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TPG Contributor Mitch Berman recently took his family from New York (JFK) to London Gatwick (LGW) round-trip on Norwegian Air, an airline he’d never flown before. Here’s his review of his JFK-LGW economy flight experience. Visit Mitch and his son Kofi Lee-Berman’s photo blog here. (Photos are by the author unless otherwise noted.)
Norwegian Air is a hot topic in the travel world — we’ve issued more than 15 Deal Alerts for cheap fares on the airline since March 2015, such as this recent $302 round trip from LA to Scandinavia. TPG lauds Norwegian for “shaking up the airline industry” by “driving down fares to locations throughout Europe.”
The second-largest airline in Scandinavia, Norwegian flies to more than 100 destinations, mainly in Europe and North America, but also to Dubai, the Canary Islands and Bangkok (from Oslo). The airline is rapidly expanding, recently adding new routes to the Caribbean and also from new US destinations to Europe. Its entire long-haul fleet is comprised of Boeing 787 Dreamliners, the oldest of which dates only from 2013.
Norwegian turned out to be easily the cheapest way for us to get from New York City (JFK) to London Gatwick (LGW) and back (the return flight included a layover in Oslo) during peak holiday season after all the better rewards options had dried up. This review focuses on our nonstop JFK-LGW flight in economy — TPG actually recently flew this route in reverse, in Norwegian’s Premium cabin.
We saved about 23% off the dollar price ($268 per person as opposed to $348) by reserving and booking the flight on the Norwegian version of the website and paying in Norwegian Krone. Our reisedokument (travel document) naturally, was in Norwegian, with a bit of English thrown in:
Make sure you book using a card that offers extra rewards for travel and, in this case, no foreign transaction fees — we usually charge tickets to the Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card, which gives you 3x rewards on tickets, but in this case we chose the Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card since it offered us significant cash back (these depend on how much money you have in your Bank of America accounts), and we’d still be covered by the 0% initial interest offer.
Before You Book, Here’s the Boring — and if You’re Not Careful, Costly — Stuff You Need to Know
Norwegian Air is a low-cost carrier (LCC), meaning they’ll try to add many and varied extra charges to your basic ticket. If you haven’t flown an LCC before, read this primer first.
LowFare on Norwegian is considered to be no-frills economy, and basically nothing is included except for one carry-on bag limited to 10kg. Choosing and reserving your seats (not upgrading; that’s much more expensive) will run you an additional $45 per person each way, while a checked bag is an additional $90 when purchased online or $65-$130 when paid for at the airport — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. LowFare+ costs a bit extra (varies depending on your flight search) and offers you a seat reservation, a carry-on bag, a checked bag and an onboard meal. Premium — usually about triple the price of LowFare — offers all the above plus lounge access, 46″ of legroom, an additional checked bag, premium onboard meals and fast track, available at select airports. Norwegian’s full schedule of extra charges can be found here.
Paying any of those charges would defeat the only reason we chose to fly on Norwegian — to save money — so we declined extras in every case.
We showed up at JFK a full 3.5 hours early — a novel experience for me — because we wanted first crack at our choice of seats.
We’d read online that you could change your seating at a kiosk, but there were none available at check-in (Gatwick on the way back did have kiosks), so we had to get our boarding passes from a ticket agent instead.
Airport signs directed us to check in at counter H1, but H1 wasn’t even open yet so we ended up checking in at H13. The line there looked formidable, but the fully staffed Norwegian contingent made short work of it and we were through in about 10 minutes.
At first we were given seats C-D-E in the same row without being asked what we wanted, so we asked for better seats and got them.
The boarding pass directed us to Gate 10, but because we were there so early, another flight was already using it:
In the end, our flight actually departed from Gate 5. It’s understandable that the boarding pass didn’t direct us to “Gate I Have No Idea” — after all, the system isn’t built for people arriving quite this early.
Gate 5 was a sight to see, with seemingly twice the number of people as chairs — a shortage that didn’t, however, stop people from using chairs to hold their luggage — none of them knowing exactly where to go or when to go there.
Cabin and Seat
Since no Norwegian Dreamliner is more than three years old, the interiors are quite nice. Seats were comfortable, if a bit narrow (17.2 inches wide). I’m 6’4″ and with seat pitch at a reasonable 31″-32″, I had adequate legroom as well.
The overhead bins are very roomy and oddly flat-bottomed — only time will tell whether their “contents may shift” more precariously than in older designs but for now, we were pleased that we hadn’t had to gate-check our carry-ons.
The animated safety demonstration featured these happy and clean alien beings:
According to the in-flight video, other aircraft are pressurized to simulate atmospheric pressure at 2,400 meters but the Dreamliner simulates pressure at 1,800 meters. That should make our flight noticeably more comfortable.
Dreamliner planes are tricked out with high-tech electronic window shades, which were fine because it was a night flight. On another airline during the day, I was dismayed by how much sunlight came pouring through those windows! TPG contributor JT Genter reports that there will soon be an opacity upgrade.
In my opinion, the ideal would be a physical window shade plus the soon-to-be-augmented dimmable glass, which would allow you to dim the glare or shut it out entirely for sleep. That would give you the undeniable advantages of both systems and be a true upgrade to either.
I had no idea if we’d even get water on the flight after reading conflicting reports about Norwegian’s beverage policies, but on all three Norwegian flights this trip we did get free water — though only after asking. On the return flight from Oslo-JFK, we received free tea as well.
I also didn’t know if food would be available on the flight since I hadn’t been able to order the “Nice and Tasty” meal options within the last 72 hours before takeoff. Once onboard, I tried to use the seatback touchscreen ordering system, but for much of the flight I kept getting this message:
Though order and payment are taken by computer, food and beverages can’t be ordered when you’re taking off, reach cruising altitude or even when they’re serving meals to all those passengers smart enough to have ordered more than three days early. When the menu finally came up, there was no real cooked food on it, just salads, so I ordered the Southwest salad with chicken for $9, and this fresh fruit salad:
“Product may vary,” eh? May it vary this much?
Odd as it looked, the cubic fruit — what there was of it — was tasty enough. The Southwest salad, more generous in size, was decent too:
There were two AC outlets beneath every three seats:
Entertainment was free — though headphones were $3 — with a reasonably large but somewhat uninspiring film selection. Without any Bollywood or Asian films to liven things up, we watched the Academy Award-winning Amy Winehouse documentary “Amy,” the same film TPG viewed on his flight. The “Classics” section contained items such as “Night at the Museum 2” and “Grudge Match” — move over “Casablanca.”
I enjoyed the many views available under the flight map option, including this virtual view from the cockpit:
Crew-customizable LED light shows played out on the Dreamliners’ ceiling.
One touch of tech I really liked was in the lavatory. First, the edges of the toilet seat and lid are tabbed so you never have to touch the seat itself.
On this particular flight, you had to press “Flush” (it’s supposed to be motion-activated), to make the seats close and seal tightly. You heard only a soft hiss as the toilet flushed — a far cry from the terrifying sound made by most aircraft toilets. Oddly enough, the return flight from Oslo also had the same fancy toilets, but none of their automatic functions were working.
The bathroom, shown above in its pristine pre-flight condition, got very messy by the flight’s fourth hour.
When we arrived, the London morning light gave us the clear look at our ride that the night had denied us:
Youthful, smiling crew members were helpful and patient. Though the gate had been chaotic, the crew handled all aspects of the flight efficiently, packing us into seats and getting the flight off on time.
Overall, Norwegian ran a professional and efficient — if not always the smoothest — operation. On the basis of this flight, I’d place Norwegian above most domestic carriers, slightly below JetBlue and well below top international airlines like Cathay Pacific and JAL. For a low-cost carrier, it was very solid, better than we expected and certainly cheaper than any other available option. I’d fly Norwegian again without hesitation.
Have you flown on Norwegian Air yet? What was your experience like?