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Cheery crew and a free meal (and rum punch), even in coach.
Dated plane, the food and drink were pretty dismal and no amenities at all.
To celebrate our fifth anniversary, my wife and I decided on a long weekend away on the beaches of Grand Cayman.
We’re both busy and didn’t want to leave our 4-year-old daughter with her grandparents too long. Flight schedules were our priority for this three-night getaway. So while I have tons of miles with all the major airlines and credit-card programs, it was a trip on Cayman Airways that won out for the nonstop service on the days we needed.
The airline does have a loyalty program (or should I say “programme,” since this is the British West Indies) called Sir Turtle Rewards. The name and cute logo beats AAdvantage, SkyMiles and MileagePlus any day. But with no transfer partners, it wasn’t helpful to me.
This is a prime example of why it pays to be part of multiple points-and-miles programs. For instance, I could have used Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One Miles or Citi ThankYou Rewards Points to book the flights. (Check out our full guide to using fixed-value points.)
The one-way fare down to Grand Cayman was around $150, but a round-trip ticket was going for about $350, since taxes and fees are usually higher returning to the US. However, my return ticket was in business class (stay tuned for that review), and the total price was $987.81.
I chose to pay cash for this flight from New York-JFK to Grand Cayman’s Owen Roberts International Airport (GCM). One option was to earn 5x points on the Platinum Card® from American Express (when booked directly with airlines or through American Express Travel). But in the end, I went with 3x points on Chase Sapphire Reserve to get the better travel insurance and delay protections, especially since we were flying during summer and its nasty thunderstorms as well as the start of the Caribbean hurricane season.
The airline thanked me for the purchase and had a nice countdown clock to my trip.
There were two schedule changes before our trip. One was a minor one, but the other was several hours, something I suspect was related to the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX and the airline’s desire to utilize the older 737-300 on more routes.
The night before our departure from New York, an airline representative — not a recording — actually called me to remind us about the new time. Impressive.
We weren’t able to check in online and budgeted extra time to swing by the ticket counter in the morning.
JFK’s Terminal 1 was empty at 7:40am. The terminal serves international airlines, many of them with late-day and evening departures.
There were no self check-in kiosks available. Cayman Airways uses three desks that Lufthansa utilizes later in the day. There was no line to check in, and minutes later we had our boarding passes and headed to security.
The TSA PreCheck lane was closed. Not that it mattered, since Cayman Airways is not one of the airlines to participate in PreCheck anyway. The premium-passenger lane was also closed, but again, that was not of any consequence. The security line at Terminal 1 is notoriously bad during the afternoon and evening rush, but at 7:45 am it was only our tiny jet with just 122 seats leaving. The next flight wouldn’t depart for at least another hour.
The flight to Grand Cayman normally leaves at 8:45am but had been pushed to 9:20am on this day. That gave us time to visit the Air France lounge, which opens at 8am. We found it filled with other Priority Pass members. There was even a line to get in. The experience we had in the lounge doesn’t factor into the score of this section, though, since a coach ticket with Cayman Airways doesn’t include lounge access.
The lounge had plenty of natural light, outlets and nice seats.
The food was … well, they clearly don’t roll out the red carpet during Priority Pass hours. It was still nicer than waiting in the terminal.
There were rolls and breads, Swiss cheese and meat, fresh yogurt, cereal and bags of chips.
There was liquor and a group of friends heading to the island for a vacation was enjoying as much Champagne as they could.
A few minutes before boarding, we made our way over to the gate, right outside the lounge. There was plenty of seating and clear announcements.
At 9:04am, they started preboarding, then the eight business-class passengers and any elite members of Sir Turtle Rewards. Did I mention how much I love that name?
Then rows 11 to 24 were asked to board. That was the back half of the plane, which actually only had 21 rows. It was nice to hear “rows” instead of “groups” or “zones” being called. Like much of my flight, it was be a throwback to the 1990s.
Boarding was quick despite the tiny overhead bins. By 9:27am the door was closed. Four minutes later, we had pushed back from the gate.
Cabin and Seat
At first, I wasn’t sure if I had boarded a jet or a time machine. Everything felt old.
The lights, the seats and the overhead bins were all constant reminders that we were on a 23-year-old jet. The only thing missing was ashtrays in the armrests.
The old-school seats had ample padding, reminding me just how much air travel has changed in the past decade. No space-saving “slimline” seats here. But that did mean there was at least some decent legroom.
Everything was well-worn but clean. There were tons of bangs and scratches. Seats reclined but not with ease — or in the case of the person in front of me — with too much ease.
There were two bathrooms for the small, 114-seat coach cabin.
They were old and dark but had ample room compared to the space-saving lavatories airlines are now installing to make room for more seats. The sink and seat were clean, but the floor was extremely sticky two hours into our flight.
Amenities and IFE
Keeping with the ’90s theme, there were no TVs of any sort and no inflight WiFi. The only free entertainment was the seatback magazine, which had an unusually large number of ads for Jamaica, especially given its title of Cayman Airways Skies.
The strangest “amenity” was a coat hook, only on the middle seats. The others had all been torn out of the window and aisle seats. I’m not sure if those seats came from another plane or if this was a holdover from the days when gentlemen would wear sports jackets to fly, even to the Caribbean. Probably not.
The pilot gave us a nice description of our route that day, noting that we would fly over the Bahamas and Cuba.
We taxied out to Runway 22R and were on our way.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
I’ve spent the last decade of my career covering the airline industry. One lament I’ve grown accustomed to in the post-9/11 era is how hot meals have disappeared on flights. By now, we have become inured to bringing our own food or paying for snacks or a light — but definitely not hot — meal on board.
Cayman Airways reminded me why it’s actually a good thing that free coach meals have disappeared.
But before I get to my meal — and I’m being generous in calling it that — let me talk about the free rum punch. (Beer, wine and liquor are an additional cost.)
This is the signature item on a Cayman Airways flight. They advertise around it. On the website. In the inflight magazine. It’s a thing.
It’s hard to describe the rum punch beyond: “It tastes exactly like it looks.” It was packed with sugar, artificial flavors and a touch of rum. It fell somewhere between kindergarten lunch and college frat party.
But it was free, and almost everybody was kicking back a glass at 10:30am on their way to the Caribbean.
To get a better sense of it, though, just look at the jug it was served out of.
Now, onto the “meal.”
The inflight magazine advertised a few snack options, and I was ready to try some. But none were available on this flight and the flight attendant made it sound like there really weren’t any available on any flight.
This was the same May/June issue of the inflight magazine proudly announcing that Cayman Airways was the first to fly the now-grounded Boeing 737 MAX in the Caribbean.
My options were a turkey sandwich or a tuna salad sandwich.
I’m just going to pause here and note that there are certain foods one should never eat in a confined space with recirculated air. Canned tunafish is at the top of that list. Period.
Nothing about the turkey sandwich looked appealing. I tried it only so you don’t have to.
Luckily, I had a second complimentary rum punch to wash away the taste of dry turkey and surplus WWII cheese.
Interactions were minimal with the crew (as is standard for coach), but the crew members were friendly.
The flight attendants were extremely friendly.
Almost everybody on the plane was heading away on vacation, and the crew helped with that holiday spirit.
The drink service was fast and efficient. So was the meal service that quickly followed.
Trash was picked up, and there wasn’t any more service required.
The pilot gave a few updates along the route and updated us on our arrival time and one-hour time-zone change.
The approach into Owen Roberts International Airport was smooth and uneventful.
Instead of stairs, the airline wheeled up a ramp to let us exit onto the tarmac.
It made exiting much easier for those of us with wheeled carry-on bags and those passengers who might have had just a bit too much of the free rum punch.
Know before you go.
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