The worst flight I’ve ever been on was a two and a half hour flight from Florida to Chicago.
We were flying home through a tropical storm that had already wreaked havoc on the last two days of our Eastern Caribbean cruise. The plane would drop suddenly, though the loss in altitude probably felt worse than it actually was. Thunder clapped outside our windows and a toddler a few rows behind us threw up the entire flight (which, in hindsight, is kind of crazy, right? How does a toddler fit enough in their stomach to throw up for two and a half hours straight?). I didn’t fly much back then, and panic would creep it’s way from the bottom of my stomach to form a knot in my throat any time I stepped foot into the airport. I’d pop a few Dramamines to make myself drowsy enough to quell my extreme fright – that was my pre-flight SOP back then — but that didn’t do much for me as we were flying with Tropical Storm Barry. The adrenaline coursing through my body every time the plane jolted clashed with the Dramamine and it all culminated with some trippy hallucinations in the back seat of a limo on the way home from the airport.
I flew once more to Florida after that flight and then didn’t fly again for three and a half years. I fly around once a month now and the truth of it is that it still terrifies me, but it’s kind of crazy how far I’ve come from that girl who couldn’t even look at an airplane.
That was a really long tangent to go on to say that in contrast to that really terrible flight, the best flight I’ve ever been on was our flight home from Paris. Eight and a half hours direct from Paris to Chicago, and if I’m being honest, I wish it were another eight. Decades of flights between Chicago and West Palm Beach left grandma with a ton of miles on American Airlines, which I’m pretty sure she didn’t even know existed. When she passed, we had the miles transferred into Mom’s Aadvantage account for a tbd adventure.
We knew that we had to use them to do something fabulous, something that celebrated her love of travel (and her enjoyment in the finer things in life), and in another act of divine intervention that I firmly believe came from her looking out on us from her porch up in the sky, there were enough award upgrades available on our flight home for all three of us to upgrade to business class for 25,000 miles each plus a $350 upgrade fee.
I fly first class domestically frequently (a perk of the aforementioned flying at least once a month and also booking flights outside of the usual times consultants with higher upgrade priority than I do fly) and I’ve even flown first class on a long range aircraft (the first time I flew First!) but that was on a repositioning flight on a 763 from Miami to Chicago, so I barely had enough time to marvel at the concept of lay flat seats. I didn’t only have a lay flat seat on this flight – I had an open air little suite all to myself! The anticipation was killer.
Our luxe experience didn’t start on the plane, though – after we arrived at Charles de Gaulle and made a quick stop at the customs office to process our VAT refunds, we fast tracked through check in and security and made our way to the Admirals Club.
As far as airports go, I think Charles de Gaulle is pretty primo. It’s sleek and modern and I could entertain myself for hours with the duty free shopping alone. But it’s also a busy airport, so having a quieter space to wait for our flight to board was really nice. Our previous experience with airport lounges was limited to the Lufthansa lounge we spent a couple of hours in a few days prior, when we left Athens for Zurich, so none of us had much to compare it to. The Admirals Club at CDG had a great view of the tarmac, a fully stocked bar, a nice spread of both hot and continental breakfast items and, my favorite part, a solid fromage and charcuterie spread. If I had to leave Europe and had to leave Paris, this was the way to do it: with a flute of champagne in one hand and a cheese plate in the other, with a business class ticket in my back pocket.
Before I could get myself into too much trouble with the self-serve bubbly, Stephanie and I decided to take a field trip into the terminal for some last minute shopping. The large duty free shop has a wide selection of the usual spirits, cosmetics and designer goods, but also a really nice market of local delicacies (including a fridge full of French cheeses and racks of treats from places like Fauchon and Maxim’s). And across from the duty free shop was a LaDurée boutique, so we picked up some macarons for the flight. We also checked out the Longchamp boutique because I’d heard the prices at the airport were amongst the lowest given the wide selection, but the splurge at LV was still too fresh to pull the trigger.
It was gray and rainy as we approached boarding time, apropos of my feelings on this extraordinary adventure of ours coming to an end and having to leave Paris.
Our flight began boarding right on time, and we were the first group to board. The business class cabin consisted of 28 seats, arranged in a 1-2-1 fashion, each seat one of those fancy throne-style seats. Tons of storage space, tons of legroom and, best of all, the ability to adjust the seat all kinds of ways. A duvet and pillow were placed on each seat, but I was too excited to even think about napping.
There were also amenity kits stowed at each seat, a Cole Haan bag with an eye mask, ear plugs, socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, tissues, a pen and paper and some CO Bigelow samples. I’m sure the contents of this kit cost no more than $10, but I was like a child with a goody bag — inexplicably excited for these little things that I had little use for (well, except the socks. They were nice and warm. And the Cole Haan bag was nice, too).
The first round of champagne came before we even left the gate and it didn’t stop the entire flight. Seriously. Pam, my new BFF (and the chief purser on our flight) kept my glass full and didn’t stop until I was literally asleep (and then got me another glass when I woke up).
After a smooth takeoff, tablets and noise cancelling headphones were handed out and set up at each seat. The older 763 planes do not have individual IFE’s in the seats, so while economy passengers are treated to movies on overhead screens, we had on demand entertainment available to us.
Once the tablets were set up, the traditional American Airlines snack of warm mixed nuts were served (with, of course, another glass of champs, and a glass of water because I’m no amateur here and I take in-flight hydration very seriously)
We jetted over the UK and towards the Atlantic, and what followed next was a gastronomic endeavor, the likes of which I never thought I’d experience in a metal tube traveling hundreds of miles per hour, thousands of feet above the ground. A full, multi-course meal, starting with mezze, a fresh salad dressed to order and a warm roll. Then, the main course: an option of filet mignon, duck, a seafood trio or a vegetarian curry. Filet mignon or duck. On an airplane. And then it ended on a sweet note, with a made-to-order sundae.
Once meal service concluded, the flight attendants lowered the lights and asked everyone to put down their window shades so that those who desired to could get some sleep. Our flight was traveling backwards in time – we left Paris just before 10:00 am and, though the flight was almost nine hours, we landed at home in Chicago just after 11:00 am, losing only an hour and a half in our day. But I knew that if I was going to beat the jetlag, I needed to take a strong nap. If I weren’t traveling, if I were at home on a Sunday or holiday, I’d sleep in until the late morning. Catching some sleep, even on a day flight, was essential in resetting my clock.
I woke up after a few hours feeling so much more refreshed, settling in to watch a movie or two for the last few hours of our flight. An array of snacks were set out in the galley for anyone who woke up with the munchies, and I helped myself to a cheese plate and a bottle of water.
We didn’t experience a single blip of turbulence the entire flight, which seemed to make it pass by even quicker. I poured through my pictures. I watched movies. I wished time would go by just a little more slowly.
An hour or so before we landed, lunch service began – an option of a flatbread pizza or an antipasto plate. Stephanie and I went for the flatbread, Mom went for the antipasto and we all agreed the clear winner for lunch was neither entrée, but rather the small, decadent pudding cup that served as dessert.
And as my last act of vacation time, I pulled out the macarons I’d purchased at the LaDurée inside the airport and ordered one last glass of champagne.
We descended across a familiar path home – over the lake, north of the skyline, on a beautiful day so clear that I could spot both my condo building and Wrigley Field.
I sent a quick note to American Airlines as we taxied to the international terminal to give kudos to Pam and Scott for their wonderful service before we headed off the plane and headed towards the not-so-wonderful world of airport customs (where, apparently, having traveled to Turkey opens you up to some additional questions and scrutiny, and where Stephanie overestimated the amount of money we spend on duty-free items and got us sent into the naughty line for more questioning).
It was the most bizarre of time lapses. One minute, we’re in Paris and 510 minutes that felt like a single minute later, we were back home, to our regular lives, getting ready to go to work the next day. Except we had bags of souvenirs, treats and hundreds of pictures and stories to share with our friends and colleagues.