Flight Review: New York JFK – Amsterdam – Cape Town in KLM Economy Comfort
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If you have been following my New York to Capetown trip, you know I survived 18 hours of flying in in KLM’s economy comfort section, plus a 3-hour layover in Amsterdam, and I wanted to report back on the experience.
The real impetus behind this trip was a last-minute invitation to spend a few days in Cape Town, and since I loved South Africa when I first visited back in January, I jumped at the chance to go back to the country and spend some time hanging out with some locals.
Like most frequent flyers, I am also right in the middle of elite status re-qualification strategizing, therefore for this trip I wanted to score as many elite-qualifying miles as possible. The itinerary I found on KLM flying from New York to Cape Town via Amsterdam would net me 19,280 MQM’s on Delta roundtrip, almost a third of the required miles to re-qualify for Platinum Medallion. I paid about $1,500 for the economy ticket – nowhere near a mileage run price, but again, the mileage earning was a secondary concern for this trip.
Getting a Seat Assignment
As I mentioned in my first post on the trip, because I’m 6’7″, I have a hard time fitting into regular coach seats, so the first thing I did when trying to book my tickets was to secure free Economy Comfort seat assignments on KLM thanks to my Delta Platinum Medallion status. I’ve flown KLM’s Economy Comfort before and found it to be…well, comfortable, so I knew I could handle all that flying if I could just secure one of those seat assignments.
Well, that ended up being a huge fiasco that I had to handle over the phone and on Twitter with both Delta and KLM, and even after tons of back and forth with both airlines, I still had to fix my seat assignments at the airport.
But the good news is, I was able to secure a window seat assignment for my first flight from JFK-AMS and an aisle seat in the bulkhead for the longer Amsterdam to Cape Town. Eeach of those flights between New York and Amsterdam would have cost me $120 per segment to upgrade to Economy Comfort, and the flights between Amsterdam and Cape Town would have been $213, so altogether I am saving $666 over the entire itinerary.
Trying to Upgrade
Although I was happy with my new seat assignments, KLM is actually one of those airlines where you can still score an upgrade to business class based on availability in a couple of different ways. This can be done online 24 hours or less before the departure, at the self-service check-in at the airport, or in the KLM Crown Lounges at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol or even aboard the aircraft. As a Delta Platinum, I should have the option of a paid upgrade – either using points or cash in the Crown Lounge – and sometimes at a reduced rate of just a few hundred dollars, when available.
Obviously this was worth a shot, so I asked if there was any availability for an upgrade (fingers crossed!) but was turned down – apparently both my flights were completely sold out in business class.
Fast forward to my flights. The first was aboard a KLM 777-300 aircraft. It contains a business class cabin with 35 angled lie-flat seats, 40 seats in Economy Comfort with a 34-inch pitch and 17.5 inches width, and 350 standard seats in economy with 31 inches of pitch (no way I’d fit in those!) and 17.5 inches width.
The configuration for both Economy Comfort and economy was 3 x 4 x 3. For my first flight, I was seated in window seat 12A, which I selected because I wanted to be able to lean against the window and get some rest. While aisle seats do provide a little more breathing space, my knees have a tendency to drift into the aisle and I’ve been rammed by a beverage cart on more than one occasion. My shoulders are also pretty broad and I’m usually a punching bag, especially during boarding, so I thought a window would make the most sense. It was definitely cramped, but not absolutely horrible. The worst thing is that your seatmates need to completely leave their seats to let you out, so if you are a frequent bathroom-user, I wouldn’t want to be in the window seat.
These seats are the kind that sort of slide recline forward, so the person in front of you doesn’t slam their seatback into their legs (although when you are 6’7″ like me, having someone recline into your legs in economy is pretty much a given). Although it does save you some legroom, it does slice into laptop room, and I had to contort in order to do work and watch shows on mine.
The last time I flew in KLM’s economy comfort to Copenhagen with a layover in Amsterdam, I was on the airline’s 747 Combi (it carries both passengers and cargo) and found that the seats seemed to be more spacious. There was even a small mini aisle for extra storage. Here’s a little photo comparison of how this experience stacked up with that one in terms of seat space.
On my JFK-AMS flight, you can see I barely fit in, but it worked.
On the 747 Combi flight, I was technically in a “window” even though it just was on a sort of all, but there was a mini-aisle that let me stretch my legs.
During the previous KLM economy comfort trip, the cabin also felt a little more private since there were just 8 rows of 3 seats each, then 6 rows of 2 seats each, and that was it. It just seemed to be a higher-end experience overall.
Back to my most recent trip in Economy Comfort. I was given some KLM headphones, however I didn’t use them as I already had my Bose headphones, which I never travel without.
Tip: Though some airlines offer basic amenity kits in economy and premium economy, KLM does not, so I’d suggest bringing an old one of yours with some mini toiletries and your own headphones.
Before trying to get comfortable and relax in my seat, I waited for the meal to come around since it was an evening flight and I figured I’d have some dinner then try to nap the rest of the way, and that’s when my running countdown began. The flight was only 6.5 hours long all told, so getting meal service out and dimming the cabin lights so passengers could rest would have been a good idea to prioritize, but everything sort of happened at a leisurely pace that meant the cabin was only dark for about an hour of the transatlantic flight. Here’s how it worked out.
57 minutes into the flight (5.5 hours left to go): The meal service started with a packet of smoked almonds and beverage service – I opted for some white wine.
Flight attendants also brought around hot paper towels before the meal.
4.5 hours left to go: It took another full hour for the main meal service to begin, and I got the sinking feeling that there wouldn’t be much time to rest on this flight.
The main course of the meal was chicken with some kind of fried southwest corn chili with rice. I wasn’t expecting much, as Delta’s dishes are usually pretty barebones, but this dish was moderately spicy, which I enjoyed. That, and the cheese & crackers, salad and dessert were all more than edible. I was pleasantly surprised by the meal.
I also had a cheap yet very drinkable white wine, “Tierra Andina,” a Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay blend from Chile. A normal-sized bottle is available from your local wine retailer for about $9.95 in case you wanted to run out and get your own 😉
Figuring I might need a little wine to stay sane in this tiny seat, I drank a couple of the small bottles over the course of the flight and tried to relax as much as possible.
4 hours left to go: Meal service ends and the flight attendants clean up the trays.
2:54 left to go: Cabin lights are still on and the crew is coming through, loudly announcing Duty Free service.
2:28 left to go: Finally, the cabin lights are dimmed.
1:38 left to go: The cabin lights are back on (already!) for the light breakfast service.
1:24 left to go: Breakfast service.
I had started timing things as a matter of mild interest, just to see how the flight worked, but it became something of a mission for me since I found that the flight wasn’t going to be the relaxing experience I had hoped, and it turned out the lights were only dimmed and the cabin quiet for a mere 50 minutes of the flight – not exactly what you’re hoping for if you want to arrive in Europe feeling refreshed and ready to go.
Tip: Bring your own eyeshades and earplugs so you can catch a few winks as soon as meal service is over.
After the meal, I kicked back in my seat and went over my options. The 777-300 Economy Comfort seats come with a personal TV measuring about 9 inches. Business class has power ports, but economy does not. I despise not having power outlets to charge up my various electronics since my iPhone and iPad suck up battery life if I’m watching something on them, which limits how much time I have for entertainment on a flight.
Case in point: I watched some shows on my computer with my Bose headphones, which worked perfectly until I ran out of battery, with no option to charge. However, my battery died just a short while before the flight ended, so it wasn’t too bad.
Before landing, I had a little breakfast snack that came with a muffin, yogurt, and some orange juice. I opted to eat the yogurt only.
We had a smooth landing into Amsterdam – one flight down, one more to go!
During my 3 hour layover, I wanted to re-charge a bit, so I showered and relaxed in the KLM Crown Lounge, which was clean and modern looking. Amsterdam is a great airport for connecting flights – you land airside so you can immediately go to your other gate or the lounge without having to go through any transit area.
I was able to access the lounge because Delta Medallions with Gold status or higher are SkyTeam Elite Plus members and thus have access to SkyTeam lounges even when flying economy.
The Crown Lounge was designed by prestigious Dutch Studio Linse and offers a shower facility, baby changing area, food, drinks, WiFi, a lot of power outlets for charging, a flight check-in option and even a large smoking area, which I found interesting. I recall Lufthansa also having a smoking area in their first class lounge. I doubt you would still see something like this anywhere in the United States! The drink bar seemed especially well stocked well wine (after my flight, I forewent vino this time), and it was nice to relax with some space after the tight flight.
The amenity I had really come for, though, was the shower. The wait for one was 30 minutes, but well worth it to hose down and clean up before my next flight.
The shower suites were spacious and clean, and I felt refreshed afterwards and ready to tackle portion two of my Economy Comfort itinerary to Cape Town.
The Second Flight
My Amsterdam-Cape Town flight was on the 777-200 which contains a business class cabin with 35 angled lie-flat seats, 34 seats in Economy Comfort with a 35-inch pitch and 17.5 inches width, and 249 standard seats in economy with 31 inches of pitch (no way I’d fit in those!) and 17.5 inches width. This time I was seated in the middle section of 3, in an aisle seat 10D – the bulkhead. Finally, some legroom!
I was much more comfortable on this flight. The only negative was people stepping over my legs to get up to use the loo throughout the flight, but I was so much happier that I didn’t mind.
The meal on this flight was also decent. A little pre-meal snack of crackers was offered with some water – though again, this came nearly 2 hours into the flight, so if you do this trip, be sure to grab a snack or meal of some sort during your layover in Amsterdam, because you won’t be eating anytime soon!
For the main, the airline served just some basic pasta with tomato sauce, a surprisingly flavorful egg-hollandaise salad along with little profiteroles for dessert.
There was also an egg sandwich snack about 4 hours before landing in Cape Town, which was just so-so, but it was an 11-hour flight and I was starving, so I scarfed it down. They had run out of chicken sandwiches and the purser jokes “Chicken/egg- it is all the same thing after all!”. Oh, Dutch humor!
Right before arrival the crew served these baguette pizzas, which also weren’t too bad, but I was getting sick of starchy, fatty food and ready to land.
All in all, though, I was pleasantly surprised with the food served in economy on both flights. Generally, food service in economy gets a bad rep but I really thought each meal I had was more than edible, and I didn’t regret not buying something at the airport to eat onboard.
During this flight, with all that extra legroom, I was much more comfortable since I was able to stretch out. While I watched some more shows (I recharged in the Crown Lounge in Amsterdam), I actually slept about 6 hours of the 11-hour flight, which I found to be the right strategy for me since I was tired from being awake for most of my first flight, but arrived in Cape Town feeling relaxed and awake, but still able to go to sleep a few hours later since I had landed at about 9:30pm.
Although I had been a little nervous to fly all that way in economy (where would my legs go!?), overall, I had a pretty solid experience in KLM’s Economy Comfort section.
Having the extra legroom of the bulkhead made all the difference, and I only regret not being able to get one for the first flight as well. Sitting in a regular exit row seat probably would have had the same effect but those seats have less padding, and on a long flight might be slightly more uncomfortable or cause numbness after sitting for hours.
Your best bet for this aircraft is to book a seat in the bulkhead, Row 10, or Seats 11C or 11G as they have no seat in front of them (on the 777-300, I’d suggest the bulkhead or seats 11C or 11H, which don’t have a seat in front of them).
Thank you again to all the readers who submitted great comments and recommendations for how to make the most out of 21 hours of travel and even to those who offered constructive criticism. I ended up flying business class on the return and I can tell you that spending some quality time in coach has helped me appreciate flying up front more than ever before!