Remember when letter postage came in different classes? (Yup, I’m that old). A first class letter would arrive days before one sent second class, and the postage would be determined by the weight of the letter. If you had a lot to say, and needed it to reach someone quickly, you wrote on almost translucent onion skin paper – that was particularly common for air mail letters. When I was in grade 5 in the mid 1960’s, we were encouraged to have pen pals in foreign countries. Mine was in Argentina, and I remember using part of my 50 cent per week allowance to buy airmail stamps; otherwise a letter going by a combination of land and sea could take weeks to arrive.
Now, of course, much of our correspondence is done electronically, but if we do send cards or letters from Canada to our family in Europe, the letters go airmail by default.
Unlike my pen pal letters, I never had the option growing up of travelling “first class”. The few vacations my family took were by car, and most often involved packed picnics along the way, and staying with relatives.
Our own kids were very lucky. Largely because Ted and I both worked during most of their childhoods, we were able to take them on vacations each year. They were only 7 and 9 years old the first time they flew in an airplane – from Toronto to Florida. By contrast, my own first flight was at age 24, to Chicago on a 2-day business trip.
Our vacations, while always fun (and educational, which hopefully our kids now appreciate) were never “first class”. We drove, or occasionally flew economy. We stayed in motels or timeshares, not luxury hotels. We ate in diners, not steakhouses.
Since retiring – and selling everything we owned, including our home and our intended retirement condo – we’ve upped our travel game: nicer accommodations, better food, more exotic locations.
But this world cruise was intended to be our first truly “first class” travel experience, from the luggage and visa services, and flights, to the cruise inclusions. Despite all the wrenches that the COVID19 pandemics has thrown into the works, I know I’ll want to look back on this someday and relive it.
Up and out! With all the extra paperwork, distancing, and sanitizing that goes on in an airport during a pandemic, we were told to arrive FOUR HOURS prior to our scheduled 9:30 a.m. flight. That meant up at 4 a.m. for a quick shower and final room check, and onto the airport shuttle around 5:00.
No breakfast, but we weren’t worried because this was also the first time we would have pre-flight access to a Business Class Lounge. Yummy breakfast food, comfy chairs, and good coffee beckoned.
Unfortunately, the Business Class lounge is in the portion of the terminal designated for “international” flights – and flights from Canada to our U.S. neighbours don’t qualify, leaving us at the mercy of the Toronto airport’s food vendors, who are notoriously high-priced in comparison to other airports through which we’ve transited. $11.50 CAD later, I was in possession of an 8 ounce fresh fruit cup and a 12 ounce black coffee. Sheesh.
After 3 hours sitting in the airport, boarding was finally called, and we got to board first – no line-up! Although I was once bumped to the First Class compartment on a 90 minute flight from Halifax to Toronto when returning from a visit to the kids about 10 years ago, Ted and I have never flown pre-ticketed First/Business Class before, so have always waited in a long line for our seating “zone” to be called.
Given that the flight from Toronto to Fort Lauderdale is only 2-1/2 hours (with a good tailwind), I wasn’t sure how much pleasure I would get from the actual Business Class flight, but once on board the plane, the best feature for 2 fairly tall people was definitely the LEG ROOM!! We flew on a Delta/Westjet 737-800, where the first class cabin is set up as pairs of extra wide seats with a table between them. It’s not like long-haul first class sleeping pods (which we look forward to experiencing on our trip back home in May), but it is definitely comfortable.
Business class also means getting fed during the flight. These days, flying short distances in economy means getting a hot or cold drink, but paying for everything else – or bringing your own food on board from one of the airport food kiosks. Long overseas economy flights often include a meal, served in the equivalent of a plastic bento box covered in cellophane, with plastic utensils and a tiny paper napkin. By contrast, a hot lunch on real china and drinks in real glassware were offered to us. At 10:30 in the morning, both of us felt it was too early for a big meal, but apparently not too early for a Prosecco and a Crown Royal on the rocks. As our flight attendant said, “priorities”. We both opted for just a light snack.
The other thing about business/first class is the lower number of people per bathroom. There are only 12 seats in the entire compartment, with its own WC. It’s clearly the little things that matter.
Bottom line though: if it had not been an automatic inclusion on our world cruise, the business class ticket for this specific one-way flight on this specific airline would have cost us $2007 per person, as compared to $457 per person for economy (more than 4X as much!) and for a relatively short time in the air that difference is not something we would even remotely consider doing ourselves.
One of our Viking world cruise inclusions was luggage shipping, so our big suitcases left Collingwood on December 7th and will meet us in our stateroom. We felt quite cosmopolitan walking through the airport with only carry-on bags, and being able to skip the crush at baggage claim in Fort Lauderdale to go straight to our waiting Viking limo.
When we took our first river cruise with Viking back in 2013, we were the only 2 people arriving in Amsterdam from Toronto, so we had a luxurious limo to ourselves from the airport to our river boat. Heading for our first ocean cruise, from Santiago Chile, almost everyone on our final flight into Chile was destined for our cruise, so it took 12 coaches to get almost 600 of us – 2/3 of the ship’s capacity – to the port. This time, only 2 people on our flight were destined for this cruise, so airport pickup should have been efficient.
Alas, after wandering around looking in vain for a Viking rep, and calling their emergency in-transit hotline, we found a ground transportation rep with a master list for all the cruise lines who told us “your flight came into the wrong terminal”. Really?? We were on a Delta flight operated by WestJet, two airlines whose planes come to different terminals, but since Viking booked our flights, we certainly expected they would track arrival locations.
We eventually got into a huge black Mercedes van, with a little old driver so lively and quick… nope, wrong driver. Ours was decked out in an elf hat though, although the jolly ended there; no offer to help with luggage. I guess he wasn’t happy with the terminal we arrived at either. After collecting us, he stopped at the other terminal to pick up 8 more Viking passengers from other flights. It was a quick ride to the hotel, enhanced by a delicate hint of scent that reminded me of my daughter-in-law’s medicinal cannabis. (We were sitting right behind the driver.) Could have been patchouli aftershave.
Because winter flights out of Toronto often incur weather delays, we opted to fly a day early, booking a “pre-extension” night at the Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort, where Viking had originally planned to host a wine and cheese reception this evening, giving us a chance to meet fellow world cruisers, with some of whom we’ve been interacting on Facebook over the last few months.
Sadly, the rapid spread of the latest Covid variation, Omicron, has scuppered those group reception plans. Instead, we received an email saying that each hotel room would be provided with a bottle of wine and a cheese platter. Meeting all those fellow travellers will just have to wait until we are on board the Star. There’s confusion about the wine and cheese too though: the Viking hosts in the lobby say it will be delivered to our stateroom on the ship (makes no sense, since onboard we’ll have all the food and drink we could possibly want). A quick call to Viking’s world cruise desk confirms that it will come to our hotel room. “Later.” Presumably they’ll leave it if we’re out for dinner.
It’s not an auspicious start.
On the plus side, our hotel is right on the ocean, our room is lovely, the view is stunning, and we don’t need coats.
But right now…. I need to find some wine. And maybe food. It could be that I’m just hangry.
AFTERWORD. When the wine (a half litre bottle each of red and white) and cheese arrived later in the evening, it was lovely… however we had to chase down a corkscrew from a better-prepared Viking traveller.