Unhappy Trails
One of the many downsides to being Nouveau Poor is my sudden inability to indulge in all the little luxuries my long-lost wealth used to afford me. Oh, I make a feeble attempt to cling to my glory days by insisting on retaining my ridiculously extravagant executive membership at my expensive health club (where I can use my house account to charge a few of the other little luxuries I can't do without but am otherwise unable to afford, like apple martinis, overpriced hair services, and gourmet takeout cuisine), but, for the most part, the rest if the fun stuff is but a fond and distant memory. No more trolling the aisles of Barnes & Noble for the latest in hardcover or DVD boxed set; no more snapping up expensive Williams-Sonoma kitchen equipment I am destined to never use; no more impulsive decisions in the middle of Best Buy to replace perfectly functional home entertainment components with smaller, fancier, pricier models.

And vacation as I know it is out of the question.

I used to take such wonderful vacations. I've hiked through Vineyards in Tuscany, been rolled up in mud wraps at an Arizona health spa, and lounged around on a Jamaican beach three deck chairs down from Ralph Lauren and his entire family. In fact, my old vacations were so enjoyable I've avoided taking another for the past three years, because, let's face it, once you've been served high tea at the Bermuda Southampton Princess the last thing in the world you're up for is wrestling with the in-room coffee maker at the Hampton Beach Motel 6.

Thus, it was with great trepidation that I finally accepted my sister's standing invitation to visit her at her no-longer-new apartment in Paris, even though I desperately needed some time off and wanted to spend my mother's birthday with my parents in Normandy. I've been meaning to go for the past two years, but I dreaded the flight so much I kept putting it off.

Not that I'm afraid of flying, mind you.

I'm afraid of the Frolickers. More precisely, I'm afraid of becoming one.

As an employee of a certain Very Large and Very Evil Mutual Fund Company back in the mid-nineties, I used to travel regularly. As a result, I racked up an obscene number of frequent flyer miles, which I then applied to make my subsequent travels more comfortable. I never once used my miles for free tickets. I used my miles for perks. In fact, by the time my traveling days drew to an end, I belonged to two airline clubs, flew business or first class almost exclusively, and, when geographic considerations precluded me from staying at a hotel with the word "Ritz" in its name, never resided in anything less than a deluxe business room on the concierge floor. It was sweet.

The one thing I didn't like about traveling for business was the inevitable and highly unwelcome presence of the category of traveler known as the Frolicker.

The Frolickers never travel for business. They're on vacation and they make sure everyone knows it. It's a good time they're after, and they will have that good time come hell, high water, hurricanes, or blackout rules.

I admit, we Non-Frolickers did our share of sneering at the Frolickers as we bypassed their winding queues on our way to the Priority Business Class Check-In counter. We strode by them during the Elite Traveler pre-boarding call, snorting our derision as they scrambled about, trying to retrieve the contents of the overstuffed carry-on that had exploded during their long wait at the gate. And, yes, we smirked in mock sympathy, sipping our complimentary pre-takeoff champagne in our jumbo leather-trimmed seats, as they trudged through the business class cabin on their long, slow, painful trek back, back, back to the cramped torture that awaited them in that rear-of-the-plane Purgatory commonly known as "Economy Class" but which we snidely referred to amongst ourselves as "Steerage."

Yes, being a Non-Frolicker was to be a member of a glorious club, membership in which entitled us to pass as Non-Frolickers while we vacationed, when, technically, we were really frolicking.

The differences are clear.

Frolickers fly coach. They hoard their frequent flyer miles and use them to secure non-refundable Super Saver tickets with at least two difficult connections and end up spending their first day on holiday engaged in long, futile arguments with unsympathetic gate agents when their flights are delayed and subsequent connections missed. Non-Frolickers fly direct and usually sit in business or first class. Occasionally, they will be required to accept a seat in full-fare economy, which they will bear with an air of resigned graciousness and, if not immediately upgraded, will at least be compensated for the inconvenience with travel vouchers or a choice spot in the exit or bulkhead rows.

Frolickers haunt the waiting lounges, crammed in with the other Frolickers, most of whom tote multiple screaming Young Frolickers. They can never find seats among the Frolicking throngs, so they sprawl out on the floor, constructing precarious forts out of their gigantic suitcases which are constantly toppled onto their heads by careless ground personnel passing by. Non-Frolickers belong to airline clubs and wait there for their flights to be called, watching CNN or MSNBC, reading the Wall Street Journal, or simply kicking back at the bar enjoying premium lagers and complimentary snacks.

When a Frolicker's flight is canceled due to bad weather, he or she will sleep in the airport and gain fleeting, anonymous fame as one of the "stranded travelers" captured on video by the local news team to demonstrate how bad the storm really is. When a Non-Frolicker's flight is canceled due to bad weather, he or she will simply shrug and head off to a nice dinner before checking into the nearest hotel and head out on the first flight the next day. The Frolickers will still be living in their suitcase forts a week later, still waiting for the airline to open up the standby list so they can go home.

I have closely guarded my few remaining frequent flyer miles, reserving them for the moment when I know I can no longer bear the monotony of my life. When I booked my Paris trip, I had 37,371 miles in my account. Enough for a single one-way, one-class upgrade. The question was: which leg of the flight was I going to use it for?

I agonized over my decision. The flight to Europe was an overnight one, which requires a certain level of travel comfort so as to stave off the worst effects of jet lag, but the flight from Europe was an hour longer - unbearably long after a leisurely vacation in the French countryside. Luckily, the reservations agent (the brusque, unfriendly regular  reservations agent, not the fawning, accommodating American Airlines Platinum reservations agent I was used to dealing with) made the choice an easy one when she told me without a hint of empathy that the only seat available on the flight over was seat 36E (that's smack in the middle of the very last row, closest to the bathroom). Since I rarely sleep on airplanes anyway, I knew accepting that seat would mean six and a half hours sitting straight up and stock still in the midst of a mass of snoring, drooling Frolickers and staggering off the plane at 6:30 a.m. nauseous, bloodshot, and exhausted.

I swiftly sacrificed the 25,000 miles required to move up to my favorite airplane seat: 9A. Business class bulkhead, next to the window.

That American Airlines flight to Paris was a bittersweet last hurrah. Despite my anguish at being financially unable to pass through the oaken door to the hallowed sanctity of the Admiral's Club, I savored every moment - the priority check in, the pre-takeoff champagne (Perrier-Jouet! In the flower bottle!) and the complimentary Bose noise-canceling headsets so considerately offered by the obsequious flight attendant. Even if I had been able to, I had no desire to sleep. I just sat awake, breathing in the Business Class air, snuggling in my Business Class blanket, and reflecting fondly over the Days of Travel Past.

I'm not going to tell you about the flight home. Mainly because I've blocked most of it out of my consciousness. But what I will tell you is this: thanks to this trip, I have added over 6,337 new miles to the 12,083 that were left in my account after the upgrade. Only 6,580 to go.

I'll be back.