What Is it Like Flying Long Haul on a Budget Airline?
As full-time travelers, we often get asked "Did you win the lottery"? We didn't so our travel style has to be kept within the budget constraints we have set ourselves to make our lifestyle possible. As we embark on more and more international travel, getting from one place to another takes some planning. We use frequent flyer miles for the majority of our long-haul flights, but when heading between destinations in Asia or Europe budget airlines are often so cheap that it is not always the best use of reward miles.
Transatlantic flights have become really expensive in the last decade. When we first moved to the US nearly 18 years ago we could get decent fares to and from our native UK. These days you are looking at laying out a four figure sum for a coach class ticket. A new player came on the international scene a few years ago, Norwegian Airlines, a low-cost European carrier expanded to offering a transatlantic service. We have flown them twice now and this time I thought we would report on our experience.
What are the differences between Norwegian & legacy airlines?
Price: This is the number one reason we chose to fly Norwegian. Legacy airlines (United, American, British Airways etc) really penalize you for taking one-way tickets. A one way non-stop ticket from Los Angeles to London on United or American Airlines runs at over US$1,000 and often up to US$1,700. A return trip is often significantly less but doesn't always fit with our style of travel. Like most budget airlines Norwegian charges per leg rather than for round-trips. They routinely offer fares at this time of year (early March) for US$300. We actually bought our tickets in British Pounds from their UK website taking advantage of a strong US dollar immediately after the Brexit vote. We purchased about six months ahead of our planned travel time and chose a step up from the base price to add LowFare+ which includes a checked bag, a seat reservation, and a meal (typical mediocre airline food). We paid the equivalent of US$270 per ticket, one way LA to London!! No, that's not a typo. We paid US$540 all in for two one way transatlantic flights.
Plane: When flying legacy you often get lovely new planes but sometimes you end up in old clunkers that are in severe need of upgrades in terms of amenities and comfort. Norwegian only flies the Boeing 787 Dreamliner on these routes so you know what to expect every time. You'll be on a modern plane, with power at your seat and a extensive entertainment system with free movies, games and TV. The Dreamliner is supposed to offer better passenger comfort and reduce jet lag. I'm not sure about that but these airplanes are by far my most comfortable experience when flying in coach.
Services: This is another difference, the flight attendants will bring you a meal and a drink if you ordered one in advance. Alternatively, you can order snacks and drinks from the screen at your seat if you choose. Apart from that they don't bother you. No drinks or snacks cart, no offer of water every few hours (it is free if you want it but you have to ask).
Routes & Destinations: There is not the choice of routes that you would have with the major airlines. In the US there are just a few destinations such as Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, Orlando and Boston. Sometimes you are not using the main airport in a metro area. For instance they fly out of the San Francisco Bay Area from Oakland not SFO. We flew into London Gatwick rather than the more popular London Heathrow. Depending on your origin and ultimate destination that may be more or less convenient.
So what's it like and would we fly them again: Long haul flights are never the best way to spend 10 hours, but being on a modern Dreamliner with endless entertainment at a price that isn't the size of a mortgage payment is a great way to travel. We slept most of the way in our roomy bulkhead seats and woke up fairly rested in London arriving safely with a bit more money in our wallet than we would have done if we hadn't flown a budget airline. What's not to like?