Distinguished Travel Hacker: How to Always Pick the Right Seat on a Plane
At Bloomberg Pursuits, we love to travel. And we always want to make sure we’re doing it right. So we’re talking to globe-trotters in all of our luxury fields—food, wine, fashion, cars, real estate—to learn about their high-end hacks, tips, and off-the-wall experiences. These are the Distinguished Travel Hackers.
Todd Bliwise is the owner and founder of An Avenue Apart. The jet-setting travel agent logs between 200,000 and 300,000 miles in the air every year—or, as Bliwise puts it, “actual butt-seat miles, not qualification miles”—and specializes in ultra-high-end experiences. He lives in New York, though it’s more apt to call an airplane his home.
How to always pick the right seat on a plane:
People often forget on planes that one side will have the direct sun for the entire flight and the other side will have no sun at all. For those, like me, that like a window seat on the world, it’s important to pick the north side of the plane. On the south side, sunlight will stream in and you’re going to have to shut the window, because you can’t look out without disrupting passengers. On the north side, though, especially in winter months, you’ll see some incredible scenery, especially from Europe. I’ve seen the North Pole and even the Northern Lights.
How to transform a business-class seat into a personal, first-class cabin:
If you’re looking for that first-class experience in business—more private, attentive service, that is—one of the easiest things to do is tell the flight attendants you’re going to wait a couple hours to dine. Give them your meal order upfront, or you might not have the choice you want, but then in a couple hours let them know you’re hungry. Then you get one-on-one service: The soup tends to be straight out of the heater, so it’s nice and hot, and if you like your meat cooked a certain way—a little more rare, maybe—they have the ability to do that when yours is the only meal being prepped.
The two-point plan to beat jet lag:
Step One: My father is a sleep researcher, and I always bring sleeping pills on a plane. Just be careful how you use them: The half-life of Unisom and things like that is about eight hours, and it takes 30 minutes to an hour to kick in. But if you’re traveling transatlantic and you wait until you’re on the plane to take the pill, you only have six hours of airtime. So I take a pill in the lounge before I board, to be as efficient as possible, and the worst thing that’s ever happened to me is I fell asleep during dessert.
Step Two: I also always pack my running shoes, which are as vital as the sleeping pills. The greatest way to explore a new city is by running, because you cover twice as much ground as you would walking, and my father told me that one of the best things to fight off jet lag is exercise. Once, when I was on safari in South Africa, I was training for a marathon and needed to keep running, but there aren’t a whole load of places to run. I told one of the trackers, though, and we ended up with me running through the African bush with him behind me in a chase vehicle with a giant shotgun. The adrenaline I felt while doing that was absolutely insane.
What’s the most unfairly overlooked destination in the world?
There are few places left where you can be so isolated as Mongolia. The country is full of wide-open greenery and pastures as well as the Gobi Desert, where you can stay in luxury tented camps absolutely in the middle of nowhere. (And go eagle hunting.) Get a local guide and translator and spend a day with a local family, in their yurt, eating with them—the culture is so polar opposite to anything as Americans we experience now. Logistics, though, are a nightmare, so if you only have a week before you have to be back in New York, don’t do it—you need to give yourself a couple days’ cushion because it’s not the kind of place that runs on normal time.
How to choose the best luggage:
Most people don’t realize that a lot of luggage might be really sturdy, but it shows exactly how much it’s been through—a lot of brands, once you’ve put 100,000 miles on them, by the time you’re done, they look awful. I like luggage that’s able to disguise the amount of abuse it’s taken. So I use Tumi for my carry-on, because you can throw it under a seat or in the overhead bins and it’s not going to show a lot of scratch marks—most marks you can just wipe off with water. And Briggs & Riley is my go-to for suitcases; two of mine have lasted over 1.5 million miles, or 750,000 each. The cases are sturdy, look good, and although it’s a carry-on, it expands in case you do a little shopping.
Some of the best airlines aren’t the best-known:
When I’m in the U.S., I always travel Delta—it has the most Wi-Fi coverage, and you can usually get a flat bed on longer routes. But overseas it’s different, because SkyTeam is by far the weakest of the airline alliances. Airlines apply to Star Alliance and One World first, and if they’re denied the right to join, they go to SkyTeam. Most of its other member airlines are not of the same caliber as the greatest airlines in the world.
I particularly like Air New Zealand. It pioneered lots of different products, like premium economy: Its premium economy seating looks nothing like a regular seat, because it’s in its own shell. Air New Zealand also pioneered the Skycouch in economy, where you can buy three seats together and lay down flat—if you’re tall, it’s not great, but if you have a child, it can be fairly comfortable. People forget that Air New Zealand flies from L.A. to London, as well as New Zealand, so you can use it to get to Europe if you live on the West Coast.
The best airport in the world:
Hong Kong airport didn’t take away the sense of travel as other airports often have—there are huge floor-to-ceiling windows where you can see planes taxiing, taking off, or landing. Cathay Pacific also has two incredible lounges there: The Arrival, right after customs, has a substantial number of showers so you can go in and take a shower before heading into the city. A lot of flights from North America arrive in the morning, and your hotel room might not be ready, but you can shower here instead. Then there’s The Wing, which is one of the best first-class lounges in the world. It has these cabanas with a butler, full rainforest showers and giant marble soaking tubs, a work area, and a couch. Get your shoes shined, your suit pressed, or have some food—the service is better than most five-star hotels. You could happily spend an entire 8- to 10-hour layover in these cabanas.
On his first solo travel experience, aged 9:
I always had an independent spirit. When I was 9, my mom was at work, and I managed to pack a suitcase with what I thought were essentials: socks, T-shirts, saltine crackers. I took a taxi to the airport, and got to the door to board a plane without a ticket. It was only when the flight attendant stopped me that my mother got a call. And when I turned 15, I wanted to see all 50 states by the time I was 18, so I got a fake ID that said I was 18. I wasn’t interested in drinking, or partying, so I didn’t get one that said I was 21—I just wanted to be able to check in and out of hotels. My first was in New York, which was a very Home Alone experience, but by the time I turned 18, I’d been to 48 states. All I missed was Nebraska and South Dakota, and even to this day I still haven’t been to South Dakota.