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The Points & Miles Backpacker: How to Fly Like a Backpacking Baller

July 16, 2018
8 min read
The Points & Miles Backpacker: How to Fly Like a Backpacking Baller
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Backpackers aim to make the experience of flying tolerable rather than going for luxury, but that doesn't mean we are opposed to traveling in style — as long as it doesn't cost us extra money or points. VIP Lounges and even lie-flat seats are possible. Here are some tips for flying like a high roller without busting your bank account, part of our newly launched The Points & Miles Backpacker series.

At the Airport: VIP Lounges

Clean bathrooms, free food and open bar? Did you sneak into an Oscars afterparty? It may feel like that compared to hostel showers that require sandals and the normal backpacker diet of street food and cheap local beer. Why would you pass this up? There used to be a badge of honor to see how late you could show up for a flight and still make it, but with airport VIP lounges in play, you’ll want to plan your travel days differently.

These airport VIP lounges used to be for actual VIPs, but luckily for you, now you don’t even have to be important. You just have to have any of these credit cards that come with lounge access. Specifically, when traveling internationally, you want a card that comes with Priority Pass membership. Check the Priority Pass app and reviews on TPG or LoungeBuddy to see if the airport has a lounge that looks decent and is accessible with Priority Pass; most international airports do. Give yourself an extra hour or two to get food and drinks and even freshen up. There is a good chance the nicest shower you’ll have while backpacking will be in an airport.

This is not a hostel bathroom.

You can even bring guests, so find other backpackers and make new friends — there is no demographic that will appreciate the invite more. Sure, these lounges are much more crowded these days, but that tends to be more of a domestic US problem. Either way, it won't be nearly as bad as the subway you took to get there. Grab a drink, scrape the bottom of the tray for the rest of the pasta salad, and don’t be scared to say “Is someone sitting here?” to the suit who thinks his laptop case deserves its own seat.

My sister Karen's first airport lounge experience. She was so excited about champagne and chocolate mousse that it didn't matter it was 6 AM.

In the Air: Poor Man’s Business Class

Booking: I’ve alluded to this park bench nap equivalent at 35,000 feet before, as have other TPG writers, but I’ll go further into my own strategy for securing the coveted three seats across in economy on a long-haul flight.

This is the goal.

Monitor the seat map before the flight. This can be risky as it isn't always an accurate picture, but often in the back of economy you’ll find a handful of empty rows. I would then reserve a window or aisle seat in an empty row far in the back and hope no one else books a seat in the same row. If they do, all I’ve lost is a few spots in the immigration line at arrival, and I'm still likely left with an open middle seat between us. This approach landed me with "poor man's business class" on both 17-hour outbound and return flights of a recent San Francisco - Singapore trip on a United Boeing 787.

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seat map
Given this seat map, I believe 40D gives me the best chance to score poor man's business class.

For the bravest passengers, there is also the "middle seat gamble.” I’m not this adventurous, but some bold flyers are. Take a good look at economy in this seat map for a flight that, we'll say, is during check-in.

Why would anyone select a middle seat when aisle seats are available?

Who would intentionally choose a middle seat when aisle seats are open? A gambler, that’s who. Let’s say the gambler is in 40E, and you are looking to switch to an aisle seat. Which seat would you select? Probably one that leaves an empty middle seat next to you: 38C, 38F, 40C, 40J or 41D. Notice that 40D and 40F wouldn't be considered, leaving the gambler with his full row. Of course, this approach relies on luck that will eventually run out if the aisle seats on both sides of the gambler get booked, leaving him with a middle seat on an overnight flight. Or, as Kenny Rogers put it, "Somewhere in the darkness, the gambler he broke even."

On Board: If the seat map still shows my row is open when I’m boarding, it’s time to mark my territory in case anyone with much less foresight decides they want to upgrade their seat on board. Although my assigned seat is an aisle or window, I sit in the middle and spread out. Both arm rests go up, and my backpack and jacket mark the boundaries of my territory at far ends of the neighboring seats. Manspreading, you say? Okay, but it's for a good cause. And it's so extreme you’d think it’s a yoga pose. I have at least one part of my body in contact will all three seats.

Then I make myself as unapproachable as possible. Headphones in (but without music so I can stay alert) and head down. Apparently I'm so engrossed in my Instagram feed that no person with a hint of politeness would disturb me to ask if that seat is taken. It isn’t, but it will be: By my feet, in about 30 minutes.

It's not Saks Fifth Avenue bedding, but a whole row to yourself also means three blankets and three pillows.

In the Air: Paying for Budget Airline Upgrades

Gasp. Am I suggesting paying for an upgrade? Typically, I wouldn’t, but it’s worth exploring if you can't make your flight tolerable otherwise. On budget carriers, where pretty much all passengers are as cheap as you, often the only empty rows are the ones airlines charge for — usually up front and exit rows. This may be a way to score your own row, and sometimes can be done for cheap. It’s worth pricing it out. While United grossly overvalues their few extra inches of legroom in Economy Plus ($100+ more on long hauls), Spirit’s Big Front Seat can be much more reasonable.

And results can get even more interesting across the pond. On a recent WIZZ Air flight in Europe, I was forced to check my backpack, and using their packaged fare with one bag was cheaper than adding a bag separately.

However, for just $2 more, I could choose an extra legroom seat and even make my fare refundable for credit.

Note: I only put the price in dollars to clearly show the difference in cost. Always pay in local currency. When I did, the cost converted to $75.26 on my Chase Sapphire Reserve statement, which has no foreign transaction fees.

If you’re vehemently opposed to paying more than you absolutely have to, ask the gate agent nicely for a new seat. You've got nothing to lose and only legroom to gain. On a recent 4 a.m. return flight from Puerto Rico, a friendly conversation with a gate agent landed me poor man's business class in an exit row of an otherwise full flight.

An unexpected (and free) poor man's business class was the perfect end to an incredible weekend helping rebuild Puerto Rico with the TPG team.