This Is What a $20,000 Plane Ticket Gets You
Meet the men who vlog their ultra-first class flight experiences.
Screen grab from Sam Chui's YouTube channel.
The most popular uploads on Sam Chui's YouTube channel capture when he forks over the $20,000 to $34,000 necessary to book extremely exclusive ultra-first class flights on some of the most opulent airlines in the world. For instance, Etihad Airways' the "Residence"—essentially a full-service hotel in the sky. Chui arrives at his pre-flight leisure chamber in a suit and slacks, with a portable camera held chest-high. The head chef presents a pre-flight tasting menu of baked lobster and caviar, and his butler lights a musky cigar to pair with the exclusive wine selection. After a shave in the private salon, Chui is whisked off in a chartered buggy and driven directly to his gate. The Residence is sequestered from both business class and first class and features a private bedroom, shower, minibar, and a personally signed salutation from the captain. If you'd like, the attendants will serve your breakfast in bed.
Chui documents every moment of the service, from the second he enters the airport to the moment the plane taxis to the gate. He calls his videos "reviews"—appraising the food, the silverware, and the dimensions of his private television screen for any prospective aristocrats looking to spend their money wisely. For the rest of us, Chui's videos are purely lustful. Luxury travel is transparently gate-kept for the rich and powerful. So unsurprisingly, Chui's peek into this world many have no access to has gone semi-viral. He has nearly 200,000 channel subscribers, and 8.5 million people have watched him experience the Residence. Chui himself has taken up the mantle of "The World's Most Followed Aviation Blogger." Viewers are entranced by this alternate dimension, where all the flight attendants know your name.
"[A lot of] the audience looks at [my videos] as inspiration," says Chui. "I get a lot of fan mail every day, and I've got so many people saying, 'Sam keeping going, we don't have the means to do it, but watching your videos is the closest thing we get to seeing the first class of every single airline."
Chui is 36. He's a Chinese investment banker who's spent time in Australia, Hong Kong, and now lives in Dubai with his wife. He estimates he flies about 100 times a year, but unlike other travel bloggers, Chui doesn't spend much time touring around his destination. Instead, his goal is to maximize the amount of time he's in the air. Sometimes he'll jet off on a Saturday with a return flight booked for Sunday. Flying is where Chui finds his peace—it's an expensive way for him to switch off his brain and enjoy the minutia of first-class service. "Part of your excitement is just to fly somewhere," he says. "You don't go there for any reason. You just fly somewhere to be on the flight."
Can you even fucking imagine?
Chui hounds for discounts and frequent flier deals, but he makes good money and tells me he often pays full price for his flights—though his YouTube channel is popular enough to earn a small kickback from ad revenue. He's also adventurous and routinely travels outside of lavish first-class condos. In 2012, Chui boarded a flight to Tehran so he could score a seat on a vintage, 35-year old Boeing 747 on his return flight the next day.
Airlines have done an excellent job of destroying the grandeur of air travel over the last few decades—virtually every week a new story bubbles to the surface about what fresh hell the once-friendly skies above have been (literally) reduced to. But Chui is a romantic, and even the attendants on his flights are usually perplexed by his love of flight. "They see you taking hundreds of pictures, and they think you're either a massive aviation geek or you're a first time traveller who's trying to document everything," he says.
Sam Chui isn't the only one doing this. There are a number of people on YouTube filming similarly reverent tributes to the glory and perks of first-class flying—NeverNotFlying, Dennis Bunnik, the Luxury Travel Expert. Perhaps the most interesting, though, is Daniel Goz, a 20-year old kid currently enjoying his gap year in Gothenburg. Goz is not an investment banker (he's not even employed), but like Chui, he manages to fly 100 times a year in first-class cabins, all while keeping a running video diary of his journeys on his channel. Goz has built his gambit by applying for dozens of credit cards and taking advantage of the promotions and multipliers that dump bonus miles onto your account after crossing certain cash thresholds. "With any expertise you need to spend time on it, there's so much you need to read up on. Over the years, I've amassed this knowledge base I can play off," he says. "So for instance, I know that if I want to go to the US from Sweden, it might be cheaper to fly from a secondary airport and I can save $500 on a first class fare. There's little things like that you learn along the way."
There is something obscene about buying a first-class ticket every weekend. It's among the most expensive things you can do with your leisure time, and there is something nakedly hedonistic to flying around the world just to come back the next day. But Goz has proven that this is not a whimsy restricted to the elite. "I'm a freshman in college. I don't make more money than most people with full-time jobs, and I still manage to travel full time and have the most incredible experiences along the way," he says. "You have people who watch my videos who go wild. They suspect that you're some sort of billionaire, or your have Mafia ties to explain how someone can travel [in luxury] when they haven't even given it a try."
So perhaps opulent travel isn't restricted to thirstful YouTube videos, and a trip on the Residence is only a SkyTeam Rewards scheme away. But regardless of your economic situation, airline hobbying is not something you can do forever. "I don't have a kid yet," says Chui. "I'd have a change in lifestyle if that happens. You never know what the future will throw on you."
However, Chui will never fall out of love with flying. Neither will Goz, or any of the other content creators on YouTube distilling their trips for a wider audience. The one thing they all have in common is a beautiful inability to articulate exactly what they like about being on a plane. "It's addictive, in a way," says Goz. "I can't really describe it. The more I fly, the more I want to fly." It's a calling, a need, and they'll find a way to feed that desire in any way they can.
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