x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

First class to cheap hotels, staying in transit and loving it

Since those early days of hopping aid worker flights throughout West Africa, I've travelled on at least 50 airlines, all over the world.

Some people say that flying is the same, no matter where you're going and who's operating the plane. "You like spending all that time in the sky?" I find myself asked frequently. Well, I don't like all of it all of the time, but in general, yes, I do.

I'm on the side of those who still believe there's something special about flying. I like the feeling of forward motion, of being suspended from whatever's happening on the ground. It can be snowing in Chicago, but when I step off the Royal Jordanian flight in Amman, I'm in another world. It's the world of transit, with a language of its own, welcoming all travellers holding a passport and boarding pass. My most unusual flight was several years ago, and it will be hard to top. I was travelling with a group through West Africa, and our first segment was from Freetown, Sierra Leone to Conakry, Guinea. The plane was a turboprop that seated 30 people. A water bottle suspended from the exit row was labelled "Fire Extinguisher". On our slow taxi out on the runway, a car pulled up and an African guy came running out, holding a briefcase and what appeared to be a fistful of dollars. We stopped taxi-ing, the lone flight attendant opened the door, and the guy climbed on board.

During that time I also travelled on World Food Program flights, including one where I was the only passenger. Flying high from Abidjan to Monrovia, I felt like I was flying private. The safety briefing was extremely short: "If anything goes wrong," the co-pilot told me, "Let us worry about it."

And thus it began. Since those early days of hopping aid worker flights throughout West Africa, I've travelled on at least 50 airlines, all over the world. I now fly at least 200,000 miles a year, about half on the OneWorld and Star Alliance networks, and the other half on all sorts of carriers. In St Petersburg, Russia, I checked in with Air Moldova for the regional flight to Chisinau. "Can I please have an aisle seat, close to the front?"

"OK, no problem," he told me. I'm still not sure if he didn't like me or if it was just a case of lost-in-translation, but when I boarded the flight, I headed all the way to the back ... and found myself in a window seat.

I flew Aeroflot for the first time recently. Before I went on the trip, I heard horror stories. "You're flying Aeroflop?" someone asked. Another person wrote in to tell me that the seat-pocket safety card said something about goats not being allowed on board.

But you know what? My four flights to and from Kyrgyzstan were surprisingly normal. No vodka, no warnings about goats, no overcrowding. Connecting through Moscow, I had lounge access thanks to my Priority Pass card, and the whole airport offered free Wi-Fi. After the flight, I said something on Twitter about being impressed, and the corporate Aeroflot account wrote me to say "Yes, we've improved over the years."

Thanks to an abundance of Frequent Flyer miles, I've also travelled in the First Class cabins of some of the world's best airlines, including Etihad, Cathay Pacific, British Airways, and Qantas. On these flights, there is no water bottle for a fire extinguisher. Instead, there are five-course meals served with $100 (Dh367) bottles of wine.

I first learnt about the rewards of loyalty and premium travel on a "Circle Pacific" trip through Asia—flying across the North Pacific in one direction, spending two weeks hopping around Korea, Vietnam, and Singapore—then heading home via the South Pacific. For the whole time I had lounge access whenever I was flying, and was seated in the comfortable Business Class cabin... a long way from those crazy intra-African flights.

I often go from one setting to another—a First Class airline cabin to a cheap hostel, or a Cathay Pacific flight to a budget connection on Tiger Airways. Etihad offers chauffeured car service throughout the Emirates for all its First and Business Class passengers. I'm sure many of them use the service to go to the resorts in Jumeirah, but last month I used mine to be delivered to a Dh145 guesthouse in Deira.

Before many an early morning flight, I've spent the night attempting to sleep on the floor of the airport—in Dubai, Rome, Dallas, JFK in New York, the Maldives, and other places I'd care to forget. I board the plane groggy and eager for coffee, but soon enough, I'm looking out the window and the ground below, and looking forward to my next destination.

Speaking of destinations, one upcoming trip will take me to Somaliland via African Express Airways, a regional carrier based in Kenya. To get there, I'll likely fly Etihad or British Airways from New York, then Kenya Airways or Gulf Air down to Nairobi. I hope to visit a couple of other stops in Africa as well, probably on Ethiopian Airways or Kenya Airways again.

After travelling the world in this fashion each month, I get home exhausted after an average of 10 segments. For a few days, I rest and enjoy the comforts of a familiar setting. Then I'm ready to go again. Air Moldova, anyone? Maybe I'll get the aisle seat this time.

Next week: Chris Guillebeau on repeated journeys to Cotonou, Benin.