Flight Review: Swiss (A340-300) Economy From Zurich to Boston
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Swiss is known for consistently offering a solid in-flight experience with comfortable seats, good food and friendly service — another TPG contributor had even gone so far as to name Swiss’ first-class experience one of the best in the sky. With all the hype, I was curious to see what it’s like for those flying back in economy. I recently had to make a trip to Zurich, so the return flight was the perfect opportunity for me to test out the economy product on Swiss’ A340-300.
Although we'd published a deal alert earlier this year with nonstop flights from Boston (BOS) to Zurich (ZRH) for about $400 round-trip, flights were going for more than $1,150 on the dates I needed. This is when I decided to look for a vacation package instead. Although there are pros and cons for booking vacation packages offered by airlines and online travel agencies, they usually will offer a significant discount when you bundle flights and hotels together.
In this case, I ended up almost spending less money for a package deal that included a three-night hotel stay than I would have for the airfare alone. I booked my package on Expedia and paid with my Chase Sapphire Reserve so I’d earn 3x points for my travel purchases, which netted me 3,778 Ultimate Rewards points, worth $83 based on TPG’s most recent valuations.
Unfortunately, Swiss charges for advance seat selection in economy, which shouldn't be all that surprising given that the airline now charges extra for seat assignments in business class. The rates were: $29 for a standard seat, $49 for a seat in the preferred zone, and $99 for a seat with extra legroom. I declined paying extra and instead picked seat 26A at no cost during check-in. Note that if there are still premium seats available during check-in, you can select those for free.
Interestingly, although I do not hold status with any of the airline loyalty programs, I earned more miles by crediting this deep-discount economy trip to my United MileagePlus account instead of Swiss’ Miles & More program. Had I credited them to Miles & More, I would have earned 25% of the distance flown, but this way allowed me to earn 50%. In addition to frequent flyer miles, I also earned points with the Expedia+ Rewards program, equivalent to about $25 off my next booking.
To kick off my return flight from Zurich to Boston, I checked in at one of Swiss’ self-service kiosks. There were plenty of them available and I was able to use one right away.
From there, I headed to the baggage drop-off area. Oddly enough, it seemed to me like there were more baggage drop-off desks than check-in kiosks. Again, there was no line and I was on my way to security in a matter of minutes.
Thanks to my Chase Sapphire Reserve Card, I have a Priority Pass membership that gives me access to the lounges in its network. There are five Priority Pass lounges in the Zurich Airport (ZRH): two Aspire Lounges, the Dnata Skyview Lounge and two Swiss Business Lounges. Unfortunately, that access does not extend to Swiss' newer lounges in the E gate area and had I wanted to access those, I would have had to buy a day pass for $39.
As with all flights to the US, mine was departing from an E gate. The Aspire Lounge is the only Priority Pass lounge located close to the E gates, but since I had a couple of hours to kill and it's relatively easy to transfer between the different gate areas at ZRH while staying airside, I decided to go lounge-hopping and try to visit as many of them as I could while still spending a reasonable amount of time in each.
I quickly found myself at the Swiss Business Lounge located between the A and B gates for my first stop of the day.
Upon check-in at the lounge, I was given a custom code that granted Wi-Fi access to three of my devices. The great thing is that there's one Wi-Fi network for the entire airport so I didn't have to reconnect my devices from one lounge to another. This lounge is quite large and is split into two rooms. The main room offers standard lounge seating, while the other has cafeteria-style seating.
Each room had a buffet and a self-serve bar with the same offerings.
While definitely better than most domestic US lounges, I’ll let the pictures of the food selection speak for themselves. Besides two types of soup, there were no hot options available. To be fair, I was visiting the lounges at a weird time in the afternoon between lunch and dinner, so maybe that's why.
From there, I went through passport control and made my way to the Swiss lounge in the D gate area. The immigration officer asked if I was aware that I was entering the D gate area and that my flight was departing from the E gate area, but once I told her that I was interested in visiting the lounge by the D gates, she quickly let me through.
This lounge had a similar layout to the first one I'd visited, but was smaller. Additionally, unlike the first lounge, this one offered great views of the tarmac. That said, this is not Zurich’s best lounge for aviation geeks (more on that later).
The D lounge had the same food offerings with the addition of two salads. One was a tasty lentil salad, but the other was literally just romaine lettuce with a choice of dressing.
After a late lunch, I decided that I wanted to take my first-ever shower in an airport. The first Swiss lounge I visited offered several showers, however this particular lounge only offered one. Still, I was able to get in right away and it provided all amenities — towels, soap and shampoo — as well as a shaving kit.
Feeling refreshed, I made my way to my third and final lounge of the day, the Aspire Lounge by the E gates. Transit from the D to E gate areas included a ride on the Skymetro and a decent amount of walking — roughly 20 minutes in total. I didn't need to go through passport control again from D to E, but I did need to go through a security check.
Though definitely the smallest, I liked the design of the Aspire Lounge the best — it offers your typical lounge seating, semi-private cubicle-style seats, high-top seating and cafeteria-style seating.
The food selection was limited to sausages and a couple of different types of sandwiches. Again, I'm sure this had to do with the time of the day I visited, as I have been to this lounge before during breakfast time and found a much larger selection, including hot dishes such as scrambled eggs, roasted vegetables, and bacon, among other options.
My favorite part of this lounge was the outdoor deck, which featured a large outdoor terrace with great views of both the tarmac and the Swiss Alps — perfect for aviation geeks.
The Swiss have a reputation for being very punctual — I arrived at my gate about 15 minutes prior to the scheduled boarding time and found passengers already lined up and ready to go. With the economy section loading on from back to front, the boarding process was quick and efficient.
Cabin and Seat
Coming in, I already knew that Swiss’ flagship aircraft had been replaced by the Boeing 777-300ER and that I should expect an outdated cabin. There are some positives with flying on the older aircraft, however, such as the fact that the A340 has a 2-4-2 layout in economy, while the newer 777 has a 3-4-3 layout. This way, those sitting in the middle or by the window are always just one seat away from the aisle.
Economy seats on all three of Swiss’ long-haul planes are 17.3 inches wide and have a pitch of 32 inches, which is slightly more generous than most European carriers. Always be sure to maximize your legroom by emptying out the seat-back pocket in front of you, especially if you have an extra seat by you.
The best economy seats on the plane are A, B, J, and K in row 30, as they're the side seats in the emergency-exit row and provide ample legroom. Row 23 is a bulkhead row, but I still find those seats to have less legroom than regular seats because the wall in front restricts you from extending your legs as much as you would be able to if there were a regular seat in front of you.
Since I'd declined paying $99 for an extra-legroom seat, I ended up in seat 26A. What I liked about the seat was that it was located in the mini-economy cabin, which is made up of the first five rows (23 to 27) in economy and tends to be the most quiet.
The only downside to my seat — as well as all other window and aisle seats in middle rows — is that the entertainment boxes greatly restricted the amount of legroom. My legs already felt tight, so I would have definitely had trouble trying to fit my backpack down there as well.
One other thing to note is that there are no individual air nozzles. Fortunately, though, the cabin temperature was at a comfortable level throughout my entire flight.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
Waiting at my seat was a thin pillow, a plastic-wrapped blanket and a set of headphones, which provided terrible sound quality. Unfortunately, I couldn’t use my own headphones for the in-flight entertainment system because the audio jack was the old-school two-prong type.
Each seat had a remote-operated, on-demand in-flight entertainment screen that offered movies, TV shows, music, games and a flight map. Though the system felt outdated, the selection of movies and TV shows offered was large and current.
In case the various magazines available onboard weren't enough, prior to my flight I received an email from Swiss inviting me to download one digital newspaper or magazine from its website. The two major English newspapers I saw were The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times — others like The New York Times and USA Today were not available. There was a greater selection of English magazines though, which included Newsweek, Vogue and GQ.
The two biggest issues I faced on my flight were not having Wi-Fi or any power outlets. Interestingly, Swiss’ new 777s don’t have power plugs in economy either.
Food and Beverage
Although seat reservations cost extra, Swiss still gives you complimentary meals and drinks in economy. Shortly after takeoff, the flight attendants came through the cabin to perform the first beverage service. All passengers received a full-size drink and a snack.
Then dinner was served. As with most intercontinental flights, passengers have a choice between a meat and vegetarian dish. Swiss stands out in that it's very proud of its vegetarian offerings. Swiss’ website boasts, “If you are a vegetarian, you will be spoilt with fine dishes in all three travel classes on intercontinental flights, created by Hiltl, the world's oldest vegetarian restaurant.” Given that vegetarian offerings in the sky are usually quite unappetizing, I was excited to see how this would compare.
The vegetarian option on my flight was a Thai vegetable curry and it did not disappoint. It was fresh and flavorful with just the right amount of spice. The other option was chicken served with gnocchi and pesto sauce, which did not sound bad either. Both main course options were accompanied by the typical bland salad, a stale roll and a piece of cherry cake. They also came with Swiss gruyère cheese, which I thought was a nice touch given that I was departing a country that's home some of the best cheeses in the world.
After the dinner trays were collected, the flight attendants offered coffee or tea before dimming the cabin lights. In case passengers got hungry or thirsty mid-flight, there were snacks and drinks available in the rear galley. Snack options included granola bars, pretzels and, of course, Swiss chocolates. Additionally, the flight attendants passed through the cabin several times offering cups of water. About an hour and a half before landing, the cabin lights were switched back on and hot towels were distributed. Following that, hot cheese quiches and creamy Mövenpick ice cream were served. Both were as delicious — and fattening — as they sound.
Once that was cleared, the flight attendants returned to distribute the famous “Thank you for flying Swiss” chocolates, which made for a sweet farewell.
Overall, I was very pleased with Swiss’ economy-class product, despite experiencing its oldest cabin for long-haul flights. The catering was some of the best I’ve had in economy, and ended up being a highlight of my flight. While I certainly didn't have a negative interaction with any of the flight attendants, the service was nothing to write home about. The main downsides I could point out are that there are no power outlets and no Wi-Fi on this aircraft, but fortunately the in-flight entertainment system had a wide selection to keep me entertained. I would definitely consider flying Swiss again for another flight across the Atlantic. That being said, if I’m flying on the A340, I will pick a seat where my legroom will not be restricted by an entertainment box and remember to bring a portable battery.
Have you ever flown in economy aboard Swiss' A340-300? Tell us about your experience, below.
All photos by the author.