A recent review on the The Higher Flyer has prompted a few to ask: “what’s wrong with DoubleTree hotels?” and as a follow up: “why do you hate them?” Well, despite what my review of the DoubleTree in Madrid may imply, the answer is a resounding “nothing.” Nothing is wrong with Hilton’s business-traveler-centric brand and I’d gladly stay in one if presented the opportunity. That said though, these hotels don’t really lend themselves well to scenes of higher flying; they don’t evoke visions of luxury like Waldorf Astorias do, nor do they offer the incredible value that Hampton Inns do. DoubleTrees instead are synonymous with bland-yet-practical accommodations for the well-paid road warriors of the world.
A Hilton DoubleTree masquerading as a quaint boutique hotel in the heart of Madrid
Hilton as a brand doesn’t have a particularly aspirational reputation. Sure, its hotels are mostly comfortable and are more than serviceable, but the average Hilton usually lacks the glamour or pizzazz or charm that a mid-level Hyatt or a legacy Starwood property (RIP) might have. Hilton’s DoubleTrees are some of the worst offenders when it comes to generic corporateness — they’re typically marketed to business travelers, and utilitarian design doesn’t lend itself well to pleasing aesthetics — but the brand’s sole property in Spain is an obvious outlier. While “DoubleTree” might not evoke images of boutique luxury, the one in Madrid should very well challenge your assumptions.
A proud symbol of the era of affordable air travel
The 787s that Norwegian Air uses for its longhaul operations are far from glamorous — expect slimline seats clad in grey “leather” for as far as the eye can see — but they are representative of an undeniably positive development in the commercial airline industry: more people can afford to travel. Norwegian occupies an interesting position in the market; it was one of the first carriers to take the low-cost/LCC model and successfully apply it to intercontinental travel. Its fares are so consistently low (it’s not unusual to see oneway transatlantic tickets go for around $100), but correspondingly, it’s natural to wonder if there’s any sort of catch involved. Is flying Norwegian an absurdly miserable experience — in the same way that Spirit can sometimes be — or is it a viable option for higher flyers?
Norwegian Air’s strong reputation is due in part to the relatively comfortable accommodations it features on its sleek new planes, but its affordable airfares are equally as important in bolstering the airline’s status. There are some downright incredible deals to be had! That said, Norwegian shares a business model with an infamous counterpart in the United States: Spirit. The former has been praised as an innovative disruptor in the long haul transit market, whereas the latter is reviled for its many layers of (perceived) awfulness… even though they both run pretty similar operations. Don’t be deceived by Norwegian’s cheery Scandinavian/Ikea-esque branding; crafty bargain hunters must pay careful attention when they’re booking flights. Otherwise they risk getting trapped in a fee-laden hell all in the name of getting a “cheap” fare… and that’s definitely not higher flyer!
The introduction of new, remarkably fuel efficient planes like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 have led to two significant developments in the commercial airline industry: the emergence of really, really long routes (think Singapore to “New York” nonstop) and the application of the low-cost-carrier business model to longhaul flying. The former is useful and convenient for premium passengers especially, but the latter is special because it affords more people more opportunities to travel. Norwegian Airlines is one of the most prominent operations to do this; it’s taken advantage of relatively lax EU laws and has set up shop all over Europe to offer cheap flights to the Americas and Asia. Is it glamorous? Far from it. For the price though, Norwegian is comfortable enough and can certainly be considered “higher flyer” for its excellent value proposition.
Business class closer to greatness, yet still far away
Despite being reviled by customers and critics alike, British Airways’s business class — referred to as ‘Club World’ — is undeniably important in the realm of higher flying. It was the first true lie-flat product to enter the (uber-competitive transatlantic) market, and it single-handedly elevated the standard of what international business class should offer to premium travelers. In the few short years after that introduction though, BA’s competitors both caught up and surpassed the original in terms of quality and value offered; Club World’s revolutionary reputation has long since faded and replaced by something far less flattering. Perhaps no longer contempt to be the butt of jokes, British Airways announced new, much-needed investments into the passenger experiences in April 2017 and then again in March 2019. While tangible improvements have been rolling out across all classes of service, Club World is noticeably better and now has most all of the makings of a competitive offering. In practice is it actually competitive though?
After the fun and success of the first Weekend to Europe, I was excited to plan a sequel to help ring in 2019. Madrid had long been on my radar, and at the beginning of winter, the perfect opportunity to visit presented itself. This was made possible in part thanks to Iberia’s remarkable promotion in the summer of 2018, during which the airline awarded up to 9,000 Avios to each customer who made a single booking. But that’s not all! Buy two flights, and you’ll get another 9,000, and adding a third earned another 9,000… and so on all the way up to 90,000 Avios! It didn’t matter if you actually took the flights you paid for, you just had to make the booking to receive the credit! This deal came with a caveat though: all award bookings had to be made before December 1, 2018, otherwise the points would disappear forever. What better use for them than crossing the pond for a quick weekend trip?
A good value that balances comfort and affordability effectively
Is premium economy really just lipstick on a pig? For one thing, it definitely isn’t the same as standard economy class with an extra three extra inches of legroom. With cabins akin to North American regional first class and food served with proper chinaware, premium economy is trending within the industry and for good reasons. As more and more airlines unveil their own versions of it, it’s abundantly clear that there’s a market for higher flyers who want something better than cramped, poorly-padded chairs but also don’t want to pay fortunes for business class. Iberia’s Turista Premium, as it’s called, does a good job catering to these travelers; it’s an obvious step above steerage and usually doesn’t carry significantly higher price tags. The product isn’t perfect, but if you’re trying to fly to Europe in comfort while maintaining a budget, you should look to Iberia for a smart solution.
It’s cliché to call the start of a new year bittersweet, but this typically trite sentiment should ring true for many higher flyers. There’s nothing quite like the sting of seeing all zeroes when you check your airline and hotel accounts after New Year’s Day… but that doesn’t have to be all bad! If you’ve been on a single loyalty
hamster wheel treadmill for too long, there’s no better time than in January to start anew somewhere else. The potential of elite status on American Airlines — in spite of all of the devaluing cuts to it — had long intrigued me. When a series of attractive oneworld fares materialized later in the winter, I had to take, ahem, AAdvantage!