Now boarding: A review of French Bee's inaugural Newark-Paris flight
In September 2019, international low-cost carrier French Bee (formerly known as French Blue) announced that it was launching flights between Newark-Liberty International Airport (EWR) and Paris Orly Airport (ORY). When the flights were first announced, the airline was offering introductory fares of $139 each way.
Related: New York airports are getting 11 new long-haul routes as travel returns to the region
But the pandemic and travel restrictions pushed the launch date to Aug. 1, 2020, then that date fell away. But on July 15, 2021, the launch finally came to fruition and I bought a seat on the inaugural flight. Here's what it was like.
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Booking my flight
I booked my flight online, and it was what you'd expect when choosing a low-cost carrier. You get your base fare with a bunch of add-ons, including seat selection, baggage fees, a meal, priority boarding and more. I decided to fly to Paris in economy and premium on the flight back to Newark. (I don't know many travelers who actually like the A350's 3-4-3 economy configuration, no matter how standard it's become in the industry.)
As you can see, they were pushing Basic $139 fares (see screenshot, above) -- but as with any airline, there's usually only a handful of the cheap seats and they tend to sell out quickly. I wasn't able to get that fare on either leg of my flight. And even if you did get it, the fees add up, which is typical for low-cost carriers. French Bee also offers Smart and Premium fares, which come with a few more perks.
I chose the Smart fare, which includes a checked bag (that I didn't use), a meal and a free reservation change (with fare difference) for $553.20.
For the ride back, I opted for a bit more comfort and booked a Premium seat for $568.90. It included two checked bags, a meal, a free seat choice in a slightly more comfortable 2-3-2 configuration with a foot and leg rest, 36-inch pitch and an 18-inch wide seat.
While Premium class comes with a meal, I decided to pay $40 for an upgraded snack with champagne. Below, I filled out the information for my flight. I brought my Away soft-sided Bigger Carry-On as my hand baggage and am testing The Takeaway Collection's Expat Duffle Bag as my under-seat carry-on. Be warned -- your hand baggage and smaller personal under-seat item will be weighed at the check-in desk. If the carry-on luggage and personal handbag or backpack weigh more than 12 kg (26 lbs.) total, you will be asked to remove items to make the weight.
After the information was entered, I added my credit card information (5x points on my The Platinum Card® from American Express), earning 6359 Membership Rewards points, worth $121.18 using current TPG valuations (earn 5x points on airfare when booking direct with the airline or via American Express Travel on up to $500,000 per calendar year.) I hit send and my booking was confirmed within seconds.
These are the current rules for foreign travelers visiting France:
- Masks are still required at all indoor venues, including shops, cafes and restaurants.
- You still need to take either a PCR or rapid antigen COVID-19 test up to 72 hours from departing Paris.
- You can also find antigen testing at most pharmacies around Paris for around 30 euros. There are also testing centers at Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG) and Paris-Orly (ORY) airports.
But on July 12, French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled new measures he hopes will encourage more citizens to get COVID-19 vaccines as the Delta variant continues to spread. Starting on Aug.1, for anyone wanting to dine out, take a long-distance train or visit a shopping center, you'll need to show either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.
Anyone 12 and over who wants to visit an amusement park, attend a show, concert or festival, will need to have a French health pass starting on July 21. U.S. citizens who want to get a health pass must show either that they have been fully vaccinated, have a negative PCR test (good for 72 hours after the test) or have a negative antigen test (good for 48 hours after the test), according to the U.S. Embassy in France.
The CDC vaccination card does not serve as a health pass. For those vaccinated in the United States with a CDC card, any willing French doctor or pharmacist can enter the vaccination information in the French system, even for people who do not have a French social security number or carte vitale. This will allow them to generate a paper or electronic version of the health pass.
Related: France is open to Americans; Here’s what it’s like now and when to go
I chose to check in online using my iPhone, and it was a bit messy. Every time I tried, I either got the directions in French or I kept being directed back to the French Bee home page. I received a text from the airline on the day of my departure offering online check-in, and this time it worked.
I stood in a long TSA line at Newark-Liberty (EWR) that took about 30 minutes since only one person was checking ID and only one checkpoint was open. Unfortunately, French Bee is not one of the 80 airlines that participate in the TSA PreCheck program. And Clear is only available at Newark's Terminal C.
When I put my phone on the checker, I got the dreaded red light — which meant TSA couldn’t read the French Bee QR code boarding pass. The woman told me I had to get a paper pass and that she’d let me back in without having to wait again.
I went to the check-in counter, which was crowded. I spoke to someone who was guiding people, explained my situation and she told me I could use the kiosk. The only problem was French Bee wasn't one of the airlines, so she took me to a short customer service line where I got my pass quickly.
I went back to the TSA checkpoint to the front of the line as ordered. By that time, they had a second person checking passes and after a short wait, I went through screening.
Celebrating the inaugural
There really wasn’t much of a celebration. There was a sign at the gate announcing the start, and there were women handing out French and American flags.
Boarding was chaotic, with staff giving different instructions and no clear line markers or boarding priority signs. Instead, there were unmarked stanchions for those in wheelchairs and those with children under age six. There were also unmarked stanchions for premium customers and priority boarding (which I paid for); I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It led to people pushing up to the gate to board, with no rhyme or reason.
They boarded about half the wheelchairs and families with children, then stopped to board the premium and priority boarding customers. We stood on the jet bridge for about seven minutes -- with no explanation -- before we were allowed to board. We were greeted by crew handing out hand sanitizer.
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Passengers continued to board the flight in what appeared to be random order well after our 10:55 p.m. departure time. The aircraft doors finally closed at almost midnight and finally took off at 1:00 a.m. EDT. The delay was blamed on FAA traffic management initiatives at Newark.
French Bee's Airbus A350
The flight was on a brand-new A350 in tighter 3-4-3 configuration, which can definitely feel cramped when fully booked. I paid extra to get seat 27C on the left side of the plane because it was right over the wing. And at the time I booked it, there was no one booked in the other two seats. Miraculously, I managed to have a whole row to myself, which was nice because it was a pretty full flight. Even the flight attendant commented on my luck having a row to myself.
I'm a big fan of the A350's overhead bins. They are deep and roomy, and I had no trouble fitting my Away Expanded Carry-on inside. The seats had the winged headrests, which are always nice for sleeping. There were blankets, but no pillows (not that I ever used them in economy before the pandemic).
The aircraft had two power outlets and two USB ports under my row of three. My adapter easily fit in and stayed put. There was also a USB port at the bottom of the setback screen, which was handy for charging my iPhone and iPad.
There was a nice selection of 76 American and French movies, including "Judas and the Black Messiah," "Promising Young Woman," the French thriller "Une Affaire de Détails" and the comedy "Comme des Garçons." There was also a mix of American and global music, along with games such as Sudoku.
The pickings were slim with television programming, with only around 20 choices. Oddly enough, there were only two or three episodes of each show to watch, which meant missing out on an ideal opportunity for a binge-watching session for those who can't sleep on overnight flights.
After take-off, we were given an amenity pack that included socks, a sleep mask and a meal voucher.
The good news is that the airline offers its branded iZiWi-Fi at four different levels. The bad news was that it didn't work that well for me, foiling my plans to do some writing onboard the flight. The flight attendant I called for help was apologetic, but couldn't seem to help. My across-the-aisle neighbor even tried to help, to no avail.
There were two food menus -- Dining and Le Blue Cafe. The dining menu was a list of the meals served on the flight, depending on your destination and time of day. Le Blue Cafe was snacks, sandwiches, soups, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages. For 10 euros (USD$11.80), you could purchase a drink combo of two small bottles of Jack Daniels, two cans of Coca Cola and a can of Pringles potato chips. For the same amount, you could also buy a tapas plate of meats and cheeses paired with a glass of red or white wine.
Because the flight was so late, there was no evening meal offered. So I paid $7.75 for a bag of cashews and a bottled water and watched downloaded content on my iPad.
We were served breakfast about two hours before landing. The meal was a soft croissant with jelly and butter, along with potatoes, eggs, a sausage and a pack of Oreo cookies, which was pretty bland for a French carrier. No coffee was available. But in celebration of the inaugural flight, champagne was offered to anyone who wanted a glass.
Right before we landed, the flight attendant asked those who had U.S. and French flags to wave them as we landed.
Getting through French Customs was pretty simple. They were fine accepting a photo of my COVID-19 vaccination card.
This flight was a long time coming, and despite some major hiccups, we made it to Paris. It's nice that U.S. travelers have yet another option -- and low cost at that -- between New York and Paris. Personally, I was absolutely thrilled to be traveling out of the country again.
However, French Bee still has some work to do to improve the passenger experience. It needs to become part of TSA PreCheck, work on a smoother boarding process and do a better job of explaining the availability of meals.
U.S. travelers who like flying on Spirit Airlines know that there are tricks to avoiding fees, such as not paying for a particular seat, traveling with only a free under-seat bag, packing your own food, filling up a water bottle before boarding and going for priority boarding. These tricks can be used on French Bee too.
Budget travelers don't mind doing these things to keep their fare on French Bee as low as possible, so if you choose to fly on the low-cost carrier, know what you're getting before you pay for your flight. Boarding was chaotic (although I'm hoping that will improve as the airline gets more flights under its belt), they didn't serve dinner, the 3-4-3 seating configuration is pretty tight, there's no TSA PreCheck and the Wi-Fi didn't work on my flight. It isn't my favorite way to travel (as seen by my purchases), but French Bee is an option for those wanting to go to Paris as cheaply as possible -- especially if they manage to iron out the kinks.