Wanderlust: How it all started

Opinion by Johnny Bartz
Feb. 10, 2011, 12:24 a.m.

Wanderlust: How it all startedAs I wing my way across the continental U.S. on a morning flight to New York, I’m thinking back on how my travel interest came to be. Gone are the days of middle school track practice when the coach would quiz us on what type of plane was passing overhead. Too bad, because I was that kid who had memorized the list from the Northwest Airlines in-flight magazine, impressing the coach, yet probably leaving my teammates slightly annoyed. Gone also are the days when I regularly sat down my little brother so he could learn the direct international flights out of Minneapolis and truly comprehend what a 12-hour time difference was like.

Yes, planes had always fascinated me, but it wasn’t until high school that I became engaged in “flyer talk.” I worked at a bakery and my favorite customer was a Northwest employee.  Everyday she would come in to get her whole grain raisin cinnamon roll and we’d briefly chat about planes — the DC-9s were finally being phased out, fuel efficiency of the A330s, 757s being sent on trans-Atlantic ops. There is a special sort of bond that aviation enthusiasts share with one another that is perhaps not as communicable among those not accustomed to the jargon. Do you prefer Boeing or Airbus? What do you think about the new 787? Are you a fan of the classic jumbo jet queen of the skies, the overpowered 757-200 that climbs like a fighter jet, or do you prefer the retro MD-80s?

Anyway, my customer led a glamorous lifestyle — meeting with Airbus execs in France, jetting off to Amsterdam just for dinner, spending a long weekend in Monaco. This was incredibly intriguing to me, and I gradually made a realization: I too could fly to Europe for the weekend if I wanted to. Not every weekend, but this impossible idea to a kid who was accustomed to just watching planes was now well within reach.

I guess maybe it’s not fair to say that all of my travel inspiration came from my classy customer at the bakery. I already knew the ins and outs of booking cheap airline tickets, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before I actually started buying them. And let me tell you, once college rolled around things did not go well — it was utterly macabre. I’ll tell you about my surprise trip to Italy in next week’s column, but first I should probably give you the rundown for booking airline tickets. Search for fares on Tuesdays. Airlines release fares every Monday, and will often frantically match each other’s prices. Check back often, because as I’ve said before, winter is a great time to pick up a great fare, but it’s almost over! Currently there are domestic and international fare sales on all major airlines, some of which are only valid until the beginning of next week. For weekend trips, try leaving on a Thursday, coming back Monday or Tuesday, as these are generally light travel days, meaning cheaper fares will be available.

If you’re traveling far, try booking the long flight from a hub or focus city. Then get yourself there on a discount airline. For example, fares from New York City to Europe are often a fraction of what they cost from any other city since there is so much competition from international airlines. Another possibility is to fly directly to a hub in Europe and buy your onward leg on a discount carrier. With three nonstop flights a day from SFO to Heathrow, London is quite consistently the cheapest destination to fly to in Europe. The airport is a nightmare, so allow for lots of commuting time. Just as a warning, be sure you are leaving from the same airport that you arrive to — the last thing you want is to be traipsing around the UK looking for podunk regional airport to catch your Ryanair flight.

Yes, I miss the days where I could lay out on my deck and identify planes by the sound of their engines. Lucky for me (and you too!), under common wind conditions most inbound traffic to SFO passes right over Stanford, sometimes performing spectacular banking turns, as they turn to the northwest to line up for runway 28R/L. See if you can spot my personal favorite, the KLM MD-11 that passes Stanford around 1:25 p.m. It’s a spectacular sky blue aircraft with a huge engine mounted at the base of the vertical stabilizer and crisp white winglets. KLM is actually the last commercial airline to regularly operate passenger MD-11s, so it’s a real treat to be able to see this beauty in our backyard. Time is limited as on March 1st the flight is upgraded to a 777-200ER and April 1st it becomes a 777-300ER for the summer.

Have you ever been hit by a bike as you crane your head to the sky looking at planes?  Tell Johnny about it at [email protected].

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