Last year for this publication, I boarded a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, one of the most advanced commercial planes flying today, and sat in coach for 15 hours. It wasn't so bad.
This year, as my third year of travelling as a digital nomad began, I figured I'd splurge on upgrading to business class for a 9-hour flight from Houston, Texas to Santiago, Chile.
Is it all champagne and caviar? Is it really worth the cost, either in money or airline points? I aimed to find out, making this brutal, brutal sacrifice so you, dear reader, can know what it's like on the other side of that semi-transparent curtain.
Eastbound and w-a-y-y-y-y down
Boarding the plane I somehow fight off the temptation to yell "Suck it, plebes!" while enjoying Boarding Group 1. Nor do I snicker as they file past my already seated self, forcing them to ponder my legendary greatness. "Behold, I am internationally bestselling author Geoff Morrison, look upon my golden throne, ye mighty, and despair!!" at my 25,000 United miles and $500 upgrade fee. Also, it's not golden. More of a gray plastic.
Most denizens of business class are boomers or business types, so I'm surprised to find my seatmate far closer to my age than theirs. She looks like an actress or model, and happens to be both. Turns out we'd been on the same flight from LA. We chat about her hometown (Santiago) and how both her husband and I were from nearly the same suburb of Boston. Best of all, we seem to share a similar attitude about talking on flights, and soon engross ourselves in different episodes of "Mr. Robot."
Glenn, the service manager, introduces himself, a nice touch. In fact, all the staff are friendly and professional.
We're given probably my favorite business class perk:
Yep, a tiny cup of warm nuts. I don't know why it's so delightful. Drink orders are taken (Cranapple for me, I don't drink booze on planes), and menus distributed. They have magnificently worded descriptions of vittles later available.
As the plane lifts off, I doze to the sounds of someone a few rows behind hacking up a lung. It's almost certainly TB. Great.
I awake as dinner is served. There's a small table cloth for the fold-out tray, actual plates and real, metal cutlery. The food's plated well, not spectacular tasting but perfectly pleasant. I've had worse at weddings. Dessert is a glass goblet of decent vanilla ice cream with a choice of toppings.
The TV, somewhere around 15 inches, is fine, though mounted in such a way I can't easily sit directly on-axis, so the blacks have a blue tint to them. Gotta love LCDs.
The controller is far beyond anything I've seen on a plane before. It reminds me of a PlayStation Vita portable game console: a small touchscreen with buttons on either side. It can do some clever tricks, too, like showing a different source than the TV on its own screen.
I recline the seat flat, or flat-ish anyway. The seat isn't nearly as "lay flat" as the older version found in other United planes. I realize complaining about a lie-flat seat on an airplane is like complaining your ice cream isn't creamy enough. But while I'm drawing millions of eyerolls, I'll add that the pillow is plump and soft, the blanket just the right amount of warm. The cubby where you stick your feet is too small for my size 10s, however, so everything is awful. "How dare they. I demand..." and I'm asleep.
In a shockingly poor design decision, the rear part of the seat's cocoon has LED backlight controls that are like triple quasars, searing your face.
These controls are hard to reach, redundant and annoying. Great job, design team.
I miss sunrise because I'm bad at my job, or sleep is more important, or maybe both. Breakfast is a light omelet, fruit and yogurt. Once again, I forget to take a picture of the food before I start in on it.
Before long we're descending into Santiago. In one of the best perks of business class, I'm one of the first off the plane, and at the head of the line for immigration. Hola, Chile!
So is business class worth it? As someone who logs tens of thousands of miles a year, I tend to use my airline miles to upgrade to business class quite often, but only on long-haul international flights. Domestic flights? No way are they worth the upgrade cost. The business class seats are only marginally larger, and in my opinion, the flights aren't long enough for coach to become oppressive.
For me, eight hours is the cutoff. Anything less, and coach is fine. Anything longer, and I consider it. If it's a 787 that's a bit more flexible, since they're more pleasant to fly on in general.
Business class brings back some of the glamour and special-ness of flying lost in the cattle-car mentality of cheap airfare and sardine seating. But what you're really paying for is not the service, nor the food. It's a more comfortable seat and the far greater chance you'll be able to fly in peace, with no screaming babies or babbling neighbors. That's worth the money to me.
And you know what? It's also pretty fun.
In his alternate life as a travel writer, Geoff does tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarines, medieval castles, Abbey Road Studios and more. You can follow his exploits on Twitter and Instagram, and on his travel blog BaldNomad. Got a tour-worthy spot you think he should check out? Let him know!