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Travel

Around the world in economy class

By Richard Quest
CNN

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If you're really lucky, you can stretch out in economy.

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Business Traveller

SINGAPORE (CNN) -- It was born out of a simple premise. Our companies are expecting us to travel further, do more when we get there, and do it all as cheaply as possible.

And it has all been made worse by the introduction and promotion of the round-the-world ticket (RTW).

These multi-destination tickets effectively allow you to go anywhere in the globe and pay a fraction of what would cost to make those journeys individually. For instance, the Great Escapade ticket costs around £3,500 in business class.

It allows you to travel around the world -- for roughly the cost of one round-trip business class ticket to New York.

All the major alliances have these RTW tickets (Star Alliance, OneWorld, etc.) and they are slowly but surely becoming used more and more by business to cut costs.

Certainly they are complex. They stipulate the minimum number of days on the road (usually 10) and the number of destinations allowed (up to 15). You have to keep going in the same direction (east or west) and you can't cross certain oceans more than once.

They are often designated by regions rather than mileage. But, if you manage to follow the rules, then the benefits are huge.

We decided to take this one step further and do the trip in Economy Class. Our Star Alliance round-the-world ticket cost around $2,500 for a trip around the globe.

Our route would be London to Frankfurt to Singapore to Sydney to Honolulu to San Francisco to London. All in 10 days. And all in economy!

What follows is a diary to show how we did it, how we survived and whether we were able to do any business in our destinations, or -- please forgive the blunt language -- were we too knackered to do anything.

Some basic facts: I am 42 next month. I am 6-foot-2. I weigh 80 kg (about 176 pounds). And I will be regularly testing my cardio rhythms and sleep patterns for analysis when I get home.

Thursday

LHR-FRA: Depart London Heathrow for Frankfurt Main. Excitement levels at their height. We are truly going around the world. Our Lufthansa A300 is nearly empty. If the rest are like this then we are cooking with gas! The staff are lovely and are horrified at what we are doing. The cheese sandwich is a bit grim. The spicy chicken sandwich was a terrible mistake.

In Frankfurt, there's a day of filming downtown, and afternoon tea with some friends (imagine them as clients) in a central Frankfurt tea shop. This is all going very well.

Back to the airport to catch the late-night Singapore Airlines flight to Singapore. We are all frequent-flyer gold card holders, so even though we are in economy we have business lounge access. That enables us to shower and change before boarding the plane. An airport shower really does refresh you if you have been traveling all day. They always have towels, toiletries and good facilities.

FRA-SIN: There is no easy way to say this: The Boeing 777 plane is full. Youngsters, teenagers, backpackers, older holiday makers. Economy is heaving.

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Richard and the team leaving London.

Singapore Airlines tries to take pity on me. Would I like an upgrade? It kills me to refuse. I have to do this bloody trip in economy. A compromise is reached and they kindly move us to the first row of economy -- the bulkhead where there are no pesky reclining seats in front.

The food is excellent. The staff live up to their reputation. I actually manage to squeeze five hours of sleep out of my economy chair. Singapore Airlines' in-flight entertainment, Kris World, is in a world of its own. An exceptional selection of movies still running in the cinema, and all with video on demand -- which means I decide when the movie starts, not the airline.

Friday

Twelve-and-a-half hours later, when we touch down in Singapore, it is late Friday afternoon and I am feeling the trip. To simulate the business traveler, we immediately get to work filming at SIN airport. And then onto our hotel for meetings and dinner. Hit the bed around midnight.

Saturday

I know what it is. I know how it feels. I know there is little I can do to prevent it. But the onset of jet lag is always most unwelcome. That nasty, deep-down-inside exhaustion that makes you space out and wonder where you are, arrives with ferocity. But we are not deterred. Twelve hours of filming lies ahead, which also includes a bevy of meetings with hotel officials -- along with writing articles.

Sunday

I have allowed myself a day off. No, I am not a wimp. This is the last chance I will have to build up any reserves for the next eight days of travel. And, frankly, I don't want to be ill.

You see, I know what is ahead on Monday.

Monday

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Living out of a suitcase can take its toll.

Following a relative day of rest, I was pleased to note that my stress levels have returned to something approaching normality. I know this because one of the tests I am doing while going around the world is wiring myself up to a "stress heart monitor" on my laptop.

I have absolutely no idea how many heart beats per minute is normal, but my heart rate has fluctuated between 84 (when I seem to be most stressed) to around 69 this morning. Anyway, I am still breathing and the program said it was normal.

The day has been taken up with meetings, interviews and lunch. The interview was with a reporter from the Singapore Straits Times newspaper who was fascinated by this trip around the world. She looked at me as if I was slightly mad and shuffled to the other side of the room lest it was catching. She wanted to know my favorite form of holiday. A beach!

Lunch was a delightful affair with representatives from the Singapore Tourism Board who were briefing me about their new campaign, Uniquely Singapore.

They are concerned about the public perception of Singapore as being sterile and somewhat authoritarian. They believe it doesn't reflect today's Singapore, which is a haven of restaurants, nightlife and of course -- inevitably -- shopping. The campaign is designed to change that view. They too think I am mad to be subjecting myself to such travel horrors.

But -- remember -- I must simulate the business traveler. So I am spending the final few hours before my night flight in the Time Warner offices here in Singapore. Squeezing every last minute of work before heading to the airport.

Good news: Even though I am in economy on the red-eye to Australia, I think I have managed to secure another bulkhead seat. Yea! That means I should be able to get some sleep as I battle my way down to Sydney. Now I just have to hope there aren't any hyperactive children in the same row, because that is traditionally where they put the children.

I will arrive in Sydney at 0700, and have a full day, finishing off with a cocktail party with the U.S. Ambassador to Australia. I hope I don't slobber uncontrollably out of exhaustion.

Tuesday

SIN-SYD: There was no groveling involved. No pleading. No humiliating myself at the ticket counter. Out of the blue, the holy grail of the business traveler arrived. An upgrade had been bestowed upon me without even begging.

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Senior cameraman Rodney Herbert.

I had already been given my economy class boarding pass for Row 32G Then, minutes before I was about to board the plane the machine coughed as if it couldn't believe what it was being asked to do and threw out another boarding pass -- this time Royal blue. I was in Raffles Class 17H.

But, I hear you say: "Quest, you are supposed to be going around the world in economy. You must refuse!" The gate agent said economy class was oversold, so they were upgrading the Star Alliance gold-card holders to make room and had already given away my seat!

This, of course, has posed some ethical questions. First, should I accept the upgrade? Second, should I even tell you about it?

To the second there is no doubt -- of course. To the first ... well, it does happen in everyday business life. Regular flyers do get upgraded ... and the 7.5 hour flight was one of the shortest in our RTW trip.

Let me come clean. I love Sydney. So my day started with a morning briefing from our local office about the state of the Australian media industry, which was followed by a lovely lunch at Circular Quay with media representatives.

My speech became an act of confession. I bared my soul about the upgrade. The audience didn't offer much by way of absolution.

The afternoon was taken up interviewing a senior travel agent about these RTW tickets and how there are very much in use by business travelers in Australia because their journeys inevitably involved thousands of miles.

The evening was taken up having drinks with the U.S. Ambassador to Australia and the American Chamber of Commerce. Ambassador Tom Sheiffer is a long-standing friend and business partner of President George W. Bush. The Australian job is one of those quirky political appointments much loved in the U.S. civil service. Sheiffer must have served Bush well to get this plum posting! A long talk on the recently concluded U.S.-Australia free trade pact followed. I now know more about the issues of sugar and beef than is either decent or proper.

It is late. I have been on the go for 36 hours. And I have a very early start tomorrow. I am a guest on Channel 7's morning show "Sunrise." I am nervous. To those of you still harping on about that damn upgrade last night and think I should have turned it down: Would you?

Wednesday

Frankly it was too painful to write yesterday. It is bad enough to be in Sydney, one of my favorite places, but then to have to be working and only being here for 48 hours ... well writing about it would have meant you were intruding on private grief.

It is always tough to work where there are loads of holidaymakers and every seems to be having a good time. With the weather hot, sunny and with picture-perfect views from my hotel room, it was almost more than I could bear to put on a suit and go to work.

Not that the sun was up when my day started. 4.30 a.m. A morning television interview with my fellow early presenters at Channel 7's "Sunrise" show. There is a camaraderie about those of us who work the breakfast shows. We all know how it feels to get up in the middle of the night while others are sleeping and go to work.

They too seemed slightly bemused by my round-the-world antics -- and wondered whether this was just a peculiar working practice those of us at CNN do for a bet.

Sydney was now offering up a beautiful day. There is a definite party atmosphere in the city, which could have a lot to do with the fact that this weekend is the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Australia's largest street party and festival .

There were numerous outfits being worn around the city that, frankly, if I tried them on would get me the sack!

More interviews, this time with ABC Newstalk Radio, and more filming followed.

Finally, I could take it no more. My Speedos were calling my name. Bondi Beach beckoned. I had to have half an hour in the Pacific. (Don't worry, no filming or pictures exist of that episode.)

Dinner with colleagues and contacts finished off what should have, could have, and might have been a perfect day -- except for the fact that another early start beckons.

Still, I did a late stress test for Business Traveller and am delighted to say that my half an hour at Bondi has worked. I am no longer in the manic region of the stress chart. Now I'm just simply mad.

I am still not sleeping a full night's sleep. My body clearly knows I am doing something unnatural.

Thursday

It is just after 6 a.m. and I am waiting for my film crew to arrive at my hotel door to film me packing for the next leg of the journey. We are going on the Air Canada flight to Honolulu in Hawaii.

This should be interesting because we are crossing the date line as we head into the northern hemisphere.

This always requires a tremendous leap of faith and understanding. All of a sudden you literally jump back 24 hours. We will arrive in Hawaii on the same day. It has been explained to me many times how this works, but I still think there is something of the black magic about it.

(Incidentally, I know some people have wondered why we made this journey eastwards. Well, that is the reason. If we had gone westwards around the world we would have LOST a day crossing the dateline which we would only have recovered incrementally, an hour or two here and there as we continued, so it could not have been done in 250 hours.)

My cameraman and producer have just arrived. Both are grumpy as neither has had a good night's sleep. Jet lag is taking its toll. It is going to be a grim ride.

Thursday (again)

SYD-HNL: Pleasure and pain. The theme of the past two days.

First, pleasure! My misgivings about flight AC34 from Sydney to Honolulu (around 10 hours) were unfounded. Economy was a dream. The Airbus A340 was half empty. Yippee again. I had an entire row of four middle seats to myself. This is what we always hope economy will be like. It rarely is these days with capacity cutbacks ... but for some reason Air Canada's flight to Hawaii onwards to Vancouver was very light indeed.

Sleep and eat was the hallmark of the journey. The crew, who almost offered us the keys to the plane, could not have been better, even insisting I try a business class meal as well as the economy meal so I could compare and contrast. (You try eating two airline meals one after the other.) Frankly my four economy seats easily beat a full business class section. I felt for those in Business!

The pain arrived in Hawaii. One of our six checked bags didn't make the flight. It was an important one: It had the camera batteries and charger in it, as well as the TV lights. Now, to some extent, we plan for this, so we had a couple of batteries in another bag. Even so, frantic calls to Air Canada in Hawaii, London, Montreal and Sydney ... and we have been assured it WILL be on tonight's flight arriving at midnight. We will see.

Sorting out the pain meant less than four hours' sleep before I had to be up and about to swim with the dolphins. Our boat eventually found them and I jumped into the ocean. An entire pod of them swam past -- even they seemed amused at what we were doing around the world. Or maybe dolphins always smile like that!

I had half thought they would come up to me and wave ... well, that's what happens in movies. They didn't. They just swooped majestically passed me and wondered what all the fuss was about. After all, how would you react if someone just arrived in your home or office -- just to watch you!!

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Humpback whales put on a show in Hawaii.

There was more pleasure -- the humpback whales who come to Hawaii during mating season put on a show. Spouts, breaches and tails ... 40 feet long and weighing as many tons. And they were everywhere!

To pay for the pleasure, has to come the pain. Total exhaustion arrived. You really can't survive with three hours' sleep in economy . An afternoon nap was rudely interrupted by my producer insisting it was time to get back to work. More pain. Filming on the beach while beautiful men and women did extraordinary things on surfboards. I have only tried surfing once -- and prefer to draw a veil on the unfortunate episode.

Tomorrow after a bout of filming, our next Star Alliance carrier, United Airlines, will take us to San Francisco. This will be a visit of less than 24 hours, and quite possibly might polish me off!

A correction: Remember I told you I always got confused by the date line? Savvy readers will have noted my error. Our flight from Sydney didn't arrive on the same day -- it arrived the PREVIOUS day. Hence I have had two Thursdays. Now I just have to convince CNN accounts to allow me to claim Thursday's daily allowance twice. Doing THAT will make going round the world in economy seem like a doddle.

The final legs

Forgive me for not writing sooner, but I have been up to my eyes dealing with the jet lag of this trip, filming for Business Traveller and just making sure I get my clean laundry back from the hotel !

Thursday

An update on the lost luggage. Air Canada worked magic. The bag duly arrived shortly after midnight on the next Sydney flight. It was quickly cleared through customs and we were back in business.

Friday

Filming in Honolulu presented its own problems. More beautiful people tortured us with their abilities on surfboards. We stayed at Waikiki Beach. I had expected the worst excesses of commercialism. It was a very pleasant surprise to realize it was beautifully kept, with lovely facilities and charming scenery. Swimming with the dolphins brought its own rewards, as did the superb display put on by the whales who come down to Hawaii every year.

I bought some "delightful" Hawaiian shirts. Enough said.

It was over too soon. And time to head back into the air. This time United Airlines.

HNL-SFO: The 777 was in U.S. domestic configuration; this means rows and rows of economy seats. Far more than you'd see on one of its international 777's. And those seats were full. Also, there was no seat-back video so it was the main screen or nothing. Now, forget what you have heard about domestic flight attendants; this lot were charming, and seemed pleased to have so many paying passengers. Which considering United's previous parlous financial state is hardly surprising but welcome nonetheless.

An evening arrival into the Bay Area turned into a very late arrival at our hotel as we battled luggage, taxis and traffic. We stayed on Nob Hill. Well, we are getting to the end of our trip, so it was worth treating ourselves to a little comfort.

Saturday

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It's hard to get a bad shot of the Golden Gate Bridge.

We had to be up early on Saturday to film sunrise over the Golden Gate Bridge for the show. It was a horrible shock to wake up at 0515 to find the sun already heading into the sky. The hotel had thought we wanted daylight, not sunrise.

Still, it's hard to get a bad shot of the GGB whatever the sun. More filming on Saturday. By now we are starting to get a bit maudlin. We know the end is in sight. But not before we have battled one more flight. United Airlines 954.

SFO-LHR: The check-in was painful. The flight was late. The plane was full. SFO is an domestic airport with international aspirations. With 10 hours flying It had all the hallmarks of a very nasty experience waiting to happen.

But, United's flight crew once again ensured what could have been dreadful was at least bearable. Most of the fellow economy passengers were also business travellers. The guys from HP, the chap from Oracle, and one Indian gentlemen who seemed to spend most of his life flying selling what, I never found out.

Our arrival at LHR was late, but not dreadfully so. That is, until our gate was occupied and a 20-minute wait ensued on the runway. Now, tell me. The airport has known for 10 hours what time we are due to arrive. Why is it so difficult to ensure a vacant gate at the relevant time ?

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Home again, and still speaking to each other. Just.

And so our round-the-world trip came to an end. I am tired, jet-lagged and enormously grateful to have done it. There were moments when I thought it wouldn't end ... and much of the time when I enjoyed every moment.

My fellow CNN passengers were producer Meara Erdozain and senior cameraman Rodney Herbert. And yes, we are still speaking to each other. Just.

(You can see CNN Business Traveller "Around The World -- How Much can You Take" on Sunday, March 14 on CNNI at 2030 GMT).

Airlines flown

Lufthansa (LHR-FRA) Singapore (FRA-SIN) Singapore (SIN-SYD) Air Canada (SYD-HNL) United (HNL-SFO) United (SFO-LHR)

Awards

Best Entertainment: No contest ... Singapore with its Video-on-demand. Outclasses everything else. Best economy leg room (Pitch): Air Canada ... oodles of room in a big comfortable economy seat. Best Food: Singapore Airlines ... range, choice, availability. Best Purser: Air Canada's SYD-HNL ... almost gave us keys to the plane. Overall Friendliness: United ... they seemed happy we were on board.


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