Standby Tales: Crossing the Pond
As I have mentioned before, I have standby travel privileges through a friend of mine who works for a major US airline (thanks, Cody!). That means I can fly for free anywhere in the US and in economy class to most of western Europe, but only if there are open seats available on a flight. Business and First class travel is also majorly discounted so it was a no-brainer for me to try and get a business class seat on my way to across the pond.
Going to Brussels
Since none of US airlines fly directly to Kiev, I found a cheap ticket on WizzAir, one of European low cost carriers, from Cologne in Germany to Kiev. While I was considering other options, I decided on Cologne since I have heard good things it about and figured I will check it out.
The trickier part was trying to figure out how to get to Cologne since there are no direct flights from US there. No matter where I would fly into, I would have to take a train to get to Cologne, and after running a few quick searches on Deutsche Bahn site, I was surprised to discover a couple of things:
- It is less than couple hours away from Frankfurt (if using the Intercity Express or ICE service)
- Cologne is closer to Brussels and Amsterdam than it is to Munich, Berlin, and other German cities I could have flown into
The advantage of going to Frankfurt was the fact that it is a major hub and I would have many possible flights I could take from any of the hubs in the US. This is also the disadvantage of flying between hubs because a lot more people get shuttled between them as well as crews so it is very hard to get an open seat on those flights.
Instead, and in the spirit of checking out new things, I decided to try to fly into Brussels. Thursday evening flight from Washington was showing a single business class seat available (even though economy was oversold). If that did not work, I also had an option of trying to catch a later flight to Frankfurt or even a flight back home.
Waiting for a seat assignment
This looked good to me, so I hopped on an RJ flight to DC and after enduring two and a half hours of very cramped seats, I was on my way to gate C3. I passed a gate with an earlier Frankfurt flight, an Amsterdam flight, and a Munich flight and they all looked oversold with very little hope for me. So far so good.
Once at the gate, I saw the agents blowing steam already trying to figure out how to accommodate all of the paying passengers on the flight with many connecting flights arriving late. So, I settled in and started looking at my options.
If I do get on, then I will need to let Andrew, a guy I was planning on couchsurfing with in Brussels, know that I am coming and confirm our meeting point. I will also need to let Timon know that I won't be going to Frankfurt.
Oh and how about the later Frankfurt flight? Both flights showed only a couple seats available and lots of other standbys so I knew that was a no-go for tonight.
The flight to Brussels next day looked good, with the combined total of seven first and business class seats open. So if I cannot get on tonight, should I stay in DC area and try tomorrow? Or should I go back home? The flight home was wide open for tonight. But then, will I be able to get back to DC tomorrow? Seemed like it with three open seats. But do I really want to suffer in an RJ for two and a half hours each way again? Hotels were going to be at least $100 a night plus food.
Neither was very tempting. If I could only fly out tonight...
Meanwhile at the gate, more craziness ensued as boarding started. The monitors showed all classes as full, but at the same time showed both first and business classes to have one less checked in person than there were seats available. So I kept on waiting, but quickly losing hope. So is it a hotel or a flight back for the night?
Everyone has boarded but they were still waiting for a few more people running late from their connections. Business and first classes have been filled. Will I take an economy seat? Well, if it is Economy Plus (with a couple more inches of legroom), I guess I would do it but there is no way I am sitting in a regular economy seat for eight hours with my knees embedded in a seat in front of me. Princess. I know...
More people are making it at the last minute. I guess it is not happening tonight. I pulled up the reservation system and went through the process of listing for the next Frankfurt flight except for hitting Submit.
More waiting. Past the departure time now.
Gate agents are trying to figure out if there are any open seats left and actually go to the airplane and look. Luckily, there is one seat left. 30G. And it is Economy Plus, so I decide to go for it.
Not sure if I will regret it, I walk down the jet bridge, calling my parents to let them know that I am leaving and at the same time sending out couchsurfing and Facebook messages to let people know I am going to Brussels.
As I get on the plane and make my way to my seat, there is someone seating there already!
Did the gate agents mess this one up?
Turned out they did not.
After a bit of confusion, we figure out that the guy in 30G was assigned 36 something, which he traded with the guy in 30D. But there was already a guy sitting there that was originally was supposed to sit in 30A (non-Economy Plus seat). He is sitting in 30D next to his business partner in 30E and of course does not want to switch back to 30A. I cannot fit into 30A, so the flight attendants make the guy go back to 30A so I can take 30D.
To be honest, it did not feel quite right to me. Even though it was my seat, and once I was on board the aircraft it does not matter whether I am a paid passenger or standby, I felt a bit guilty for what happened. Luckily, there was another guy a few rows ahead of us whose wife was in the back of the plane with an open seat next to her so the flight attendants brokered a deal for him to go back to sit with her, me taking his seat, and reuniting the business partners in 30D and E.
That was really the most exciting part. Once we figured out who is sitting there, it was smooth sailing from then on. The food was mediocre at best and no free alcohol in coach made me miss the first class service, but the lack of legroom was really the main issue. Yes, my knees were just barely not embedded in the seat in front of me, but the lack of any sensible recline made sleeping impossible.
On the bright side, it was too early to go to sleep anyways. Even when we arrived to Brussels, it was just past midnight 'my' time so it was not that big of an issue. Instead, I was invited by the crew to hang out with them in the back galley (after the whole seat fiasco), so we killed some time there.
We will see how/if I make it through the day.