Travel Style: Mark Vanhoenacker

Want to know how to travel in style, just like the pros? We check in with frequent fliers to find out how often they fly, their favorite destinations and what they never leave home without.

Mark Vanhoenacker

Mark Vanhoenacker

Name: Mark Vanhoenacker

Occupation: 747 pilot and freelance writer; author of “Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot,” published in April in the UK by Random House, and in the United States in June by Knopf

Hometown: Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Residence: Somewhere between London & New York

College major: History

Website: skyfaring.com

Twitter: @markv747

Short bio: I’ve always loved airplanes. I studied history in college and grad school, but I left the academic world in order to become a management consultant—I had heard they get to fly a lot! I left that career in 2001 to try to fulfill my childhood dream of becoming an airline pilot. I now fly the Boeing 747 for British Airways, from Heathrow to destinations around the world. “Skyfaring” is my first book.

How often do you fly? It’s easier to ask an airline pilot how often they don’t fly! I work on average four or five days per week.

How many countries have you been to? I just counted and it came to 63. Actually, I’m surprised it’s not higher—that’s only about one-third of all the countries on Earth. You’d think a pilot might do better than that! I’ll get to work on it. And even that figure includes a few countries I’ve flown into and out of without ever leaving the airport.

How many continents have you been to? All but Antarctica. Someday, I hope. I once saw “Antarctica” on a departure screen at Cape Town’s airport, it was very tempting! 

Earliest travel memory: I remember flying with my mom, when I was about four, and having a tantrum that I wasn’t in the window seat. I kicked the tray of the stranger sat next to me so hard that their food flew up and all over them.

Favorite American city: It’s so hard to decide, but I’m going to go for Phoenix. I love the great outdoors and the city is surrounded by so much natural beauty. And in the winter, skiing is only a few hours away.

Favorite international city: Cape Town.

Least favorite country: None.

Favorite World Heritage Site: The Namibian desert. Magnificent dunes, a haunting coastline and extraordinary wildlife in one of the world’s least-densely populated landscapes.

Favorite airline: I’m lucky to work for the airline I’d wanted to work for even as a child—British Airways. I think we offer a unique combination of tradition and innovation.

Favorite aircraft type: The Boeing 747 is the plane that captured my imagination as a kid, and I’m grateful I’ve had a chance to fly it. At some point in the next few years I’ll switch—perhaps to the A380 or the Boeing 787.

Aisle or window: I spend a lot of time sitting in cafes in foreign cities, people-watching; I think of the window seat as the best spot for world-watching. Indeed, my friends always laugh at me when I travel as a passenger, because I always ask for a window seat. But as a customer you can see things that pilots can’t see easily in flight—such as the trailing edge, or rear portion, of the wing, which is so technically intricate and is practically alive, especially after takeoff and just before landing. And of course, as passengers we have the time to listen to music and watch the world go by.

Favorite U.S. airport: I think the recently renovated Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX is a work of art.

Favorite international airport: I’m biased as British Airways flies to and from here, perhaps, but I love Heathrow’s Terminal 5 satellites, known as 5B and 5C, it’s easy to find a quiet place to sit by the enormous windows and watch the planes taking off for all over the world. I prefer that to shopping. Another favorite airport is Vancouver’s. It’s spacious, bright and offers aquariums and fountains—its architects definitely took to heart all those studies about the calming effects of water.

Favorite hotel: I’m a big fan of road trips in the western U.S., and I have to say it’s Motel 6 that’s most often brought me comfort on a lonely highway late at night. They’re reliable, inexpensive and clean. And they’ve got Wi-Fi and coffee. What else do you need between your long hours on a great American road?

Favorite cruise line: I’ve never taken a cruise, sadly. Someday I’d love to take the Queen Mary 2 between Southampton and New York, and see up close the ocean I fly over so often. In the heyday of Concorde there were UK-New York vacations sold as a cruise one way, Concorde the other way. It couldn’t have been slower, or faster, or more luxurious.

Favorite island: Zanzibar. The combination of history, beaches and food is like nowhere else I’ve ever been.

Favorite beach: Diaz Beach, at Cape Point, near Cape Town. It’s far too cold to swim. But there’s dazzling sand, pounding blue-and-white surf and vertiginous, rocky cliffs that tower above you. From a trail above, you have to carefully climb down a rickety old staircase to get to the beach, which means that even on the sunniest days you often have it all to yourself.

Favorite fancy restaurant: Craft, in New York City.

Favorite hole-in-the-wall: More an upscale deli than a hole-in-the-wall, but I’m going with the Marketplace Café in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Favorite bar: The Lobby Bar at One Aldwych in London.

Favorite food: I love Indian food. It’s true there is amazing Indian food in Britain, but I’m always happy to compare dishes with the original versions on my downtime on flights from London to Delhi or Bangalore.

Least favorite food: I love most Japanese food. But once I was served odori ebi, or live shrimp. I survived the meal (which is more than the shrimp can say). But I won’t be ordering it again anytime soon.

Drink of choice (in the air and on the ground): Schweppes Bitter Lemon is for some reason incredibly refreshing in-flight. On the ground, a strong coffee—especially if I’m battling jet lag.

Favorite travel movie(s): That’s an easy question for any pilot to answer. It’s Airplane! Of course.

Favorite travel book(s): “Out of Africa” by Isak Dinesen.

Right now I am reading: “1Q84” by Haruki Murakami. It’s making me yearn for a trip to Japan, where I haven’t been in several years now.

Favorite travel website(s)—besides JohnnyJet.com, of course! As a fan of all things aviation-related, I read Patrick Smith’s writings at askthepilot.com. He’s incredibly smart and is very good at explaining flying to a curious public. I like worldhum.com and the online travel pages of major newspapers. I also like Air Transport World Online, atwonline.com. It’s geared more to aviation professionals, but it’s also a good way for travel aficionados to keep track of new routes, aircraft and airports all around the world.

5 things you bring on a plane: When I fly as a passenger I bring a good eyeshade—the Bucky ones are great. Earplugs (which Bucky shades include). A bottle of water. Also a banana or two—whatever the hour they’re the perfect, healthy in-flight snack.

What do you always seem to forget? A pen to fill out those customs forms.

What do you like least about travel? I think the whole business of very high roaming charges for cell phones abroad is one of those things we’ll look back on in thirty years and we won’t be able to believe it was ever this way.

What do you want your loved one to buy you from an airport Duty Free store? Lots of countries have very specific candies or sweets that are beloved locally but relatively unknown abroad—like Dolly Mixtures in the UK. I’m always interested in trying new ones.

Favorite travel app(s): TripIt turns your travel confirmation e-mails into an itinerary. It had a few glitches early on—understandable, since it can’t control how hotels or rental cars format their e-mails. Now it works great.

But my favorite travel app, of a sort, is Wiki Offline. It’s the entire text of Wikipedia, offline—yes, it’s fits on a smartphone!—though it doesn’t include photographs. Wherever you are in the world, you can read up on a city, a neighborhood, or a historical event without worrying about roaming charges.

Most embarrassing travel moment: I drove through Oman several years ago with a friend. In the desert we pulled only about a foot-and-a-half off the paved edge of the road and got completely stuck in sand. After a few minutes of wheel-spinning the sand was up to the level of the doors. Soon a car stopped to help, and then another, until there were a few dozen Omanis looking after us. They pulled us out and very cheerfully sent us on our way, but we felt as if we’d been foolish.

What’s your dream destination? I’ve flown to Buenos Aires several times as a pilot but I’ve never left the airport. I’ve heard so many amazing things about the city, and I’ve seen it from the air so often. It’s been at the top of my list for a while now.

Favorite travel charity: As a longhaul pilot I fly to many places that are less economically fortunate than Europe or North America. For travelers who want to give back, I think Flying Start, British Airways’ charity partnership with Comic Relief and Boys & Girls Clubs of America, is a great place to start. It aims to raise money to help children around the world living incredibly tough lives. You can donate your spare change and cash on board, or donate directly.

We often carry individuals or groups who are travelling as part of a fundraising initiative. Last year I was one of the crew on the flight that carried police officers involved in J-A-C-K, a charity fighting cancer in children, from London to New York. It was an honor to see their commitment firsthand.

Best travel tip: It sounds obvious, but the smoothest trips I have as a passenger are generally those where I check-in online, arrive early at the airport and check in my bag. Arriving early takes the rush out of travel—and with a laptop and Wi-Fi I can get back to work after security, so there’s not really any downtime.

Johnny Jet

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About the Author

Johnny Jet
I used to be afraid to fly and at times even leave the house! I conquered my fear (long story) and now I travel to 20+ countries a year sharing my firsthand knowledge, tips and deals with friends, family and readers. Please sign up to our free newsletters and tell your friends!

1 Comment on "Travel Style: Mark Vanhoenacker"

  1. John Browning | June 24, 2015 at 10:15 am | Reply

    Why do you not have a print feature on your blog? I don’t like to read on the screen.

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