Review: Comparing Bulkhead and Regular Economy on Norwegian's 787 to Europe
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Norwegian Air has been expanding its route network across the US, and TPG Associate Editor Emily McNutt recently had the opportunity to test out the carrier on her trip to Norway. Read on for her full review of the Norwegian Air economy experience in a bulkhead seat vs. a regular economy seat.
I've read a lot about Norwegian Air — when the news first broke that the airline was going to offer $69 one-way fares between the US and Europe, Norwegian immediately caught my attention. In case I needed any more convincing, TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig and TPG himself both said they had thoroughly enjoyed their own recent flights on Norwegian Air. The carrier's route network is also very impressive, with new flights being added all the time.
One day last month, I was scanning Google Flights and thinking about taking a trip to Norway. It's always been a travel bucket list item of mine to visit the Scandinavian country during the winter and to — hopefully — see the Northern Lights. I spotted an amazing deal — $142 for a one-way ticket from New York (JFK) to Oslo (OSL). Needless to say, I decided to go for it.
When you book a flight with Norwegian Air, you can opt to pay a little extra and choose your own seat. In the interest of writing a comparison review of a bulkhead seat vs. a seat in regular economy, I chose to pay and pick my seat in each direction to ensure I got what was needed — a bulkhead seat on the way there and a window seat in the rear of the aircraft for the return leg. The following flight review is a comparison of both seating options to help you determine if you should spend the extra money and choose a bulkhead seat or if you should let fate play its course and let the airline select a seat for you.
If you've ever read a TPG Deal Alert about a Norwegian fare, you'd know that booking a flight on the Norwegian version of the carrier's website (by selecting Norge as your language) can save you quite a bit of money — as much as 20% in some cases — so that's exactly what I did.
The outbound flight was going for $142 one-way from New York to Oslo, whereas when booking through the Norwegian version of the site, it came out to 1,014 NOK (~$118).
As I mentioned before, I paid to select my seat on both flights. For my JFK-OSL flight, I chose seat 7J (bulkhead window) and, as shown above, seat 29A for the OSL-JFK flight. Because I booked a LowFare ticket, I had to pay to select my seat, however for all other tickets, you can choose your seat for free.
It's worth noting that the cost to reserve a seat is also less expensive on the Norwegian version of the site. I paid 250 NOK (~$29) for each seat reservation, whereas when booked on the English version of the site, each seat reservation is $45. In total, I saved about $32 when selecting seats just by booking on the Norwegian version of the site — a pretty good deal.
In all, I paid 3,329 NOK (~$388) for a round-trip flight from New York to Oslo, including my seating choices. I booked my trip using my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card so I would earn 2x points on travel expenses. Norwegian Air does have a frequent-flyer program, Norwegian Reward, but it isn't all that great. You earn 2% "CashPoints" on LowFare tickets and 20% on Flex tickets based on the fare amount (excluding taxes and fees).
When I arrived at JFK's Terminal 1, there was hardly anyone there, probably no more than 15 people in line to check-in and no one in the Premium line. However, there were plenty of check-in agents at the counter, which made going through the line extremely seamless — I was through it in about four minutes.
Because I was going for such a short time, I didn't bring enough stuff with me to warrant checking a bag. LowFare tickets don't include any checked bags and LowFare+ tickets are allowed one checked bag on all flights — Flex, Premium and PremiumFlex tickets are allowed two checked bags on international long-haul flights and one checked bag on all other flights.
Security was where I ran into a bit of a crowd — even the Premium security line appeared to be about as long as the regular one. I waited about 25 minutes in line before going through security, so it wasn't too bad, but it still wasn't nearly as seamless as the return.
My return flight from OSL-JFK could not have gone more smoothly. I arrived at the airport nearly five hours early because I had an incoming flight from Tromsø (also on Norwegian Air), where I went for a night in a (failed) attempt to see the Northern Lights. Because OSL is about 40 minutes from city center, it wasn't worth it for me to try to spend time in downtown Oslo before turning around and heading back to the airport.
When trying to check in at OSL, there were many self check-in machines so I didn't have to spend time waiting in line to talk to a representative. In fact, when I tried to check-in at the counter, a polite man sitting at a booth at the front of the line directed me back toward the self check-in monitors instead.
When I made my way to security, I was in awe of OSL's cleanliness and lack of overcrowding. After checking in, I headed for security, where I waited in line for less than a minute — a totally different experience than I had at JFK.
Terminal and Boarding
On both legs of my trip, I did not have lounge access since I wasn't booked on a Premium ticket. However, Premium passengers do have free access to the Korean Air Lounge at JFK's Terminal 1, and although it is a step above sitting in the main terminal, TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig said he didn't find the lounge to be all that special. Premium passengers have access to a Lounge at OSL as well.
Because I didn't have lounge access, I headed straight for the gate at JFK. At OSL, I chose to walk around a bit as it was a beautiful, orderly airport and I didn't mind exploring. I was impressed with how well kept the gate areas were, especially for international flights.
On both flights, I was able to board early to take some pictures of the empty cabin, and after taking my round-trip flight on Norwegian Air from Oslo to Tromsø (TOS), I was entirely glad I was able to. Norwegian's boarding process is hectic to say the least, and is essentially a free-for-all on a first-come-first-serve basis. When boarding time draws near, people just start lining up — this ends up creating a huge line that weaved through the gate area and, in more than one instance, blocked foot traffic in the main hallway of the terminal. At some point, I hope Norwegian Air can come up with a better boarding process. But, like I said, I was happy to avoid the congestion altogether on both flights by boarding early.
Cabin and Seat
I have to admit that this was my first Dreamliner flight so I was incredibly exited to see what the aircraft and trip as a whole had in store — and I wasn't disappointed.
The economy cabin is comprised of 259 seats, which are split into two sections.
In both sections, seats are arranged in a 3-3-3 configuration.
All economy seats come with 31-32 inches of pitch. It's a pretty tight squeeze in standard economy, as you can see in the photo above.
While my bulkhead seat had much more legroom than its regular economy counterparts, unfortunately some of the side-to-side legroom was impeded by the in-flight entertainment screen, which came out from underneath the armrest. However, the seat itself was much roomier and more comfortable than my seat in the back of the plane.
I was incredibly grateful for the legroom in my bulkhead seat. For a flight that left at 10:30pm, this seat (and its recline) was perfect for getting some much-needed sleep. I ended up putting my laptop and a book in the compartment with the safety instructions, as I couldn't keep my usual bag under the seat in front of me. There's a lot of leeway inside the compartment and there's plenty of room to store some small things so you're not getting up all the time during the flight to access to overhead bin.
If you want even more legroom, choose seat A, B or C in row 6. Although there's much more legroom, note that when the cabin door closes, there's a large box on the bottom of the door that can impede the legroom for seat 6A (window).
Each of the seats is also 17.2 inches wide. However, in my bulkhead seat, there was slightly less space because the tray table came out of the armrest, making it unmovable.
The overhead bins on the Dreamliner are massive. On my return flight from OSL-JFK, I was prepared to put an extra bag of airport purchases by my feet with my personal item carry-on bag, but there was plenty of room to put it in the overhead bin space along with my jacket and full-sized carry-on bag and the bags of the other people in my row.
Whereas in my bulkhead seat, I had plenty of legroom, my regular economy seat was a bit different — albeit still not a bad experience. I'm usually an economy flyer, so sitting in economy for the nearly eight-hour flight wasn't all that of an issue for me. However, after sitting in bulkhead on the way over, I was a bit spoiled by all the extra legroom.
When I sat down in my regular economy seat, it took a few minutes to adjust to not being able to maneuver the same way I did on the flight over. That being said, I'm 5'7" and I can't really imagine someone who is taller than 6' sitting comfortably in one of these regular economy seats for an entire eight-hour flight.
I was especially fond of the bulkhead's proximity to the bathroom. On Norwegian's Dreamliner, there are eight lavatories — two in the Premium cabin, four in between the two economy sections and two at the rear of the aircraft. My bulkhead seat was facing the crew's cafe area, so there was no congestion of people waiting around the lavs, which were located behind me.
However, with my regular economy seat, I was looking straight at the mid-aircraft lavs — all four of them. For most of the flight, there was a congregation of people waiting their turn. While this wasn't an issue whatsoever (really just an observation), I prefer the former seat's vantage point over the latter.
I was a big fan of the sinks, which were motion activated and made a world of difference compared to germ-ridden traditional-style faucets.
Perhaps my favorite part of being in the economy cabin was the window-dimming feature. Each window has its own dimming button, which controls the amount of light you get through the window. This was a really neat feature that I enjoyed playing around with, especially during our ascent and arrival. The crew can control the brightness of the entire cabin from its own panel, which they did during both flights so the sun didn't awaken passengers.
Overall, as far as the seats are concerned, I would recommend splurging for the comfort and space of a bulkhead seat if they're available — not only my seat (7J), but seats A, B and C in rows 6 and 24, as well as seats G, H and J in row 24 will have even more bulkhead legroom. However, row 24 may not be the ideal location because of their close proximity to the set of four lavatories in the middle of the aircraft. In any case, a little extra legroom can go a long way on a long-haul economy flight.
On my JFK-OSL flight (bulkhead), meals were served not long after takeoff. This was great timing because not long thereafter, most of the passengers fell asleep (it was around midnight by this point). A piece of advice if you plan on taking this flight: Grab something small to eat in the terminal or before you leave home to hold yourself over before meal service.
The crew made their way through the cabin, asking passengers who ordered a meal if they wanted a chicken or fish dish for dinner. I wanted a vegetarian dish and politely asked. The flight attendant said she wasn't sure if they had any extras, but she would check — fortunately, they did. When you book your meal before the flight (which you have to do if you want one), specify if you have dietary restrictions including a vegan or vegetarian diet.
While I was waiting for the flight attendant to look for and prepare an extra vegetarian meal, my very friendly seatmate had just received her vegan dinner. She got a piece of tofu, white rice, steamed vegetables, a cup of mixed fruit, orange juice and a sandwich with cucumber, tomato and lettuce and was not very pleased. In fact, she said it was pretty tasteless — the sandwich had no dressing whatsoever on it and the tofu had no taste. She said that even with a lemon wedge, it would have been far better.
When my food was delivered, I thought it looked pretty good, especially for an economy meal. It was a pasta dish with vegetables, a fresh fruit cup and a salad. I was pretty surprised — the pasta was tasty and the fruit and salad were both very fresh. With meal service, you're allowed one complimentary drink and I opted for white wine, which was pleasant.
On my OSL-JFK flight, meal service seemed to be a bit later into the flight, which was fine with me. The plane left OSL at 5:30pm, so I was ready for dinner around 7 or 7:30pm when the flight attendants came around.
On this flight, there was a chicken or fish option as well. I decided to go with the chicken dish this time, which was fine. The chicken was in a BBQ-esque sauce, which was pretty good, but the chicken itself tasted a bit rubbery. The mashed potatoes and vegetables were both good, though. I also enjoyed the pasta side and the truffle for dessert.
If you order a meal in economy with Norwegian Air, you'll get two meals: A hot meal with cold salad or pasta and dessert and then a cold snack as the flight draws nearer to landing.
On my JFK-OSL (bulkhead) flight, I got a grilled vegetable wrap, a fruit dish and a cup of coffee. I was very pleased with this meal — the veggie wrap had a lot of flavor to it and the fruit dish was fresh and delicious. This was the perfect way to end a great flight.
On the OSL-JFK flight, I got a ham and cheese sandwich, a chocolate chip cookie and apple juice. The sandwich didn't really compare to that of the wrap on the first flight so I just gave it a taste, but the cookie and apple juice were both great. What was really nice, though, was the way it was delivered, in a little red bag with a cute quote on the side.
As far as the meals are concerned, I enjoyed the food on my JFK-OSL (bulkhead) flight more than the food on my OSL-JFK (regular economy) flight. Not that the food had anything to do with the bulkhead or regular economy seat, as they're both in economy and are served the same thing, but I did find I enjoyed my meal more on the JFK-OSL route.
The entertainment options on both flights were great. Overall, I was impressed with what was available and everything appeared to be the same on both flights. On the JFK-OSL (bulkhead) flight, I chose to sleep for a majority of the time after meal service, so I didn't use the in-flight entertainment service much. As I mentioned, the screen came from below the armrest by my feet, so I used that quickly before we began our descent because it had to be stored for taxi, takeoff and landing.
I only used the in-flight entertainment system at this time to scan through the duty-free options to see what was available. It looked like the standard duty-free fare with options like alcohol and tobacco products and plenty of perfume.
On the OSL-JFK flight, I watched AMY, the Amy Winehouse documentary, which I highly recommend. The in-flight entertainment system also has a selection of games, including Sudoku, solitaire and backgammon, among a few others. There's a headphone jack and USB port on the screen, which is motion activated so the headphone jack and USB port illuminate when you wave your hand in front of the screen.
I would say the regular economy seat is preferable to the bulkhead seat as far as the in-flight entertainment screens are concerned. The ability to use it for the duration of the flight — from boarding to deplaning — is really nice when compared with having to stow it during taxi, takeoff and landing. I really enjoyed playing around with the 3D map to track where were were on our descent into New York, which would have been a nice feature on the descent into Oslo if I could have had my screen out.
On both flights, the crew were more than helpful and friendly. I was very much impressed with all those I encountered on both trips (and even my two flights with the carrier when I went to Tromsø), which was a nice change from flying economy on many domestic carriers.
The head flight attendant on my JFK-OSL (bulkhead) flight, Ilse, was very friendly and accommodating. When I ran into the vegetarian meal mixup, she was very helpful and ensured I got one, which she definitely didn't have to do. Also, when I fell asleep on my OSL-JFK flight, the flight attendant woke me up for meal service, which was a nice touch to ensure I was served a warm meal during the flight.
Overall, the service in both seats was fantastic. When flying in economy on a long-haul flight, a friendly crew can make all the difference between an average or poor flight and an enjoyable one.
Overall, I was incredibly impressed with Norwegian Air and its Dreamliner for both of my Transatlantic flights. I came into this trip knowing a lot about the carrier — mostly about its cheap fares and good flight experience — and I'm here to say that my positive opinion of the carrier stands after having traveled in economy in both directions.
After flying in a bulkhead seat and a regular economy seat, there are positives and negatives to both options. And although you are sitting in economy on a nearly eight-hour flight, sitting in a bulkhead seat really makes it feel like you're sitting in a premium class because of all the legroom. For that reason alone, I'd argue that paying the extra money upfront is worth being able to choose your seat.
The food options — while both good — depend entirely on the flight, not where you're sitting in economy. The one negative thing about sitting in a bulkhead seat is that you have to store the in-flight entertainment screen during taxi, takeoff and landing, which really isn't that bad of a tradeoff for having so much space.
Next time I return to Norway — which I highly recommend, even in the winter! — I know I'll be looking forward to flying on Norwegian Air again. And with the carrier's expanding network, including three new nonstop routes between New York, Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale and Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), there are even more reasons to fly Norwegian.