The best way to travel is always in the first-class cabin. You'll get enough leg room to satisfy a giraffe, cordon bleu cooking, and the chance to swap business stories and build connections with other high fliers. But it's expensive. Etihad Airways offers passengers a three-room suite on its flight from Abu Dhabi to New York, complete with butler, limousine, and shower room...for just $64,000. Other tickets come cheaper but you're always going to be paying several times the price of an economy class seat, a big difference when you're still in the early days of building a business.
For most people, suffering for a few hours squeezed into coach will be the way to go. But there are things you can do to reduce the pain. You won't actually be in the first-class cabin, but you might be able to believe that you are.
1. Build a Personal Cinema With Google Cardboard
Skipping the edited movie the airline has chosen for you is now pretty straightforward; You can load your laptop or tablet with all the shows and movies you want to watch. But you're still going to be looking at a small screen surrounded by other people watching their small screens.
Google Cardboard is a low-cost virtual reality viewer. Made of cardboard with a couple of lenses, it holds your phone on your face at the optimal distance to create a 3D effect. You can use it to watch virtual reality videos on YouTube but you can also use it to watch any other clip on the site. Press the three-dot "More" icon in the top right corner of a YouTube video and you'll be offered a "cardboard" option that splits the screen into two.
The downside is that you'll be limited to YouTube's selection, and you'll need to use the plane's Wi-Fi. But if you place a video of your choice on your phone and use one of the many virtual theater apps available to view it, you'll be able to watch any movie you want with Google Cardboard.
With the cardboard walls putting the rest of the plane out of sight, you'll feel like you're watching in your own private cinema.
2. Land a Giant Seat
The width of a seat in coach is typically about 17 inches wide. A first-class long haul seat will usually be between 20 and 25 inches wide; at best, on airlines such as Singapore and Etihad, you might get 35 inches. So if you're lucky enough to find yourself in an aisle with no one sitting next to you, you're likely to have more space than even the suckers in first.
There's no way to guarantee that the seat next to you will be empty but there are things that you can do to increase your chances. If you're traveling as a couple, instead of booking seats next to each other, reserve the window seat and the aisle seat in the same row. No one will choose a middle seat unless they have to, so if the flight isn't full, you'll have it to yourself. (And if the flight is full, you'll have an aisle or window to trade so that the two of you can sit together.)
You can also check SeatGuru.com to find the best seats on a flight, then recheck your flight 24 hours before departure. That's when regular fliers, who will have booked the exit rows and aisle seats, are likely to be upgraded, making those best places available again.
3. Load Up on Duty Free Food
There's not much you can do about the food when you're sitting in coach...and that's if the airline serves food at all. Sometimes, ordering a special meal, such as vegan or vegetarian, will land you a better taste of plastic but you can also make sure that you bring the kinds of treats that will give the meal a serious upgrade. Before departure, head to the duty free store and load up on a good quality box of chocolates or ask one of the airport restaurants to box up a meal for you.
Bring food with you--and make it high quality, instead of a cheap sandwich--and you can enjoy a better meal than the reheated food in first.
4. Shut Out the World With Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Google Cardboard will act like a pair of giant blinkers--what's out of sight you can put out of your mind. But you'll still be able to hear the plane. You'll hear the drone of the engines, the announcements from the pilot, the questions from the stewards, and the snoring of the passenger next to you. So invest in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
Bose QuietComfort 20 is probably the best, but it can set up you back $300 and there are cheaper options. Make sure you go for noise cancelling (rather than noise isolating) and your choice should work well at shutting out the low frequencies made by engine noise. If you're traveling often, they're a good investment. Together with Google Cardboard, you'll be able to feel you're anywhere.
5. Be the First on the Plane
First-class pampering begins before reaching the first-class cabin. The people with the expensive seats also get to skip the lines to board the plane. You can do that too, if you're traveling with children, but a Clear Card subscription will get you past security in five minutes for $15 a month at 13 airports across the country. TSA's PreCheck program will also whip you past the lines and through a special scanner for 13 airlines at more than 150 airports. It might not be quite the same as heading straight into the first-class cabin but it will give you more time to relax before heading to your window seat, with its personal cinema and missing neighbor.