What’s it like to travel long haul on a budget airline?
Update autumn 2019:
While I’ll leave this post up as some of the issues about travelling long haul on a budget airline are still valid, this route no longer operates. In addition, there have been some concerning reports about the financial health of Norwegian Air in the travel press. Some long haul routes have been cut as the airline makes efforts to return to profitability. This report from the FT gives some background, but for the meantime, it’s a case of buyer beware. If you choose to book, particularly if that’s some time in advance of when you plan to travel, make sure you have adequate travel insurance that covers you for unexpected accommodation bills and new flights, just in case.
It’s one thing to pay a few pounds and hop on a Ryanair flight across the Channel, but what’s it like to travel long haul on one of the budget airlines. I put it to the test using Norwegian to carry me across the Atlantic and here’s what I thought.
Flights: LGW to SJU
Norwegian operates flights twice weekly departing Wednesdays and Saturdays. They offer fares from under £300 return if you book well in advance which compares favourably with scheduled airlines serving other direct flight Caribbean destinations such as Antigua and Barbados.
Unlike their European routes, it’s not possible to check-in online with Norwegian for destinations to the USA and that included our destination, the US territory of Puerto Rico. That’s not such a big deal when you’re departing from a small airport, but I was a little apprehensive as to how long the wait would be to check in at London’s busy Gatwick Airport. In the event, it took less than half an hour to get checked in and proceed to security which wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
Checked baggage comes at a price; £25 for each sector if pre-booked but significantly more if purchased at the airport. Travelling with my husband, we decided to take one full sized case and the rest as carry-on. My much travelled Samsonite wheelie almost exactly matches the dimensions of Norwegian’s permitted carry-on at 55 x 40 x 20cm (Norwegian allows 55 x 40 x 23cm). It’s a light case, which is a factor as it has to be lifted into the overhead bins and doesn’t go over the 10kg weight limit. But it’s also spacious, and easily big enough for a week’s worth of clothes for the Caribbean, though if you were heading further north at this time of year to one of the big US cities served by Norwegian you’d be struggling for space.
Normally, my husband and I wouldn’t bother to pay extra for seat assignment on a short haul flight, but we decided to go ahead as this was a nine hour flight. Each way cost us £25, a total of £100 to sit together. I do think that’s steep. We chose from an online seating plan opting for the back row of the plan (row 40) as this has a 2-3-toilet configuration, meaning we expected to have the section to ourselves. You can see it here at Seatguru:
However, although we were still on a 787 Dreamliner, the plane we ended up travelling on had 42 rows ( though 40 on each of the side sections) and they were 3-3-3. This was what we got:
So we ended up with someone next to us which was a bit of a disappointment. Fortunately, few people seemed to be using the rear toilets so it wasn’t too disruptive.
On the outward leg, we found the space to be really cramped. Neither of us are exceptionally tall, but we do have long-ish legs. When I checked I was surprised to find that the legroom at 31-32 inches was similar to most long haul airlines. The width also compared to the norm at about 17 inches, though this would have been more comfortable if we’d have had window and aisle as we expected rather than window and middle which is what we got. We could have opted to pay extra for Premium Economy which offered a seat pitch of 46 inches.
Neither of us felt it would be a good use of our funds to pay for the in-flight meals, opting instead to have a meal before we left and take snacks on board and pay for drinks airside. We were happy with this decision; the trays of those fellow passengers opting for meal service looked OK but not over-generous and we didn’t feel we’d missed out. A lot of people had done the same as us. It was an even better decision on the return journey when we had a shorter journey (thanks to a speedy tailwind) and of course, being an overnight flight, we slept for a significant portion of the journey.
The choice of entertainment was perfectly reasonable though I had a good book to read so didn’t end up watching any of the content. There were recent films I hadn’t seen. You should be aware that you either need to purchase headphones or bring your own. Also it’s worth noting that the WiFi that you find on some European flights with Norwegian isn’t available on their Trans-Atlantic routes.
Blankets and pillows
These aren’t given out free of charge as you’d find with a full service airline. You can buy a blanket at a cost of $5 but we found bigger, fleecier and warmer ones in Walmart for $3 a pop. Since we unpacked, they’ve been appropriated by the dogs!
This was my second time on a Dreamliner after flying from Easter Island to Santiago de Chile on one in 2015. They make a big deal about cabin pressure, mood lighting and windows that have sunglasses mode, and claim this helps to alleviate the issues with jet lag. I’m not sure this had an effect, though as there’s only a 4 hour time difference the effects of jet lag would be minimal anyway.
Would I fly Norwegian Trans-Atlantic again? Yes, I’d definitely consider it. I was happy with the experience overall though I’d see if I could upgrade to an extra legroom seat next time. In the interests of marital harmony I’d probably be best not to comment on whether sitting with my husband was worth £100!
Update May 2017
At the time of writing it’s unclear whether Norwegian will be flying the LGW-SJU route this autumn. The airline is considering whether it will fly to Puerto Rico at all, but if it does, the London route will probably be the only one to survive the cull, managing 81% occupancy last season. Watch the press for details.