or daydreaming, the ultimate diversion. (If you’re stumped, check out The Simple Dollar, which has lots of suggestions for non-digital games and pleasant ways to pass time the old-fashioned way.)

My husband and I have been playing a lot of cribbage this holiday season with my kids. We play on my inherited cribbage board, with all my ghosts and memories. And it’s just perfect that our favored deck of cards sports a photo of the Dreamliner aircraft. In my mind, travel and cribbage–they’re inexorably linked.

What do you like to do without headphones to unwind when you travel?

Photo: Flickr/Bruce Guetner

 

Airfares: What I’m Willing to Pay More For and Not (You’re certain to disagree with one.)

People who whine bother me. And I hear too much whining about ancillary fees. I believe the unbundling of airfares that occurred in the last few years has been a brilliant development. Airlines are finally gaining some financial stability (which benefits passengers), and passengers continue to enjoy low base fares. It makes perfect sense to me that we only pay for what’s important to us.

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to be on the inaugural flight of American Airlines’ new A321T service between SFO and JFK. (You can read my trip report on The Bay Area Traveler here.) I sat in first class on the way out, and business class on the way back. I am most often a back-of-the-bus passenger, so this was a real treat. And this aircraft and its inflight service is lovely and amenity-heavy. The trip caused me to think about which features on a flight are of particular value to me. (A caveat: I am not a natural spender, whether or not the fare is being footed by me or the company.)

What I’m willing to pay more for:

1. A seat with a view. My flying life changed a few years ago when I switched from being an aisle person to a window person. Previously a stressed passenger all too aware of flying in an aluminum box, I became a relaxed spectator as the amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty moved by. My claustrophobia eased by having a big space to look at over my shoulder. AA’s A321T first class seat is fabulous, don’t get me wrong, and it’s hard to complain about a ginormous seat that is both window and aisle. The first class 1-1 configuration is pure indulgence. But the seat is so darn huge, and the window so far away, that I could hardly see out: the horizon, perhaps, but certainly nothing below the plane. (Apologies: perhaps I’m whining.) In economy, I am happy to pay more for a seat with a good view.

2. Early boarding. Thanks to the relatively recent development of fistfights over carry-on space, I appreciate the knowledge that I don’t have to concern myself with the possibility of gate-checking my bag. An additional perk: Not having to climb over someone (most times) adds to the illusion that I’m having some kind of civilized experience.

3. Personal attention. I appreciate being called by name and having a pleasant chat here and there with the crew in the premium cabins. I hope that’s not my ego talking, but just my human-ness. I wish we could have this option for a fee in coach. Human interaction can make or break an inflight experience for me. Occasionally and randomly, it comes free of charge.

4. Continuous wine pour. I don’t want to sound like I have a drinking problem, but there’s something I like about wine service in the premium classes. It’s certainly not the wine itself. But to have a glass refilled generously without paying feels a bit like I’m at someone’s house and my thoughtful hostess is keeping me comfortable. I realize this is, again, only an illusion, but it’s one I welcome.

What I won’t pay more for:

1. Food. I really don’t care about eating on a plane anymore. I always pack healthy snacks (and meals sometimes), and I like that the new normal requires that I do so. My first class and business meals on the A321T were decent, and there’s something nice about being offered food. But really, I’d rather not. I like healthy, well prepared food choices. And even the best airplane food isn’t tempting enough to make it matter.

2. Entertainment. I have to admit, the jury may be out on this one. The premium cabins on the A321T service have deep choice in their inflight entertainment systems. And I liked getting caught up on things with the “still in theaters” category. But then I didn’t get a speck of work done during my SFO-JFK-SFO trip, and I cracked nary a book. While the entertainment is pleasant, I’m not sure I like that. Perhaps I just need more self-discipline. Something’s wrong when you wish for a moment that the flight were longer so you could catch another movie.

3. The seat. I know I am in the minority on this one—in fact, I’m perhaps the only person on the planet who doesn’t care about seat pitch or recline (exception: a red eye or international flight at night). My legs are short and stretch nicely out in front of me. My rear must be average, because I have a few inches of comfortable air space on either side of me in even the smallest seat. I don’t see what the big deal is for someone my size to sit in a typical airplane seat for five or more hours. A business class seat or better is totally wasted on me. My feet do not reach the ottoman. The recline functions just leave me fiddling with the adjustments—because I can–and usually to no avail, comfort-wise. When my status allows me a free seat in premium economy, I couldn’t care less about the leg room. (But I do like the early boarding, as noted above. Also, sitting in the front of the plane helps me feel less like I’m in a mass experience. If you can’t see those other 200 people, they aren’t there, right?)

Every individual on every flight values a different set of offerings. I love that we pay for what we value. But airlines, please, let’s not get carried away and over-marketize this concept. American’s economy fares are now listed in categories from cheapest to most expensive, named like this:  Choice, Choice Essential, and Choice Plus. With Choice, you get nothing. That feels a little offensive to me, not much of a choice (or with another meaning, not exactly a “choice” option). If you’re giving me nothing but the seat, let’s call it like it is.

What do you value most or least in an inflight experience? (Come on, I know you tall people will have a bone to pick with my willingness to give up leg room….)

Sobbing at 30,000 Feet

I’m sure every magazine has staff-favorite story ideas that never quite make it to print, and one we discuss at least once a year at Executive Travel is why many people seem to experience heightened emotions while up in the air. This week I came across the story I wish we’d run, over at The Atlantic, called “Why We Cry on Planes.”

Have you had this experience? You get engrossed in the inflight movie and all of a sudden you find yourself all choked up, maybe even sobbing into your blanket. Meanwhile your conscious self goes, “This is weird…why am I crying at this?” I cried my way cross-country once while watching Rudy. A friend said he cried unexpectedly watching Legally Blond 2: Red, White and Blond on a flight. (What’s up with that? except that my friend is a very political guy.)

While there are theories about the airplane sob, none are conclusive. Some hypotheses:

Air pressure/altitude. This is my personal favorite, even if I base it on my dubious made-up science. (There is some research that indicates people experience more intense emotions at high altitude, but truthfully, I’m not sure it translates to the cabin environment.) I’d be curious to know whether adult crying is lessened on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, since the plane is pressurized to the equivalent of 6,000 feet (due to its structure built from composite materials), vs. 6,900 feet on the B-767 for example. If your ability to taste is altered by altitude, why not your emotional makeup?

Stress or relief from it. I’ve talked to some flight attendants and airline execs who espouse this theory. The whole travel experience is so stressful these days that getting into the seat and relaxing with a movie may produce a let-down that loosens up the emotions.

What’s left behind. I suspect most flights have a handful of passengers onboard who have just begun separations from loved ones. I cried for five hours straight on a flight, having just said good-bye to my father, who I had a suspicion I would not see again. (And as it turned out, he died while I was on the flight.)

The act of sitting alone. The Atlantic story makes a good case for why grieving often happens in cars: There’s time for contemplation. The same theory could hold true for planes. Interesting, though, that on a plane we’re alone, but not. We may have no one to talk to, so get lost in thoughts. However, we’re practically intimate with our seatmates and within earshot of hundreds of other passengers. Does the very fact that we’re surrounded by strangers make us more emotional, or cause us to stifle and hide the tears (thus, the very useful blanket)?

Babies seem quite open to crying on planes, and perhaps we should look no further than classic reasons for baby’s tears: tired, hungry and/or uncomfortable. These days, just about every passenger can relate.

Have you ever cried unabashedly while watching an inflight movie?