Guatemala, the hidden gem of Central America, is one of Anisha’s favourite spots. Pictured: Lake Atitlan

MADE BY MEMBERS • January 2021

Going for Gold: travelling for the greater good

Ani Shah
Anisha Shah

@anishabbc

Anisha Shah is a former BBC reporter and travel photojournalist who has used her favourite airline (you guessed it) to reach some of the world’s most far-flung destinations. Some 108 countries later, she’s retraining as a doctor in order to give back to the world that she’s spent a lifetime exploring. We find out more…

I remember that first experience of lie-flat beds and Champagne on my first Club World flight in 2011 to New Delhi. It set the scene for a very regal trip, during which my husband proposed to me at one of the royal Taj palaces in Rajasthan, India. To top it all, we returned in First from Mumbai. My British Airways journey started out extravagantly: once I tasted First, that was that. Our Executive Club addiction began. 

At the same time, I left my staff job as a broadcast journalist at the BBC to freelance as a travel photojournalist. On assignments for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, Lonely Planet and niche glossy publications, I became a very frequent flier and made a conscious effort to fly British Airways where possible. I almost always travelled alone and to unfamiliar, emerging destinations, so British Airways felt like a safety net and a familiar comfort. This overarching safety I felt in those wings played a huge role in my loyalty to BA in the early days.


My career on the road took a natural turn towards giving back to communities and wildlife conservation. This has meant repeat journeys to East and Southern Africa and Asia. On assignment to Madagascar to document the plight of severely endangered lemurs, I flew British Airways to Kenya, then onwards. I jumped at another assignment to travel, via BA, to Uganda to live among chimpanzees rescued from cruelty in the circus trade, at Ngamba Island on Lake Victoria. An assignment to Guatemala saw me fly again to Miami, then onward via oneworld partners, never losing out on Tier points. More humanitarian pursuits regularly take me to India, landing in Chennai, Mumbai and New Delhi, to contribute to supporting rural communities, women and children. These journeys add up to a lot of flying time and that’s how I maintain Gold.

Rising through the ranks
In that first year of joining the Executive Club, I became Silver through my initial flights and, during the second year, I became Gold within months. This happened as my work schedule quickly hastened. The good news is, I have remained Gold for the decade since.

I’ve never stopped to consider the number of flying hours, but I know that I clocked 25 to 30 countries annually, for some consecutive years. Trips were back-to-back and to six continents. The pace of frequent flying and hectic itineraries admittedly takes a toll. Assignments are often whistle-stop tours of an entire country within days, with packed schedules. Even my personal leisure trips became whirlwind voyages of discovery to raw and offbeat destinations. However, exploring new countries and cultures is an absolute privilege. In the 108 countries I’ve travelled to, I have never had a truly bad experience. On the contrary, I’ve learned that humankind is inherently good – heart-warmingly so – like the time I left my phone in a random taxi in Iran and the café owner assured me it would be returned because nobody steals. It surely was.

The day that British Airways released flights, post-lockdown, to Croatia, I hopped on board.

Annually, I take 15-plus British Airways flights, in a combination of Club Europe, Club World and First. And India, East and Southern Africa and Europe are the recurrent features. Central and South America and Asia get a cameo each year, with various destinations from Mexico City and Costa Rica to Japan, South Korea and Thailand, to travel onwards to the lesser-visited Myanmar and Taiwan. You could say I’m a long-haul traveller at heart! Somehow, flights shorter than eight hours never quite satiate my soul. 

The year that changed everything
2020 has been one big anomaly for most of us. Personally, I’ve pivoted hugely, deciding to study medicine. It’s a full circle journey, as I was set to study medicine at a younger age but didn’t follow through. Instead, travelling extensively became a way to contribute to wildlife and humanitarian causes. With my studies moved online thanks to the pandemic, the day that British Airways released flights, post-lockdown, to Croatia, I hopped on board and journeyed to the unspoilt island of Šolta with its Baroque castle, Martinis Marchi, straight out of the pages of a history book

After my Europe fix, I flew BA to Kenya, where I’ve found refuge from pandemic chaos. As I write this, I am at Hemingways Watamu (pictured below) in coastal Kenya, where I’ve been living for the past five months, watching the seasons change on the Indian Ocean. Here, I’ve been working to showcase this region of Africa as a relatively safe destination, so I’m pleased the UK FCO recently opened up Namibia and Rwanda and hope for more African countries to follow. Once in-person clinical teaching resumes, I will be grounded for the foreseeable future, but have no doubt I’ll find solace in escapes for long European weekends.

inset-Hemingways Kenya

Ready-to-go routes
Long-haul routes such as Singapore, Seoul, South Africa (hello, Cape Dutch wine estates of Constantia), New York, Miami – on transit to Central America – and Bangkok have been major Tier point earners for me. Seoul, in particular, became a frequent repeat destination, as a perfect jump-off (with a charming café culture to boot) to Taiwan, Myanmar and Japan. The Indian Ocean featured heavily for a couple of years, with the Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar, Mozambique and the Seychelles recurring (undoubtedly my favourite corner of the planet!).

I’d also note that the Middle East was a front-runner for several years. First-timers should head there for the pristine mountains and beaches of Oman, or to my favourite rising star, Bahrain. Meanwhile one of my most memorable ‘trips of a lifetime’ was Jordan and Lebanon – four-wheel driving and glamping in the Wadi Rum desert, hiking the ancient sandstone ruins of Petra and savouring the gastronomy and sand-to-ski lifestyle of Lebanon. 

My daughter is now nearing four years old. She’s on track for BA’s Lifetime Gold membership.

Lastly is Europe, my home continent, bathed in history, culture and natural splendour. I’ve visited most European countries, but I couldn’t live without spring strolls in Paris, cosy autumnal gallivanting in Vienna and lazy summer days in Croatia and Montenegro.  

Runs in the family
In 2016, the first half of my pregnancy coincided with a frenzied travel year. I’d already flown on assignment, via BA, to India, then Ghana, Benin and Togo, followed by Croatia and Montenegro. My next assignment in Canada and Alaska was when I started showing. Immediately after, I was straight out to South Africa, Namibia and Botswana on a four-wheel drive adventure, bumping along lunar landscapes on dirt tracks for days and glamping under infinite starry skies by night. I then flew straight to South Korea and Japan. I had been due to travel with BA to Baku, on a journey through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, but was unable to travel due to a challenging latter half of pregnancy, which meant I was missing Gold renewal by a few Tier points. However, BA kindly extended my membership due to the medical circumstances.

My daughter, Gia Sereni, now nearing four years old, has travelled to more than 35 countries mostly on BA First and Club with her own Executive Club Membership. She’s on track for BA’s Lifetime Gold membership.

inset-Croatia

Croatia proved to be Anisha’s oasis during the pandemic


The perks of Gold

1) The First lounges. They provide that touch of luxury, especially on hectic back-to-back itineraries that often become exhausting and disorientating. The BA Gold lounges have been something of a sanctuary and a homecoming. Wherever I found myself in the world, arriving into a Gold lounge I immediately felt ensconced in safety, privacy and luxury. If I’m flying First, I even try to arrive a little early for the extra-special Concorde Room. Its fabulous bar, slick service from familiar faces who have become friends, and the private cabanas to retreat into, are pure luxury in my mind.

2) The First wing at Heathrow Terminal 5. This dedicated Gold and First entrance has a fast, separate security area that leads directly into the First lounge and Concorde Room. What I dread most about airports are long queues. For the past decade, T5 has well and truly been my second home: my happy place. Being a frequent flier, I appreciate the speed and luxury of fast check-in and security, with a discreet entrance leading straight into the lounges. It eliminates the hassle factor of travel, making the process seamless and, dare I say it, enjoyable.

3) Personalised welcome on board. Being greeted on board by name by the head of cabin services is a welcoming personal touch. Appreciating loyalty is the essence of hospitality, after all.

4) Avios. Gold members gain extra Avios on booking flights, and those points have added up to many miles in the air. In fact, I’ve travelled First to Singapore solely on Avios.

Parting wisdom
Eleutheromania is defined as a frantic zeal for freedom. If it’s a condition, then consider me afflicted. Failing that, play smart. Book in advance and make the most of the sales offers on both flights and holidays. We once travelled to Jamaica return on Club World for £900 per person. And look up oneworld Alliance partners, as booking with these carriers can also add extra Tier points.


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