One of my closest friends, Sergio, is originally from Brazil, and for years has been talking about going to an area called Fernando de Noronha, an archipelago of 21 islands about 220 miles off the coast of the mainland. He told me the area was a real hidden gem and that he’d dreamed about going since he was a child. He started planning a trip there a couple months ago for this April, and when the chance for me to join him came up, I jumped at the opportunity. First, though, I had to figure out how I was going to get there.
To get to this scuba diving paradise, I wanted to make use of some of the 100,000 miles that I received for signing up for the Citi Executive AAdvantage World Mastercard. Right now is actually considered the off-peak time for the region, so I found an economy SAAver economy off-peak award on American for a flight non-stop from Miami to Recife using just 20,000 miles. I knew that I could have flown from Miami and routed via Sao Paulo in TAM first class, but as I mentioned in my economy post, adding many hours to a flight meant less time on the ground to enjoy the destination. I felt that for such a short trip (I was only going for three nights) being able to get there easily was worth sitting in economy – plus, the $800+ fare for only 20,000 and around $26 in taxes was a steal!
As I had an 11:30 p.m. departure from Miami, my game plan was to tire myself out in order to sleep during the eight-hour flight. Before I left for the airport, I took a strenuous 6:40 p.m. class at Barry’s Bootcamp to whip my body into shape and tucker me out. I wanted to be as tired as possible for the flight. After I sweated out my toxins, I got to the airport around 10 p.m., had a bite to eat and I was ready to go.
Unfortunately, TSA PreCheck closed at all terminals at MIA at 10 p.m., so I had to go through the regular security line. At first, the security agent had said I could keep shoes on and bypass the metal detector, but the head supervisor called me out and said I would have to go through normal security. These types of nuisances make me realize how much I love PreCheck under normal circumstances, especially at MIA where the line is quick and very well staffed.
Though I really wanted a meal, I didn’t bother heading to the Admiral’s Club. Even though my Amex Platinum no longer gives me access to the lounge, I still could have gotten in for free as I’m a oneworld Emerald (allowing lounge entry on international tickets), and I’m also an AA Executive AAdvantage cardholder.
Though I was fine with my economy reservation, I had set an ExpertFlyer alert set in case any business SAAver seats opened up and I would have re-ticketed (at a cost of 30,000 more miles / 50,000 miles total), but sadly none did.
Luckily, though, I’d been able to snag an exit row window seat, so at least I had the most possible room in economy. Up until departure, the exit rows were empty, but people eventually started filing in. Sadly, a couple sat next to me, but they were soon booted by a man who actually had the aisle; having the middle seat open definitely helped provide me and my broad shoulders some extra space. It was especially welcome that I was able to put my bag underneath the middle seat so that my legroom wasn’t blocked and I didn’t have to climb over my seatmate to get to the overhead bin every time I needed something. The downside to this extra space? My seat didn’t recline, even though it really should have.
Obviously, for a flight of this length, having a seat that doesn’t recline is not ideal in the least bit. However, if it did recline, I would probably have chosen the seat again. I usually don’t like the front two exit rows because people crowd around waiting for the lavatories. The first row of coach is also pretty much aisle seats (there is no window seat due to the plane’s door), but people congregate there throughout the flight so it could be noisy and disturb my sleep. Honestly, I wish AA would add real Economy Plus seats that offer more recline – it seems like those on this particular plane were just glorified exit-row seats.
The good news is, I sent a quick email to American customer service about my seat’s recline problem, and as compensation, they offered me 15,000 miles – which means my ticket to Brazil only ended up costing me 5,000 miles!
I was also disappointed that there was no inflight entertainment at my seat, and only overhead TVs in the aisles (on which I banged my head, numerous times!), so I would highly recommend you bring some of your own entertainment options. Fortunately, the seats were equipped with power outlets so I was able to charge devices as I attempted to sleep.
As the frills of economy class are few and far between, I brought one of my old amenity kits with an eye mask and my own Bose Quiet Comfort ear phones (plus my trusty friend Xanax) to help lull me to sleep. My flimsy pillow didn’t provide much comfort, so I wrapped a blanket around it to firm it up a bit. In the middle of the night, the plane’s AC was blowing full blast and the cabin was a frigid polar vortex, so I was very happy that I brought some thick socks and a hooded sweatshirt to keep me warm.
I was eventually able to get to sleep (even with a child kicking the back of my chair throughout the flight), though I never really felt like I hit a REM state, since the exit row seats have a woeful lack of padding. I can’t sleep sitting straight up (which shows how spoiled I’ve become due to business/first class international and being able to use miles to fly there cheaply), so after even a short time forced into an awkward position in my non-reclining exit row seat, the lower half of my body went numb!
I didn’t eat dinner because it was an 11:30 p.m. departure and I wanted to sleep as long as possible. Even though I didn’t sleep very well, I did manage to sleep through the breakfast service. Fortunately, the flight attendant put aside a box for me that contained crackers, cheese and water, which hit the spot and was enough to hold me over until I could get a regular breakfast.
Before too long, though – and feeling had begun to return to my limbs - we were landing in beautiful Recife. Arrival was a breeze, immigration was painless (the non-Brazilian line was super short, which is always a welcome sight when you’ve reached a far-flung destination) and the checked bags came out right away. Within 20 minutes, I was in a taxi enroute to Sergio’s hotel (the Nobile Beach Class Executive), where I met him for a decent breakfast buffet near the beach. The taxi cost all of $33 and I was able to pay in advance with a credit card while still at the airport, as the ATMs there inexplicably didn’t work for me. After five short hours exploring Recife, I was back at the airport for my Azul flight to Fernando de Noronha – reviews of both experiences to come.
Overall, despite some trepidation about a fairly long-haul economy flight and the lack of creature comforts, I actually had a good experience. The low amount of miles I needed to redeem the award were reason enough to jump on it, but having the exit row was definitely crucial. Of course, if the seat properly reclined I would have been more pleased, but what can you do about that? Overall, I left and arrived on-time and I got to my destination quicker than most other methods, so I valued the convenience. However, I was happy I did book a business saver level award for my trip home, which ended up being ridden with delays, cancellations and last-minute trips to Sao Paulo - stay tuned for that story!
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