Poor Woman's Business Class to Paradise: Flying Delta's 737 From Detroit to Cabo San Lucas
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[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="84" ground-experience="5" cabin-seat="23" amens-ife="12" food-bev="20" service="24" pros="Basically had a lie-flat seat, with business class-worthy hospitality. " cons="Not actually business class, and terrible audio while watching my Harry Potter franchise flicks. " /]
Sometimes, you think you know how things are going to shake out.
After all, the day had started at 3:30am with me groping around in the dark for my headphones (couldn't find 'em). And I'll be honest: Flight reviews give me a special kind of anxiety, and I was fresh off a week of getting very little sleep because of this recurring nightmare where I wake up to hear the pilot tell the flight crew to prepare for landing and realize I've been asleep the entire time and haven't taken a single picture.
But it turns out even economy-class flights can be filled with delightful surprises, as I learned during a recent flight to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico (SJD), from Detroit (DTW). Here's what happened when I accidentally flew a semiprivate Boeing 737 to Cabo.
This flight was the second leg of a one-way trip booked through Delta. The fare cost $267, and the taxes and fees brought the total to $329.29. We paid with the Platinum Card® from American Express and earned 5x on the purchase.
The itinerary, which originated at Newark (EWR) and connected in Detroit (DTW) before continuing on to San Jose del Cabo (SJD), was worth 2,510 Medallion Qualifying Miles, $267 Medallion Qualifying Dollars and two Medallion Qualifying Segments. The flight from DTW to SJD was responsible for most of those miles: 2,010 MQMs and $214 MQDs with 1,070 base miles. As I'm a lowly SkyMiles member, this flight didn't really move the needle for me.
Since Delta doesn't have award charts, there's no way of predicting exactly how many SkyMiles you'd need to use for a flight like this. However, Delta's been having many SkyMiles flash sales lately, and sometimes there are phenomenal deals to be had. Keep an eye out for these, as you could score a great deal on a flight to Mexico's Pacific coast.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="5" tpg-rating-max="10" tail="N397DA" age="18" departure="9" departure-2="12" duration="4" duration-2="28" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
When I checked in online for this flight the evening before, I noticed something strange: There appeared to be a procession of unoccupied rows. I optimistically switched my seat to one of the empty rows but figured it was probably some technical glitch or a bit of hoodoo. And I didn't think about it again until I arrived at the gate.
After landing at DTW, I hustled straight to Gate A2 to ask for early boarding so I could try to snap a few photos of the cabin and seat before the hordes of Cabo-bound spring breakers boarded. (See above: fear of not getting photos.)
Sadly, even if the Express Tram hadn't been out of service, there was no time to check out the Delta Sky Club lounges, which I could have accessed thanks to the combination of my Platinum card and same-day Delta boarding pass.
And the gate area did in fact look crowded with vacationers when I got there just 10 minutes before the scheduled boarding time. But when the adjacent Cancún-bound flight began boarding, most travelers donning sun hats and tropical-print shirts piled into that plane. Still, I approached the gate agent and asked if I could board early, weighing a handful of reasonable excuses. But I didn't need them. She said if I needed extra time to board, I was welcome to join the first group.
We queued up at 8:55am, a few minutes behind schedule, but hardly needed the allotted time for boarding — the flight was empty. Though we pushed back from the gate more or less on schedule, there was quite a traffic jam on the runway, and we were wheels up about 20 minutes later than our scheduled time.
But at this point, I realized I was flying poor (wo)man's business class. Heck, I was chartering a private 737-800 with 30 or so strangers. I didn't mind spending an extra 20 minutes luxuriating on my improvised lie-flat seat.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="23" tpg-rating-max="25" configuration="3" configuration-2="3" width="17.2" pitch="31.5" tray="17.5" tray-2="8.5" lavs="3" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Delta's 737-800s have 160 seats, 36 of which are Delta Comfort+ and 16 of which are up front in first class.
Of the 108 main-cabin seats on this flight (all in a 3-3 configuration), only about 30 were occupied, according to a flight attendant.
The cabin was bright and modern, and already the flight was seriously exceeding my expectations. After all, according to Delta, main-cabin seats have a width of 17.2 inches by 31 to 32 inches. But after I settled into my private row, I had more than 52 inches to spread out.
Speaking objectively, everything about the cabin and seat would have been unremarkable — clean enough, though the seatback literature was almost comically roughhoused — except for the fact that there was hardly anyone else on the plane. I didn’t just have an extra seat for my belongings, like I'd let myself hope when checking in — I had entire rows to myself.
Every seat came with a USB outlet and audio jack beneath the inflight-entertainment screen, as well as a 110-volt outlet near the floor. My 13-inch MacBook easily fit on the tray tables, though it was a tight squeeze when the person seated in front of me reclined back.
Not to fear! On this more-or-less-private bird, I asked one of the flight attendants if I could move back a few rows so there was no one in front of, next to or behind me. It was more private than most business-class seats and suites I’ve ever flown. At this point, just for kicks, I turned one row into my "office" and another into my "bedroom" so I could have separate spaces for work and for napping (but mostly watching movies my boyfriend refuses to sit through).
And though the 16 first-class flyers had to battle it out for one lavatory, those of us in the main cabin had two lavs to share, about a 15:1 ratio. Unfortunately, even when you're flying poor woman's business class, the lav doesn't get any bigger.
Probably because (did I mention?) there weren't many people on board, the lav stayed sparkling clean throughout the flight, and it was well-stocked with paper towels and Delta's typical "calm"-scented foaming soap. Not only did I never have to wait, but I could also choose which bathroom I used. Talk about spoiled for choice!
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="12" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="7.5" movies="107" tv-shows="50" live-tv="Yes" tailcam="No" wifi="1.96" wifi-2="5.42" headphones="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Though there were no amenities on the seat when I arrived, flight attendants were happy to provide everything from complimentary earbuds to blankets (albeit thin ones).
The inflight-entertainment system worked well — the touchscreen was responsive — but I did have issues with the audio. I could hardly hear Albus Dumbledore tell Newt Scamander about the safe house in Paris.
Frankly, I couldn't tell if it was (a) the IFE, (b) the headphones, (c) the ambient sound or (d) a combination of the three. But when I tried out another IFE system later in the flight, I had the same issue. Final answer: (d) all of the above.
Too bad I didn't have a great pair of noise-canceling headphones with me.
With 107 movies ("Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" and "Crazy Rich Asians"), 50 television shows and 12 live channels including CNN, ESPN and NBC, there was more than enough complimentary entertainment for the four-and-a-half-hour flight. I could also track my flight, though there wasn't a tail camera.
Wi-Fi was available for the duration of the flight ($20) and from $6 an hour. It worked well enough for me to Slack my colleagues pictures of DIY lie-flat, but I couldn't toggle between devices, which was frustrating.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="20" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-meal="0" meals-purchase="Yes" comp-alcohol="No" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Food and beverage service in economy isn't exactly the kind of thing I typically get jazzed about. But snack time was an all-out affair on this flight.
The flight attendants were extremely generous. Or perhaps, they just had snacks enough for a full flight. When I took a beat to decide if I wanted a dark-chocolate-chunk Kind Bar or a bag of roasted peanuts (choices!), I was encouraged to just take one of each. Obviously, I obliged, and happily snacked on my Biscoff cookies and Cheez-Its at the hotel later that night.
Delta also had a Flight Fuel menu of purchasable food and beverages. They were serving breakfast at the time, even though it was after 9am, so my options were a turkey-and-apple sandwich on a pretzel croissant or a protein box (cheddar and sharp cheddar cheese; a hard-boiled egg, two whole-grain muesli rounds, sunflower-seed butter, a handful of red grapes and a single strawberry).
I had the protein box with a hot cup of coffee (sue me). I realize this might seem too small to mention, but I loved that Delta had natural sweeteners like Truvia in addition to Splenda and sugar.
Delta was also very on theme with featured Cazadores tequila blanco margaritas for purchase ($9), but I decided to save myself for a proper poolside marg later.
My meal arrived shortly after I ordered and came with plastic flatware designed to look like the real stuff they reserve for first-class flyers — another winning touch that made me feel even more like I was traveling up front. And no, the protein box wasn't a knockout. But let's just say the meal service here beat soggy, surly cornflakes any day of the week.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="24" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" blurb="The service was another highlight of this unusually empty flight. It was attentive and prompt, but relaxed and lighthearted all at once." /]
One of the metrics we sometimes consider when reviewing flights is whether or not flight attendants respond promptly to the call button. But I never even had the chance to consider it. The flight attendants were available throughout the flight and, in fact, seemed eager to grab an extra snack or blanket, or just chat.
During the meal service, flight attendants easily let travelers stock up on snacks, and — in what was honestly a standout moment for me — came by multiple times throughout the flight with cups full of juice and water. For perhaps the first time in my life after an economy flight, I left the plane feeling relaxed and hydrated.
From the moment I boarded until we deplaned, the flight attendants were friendly, talkative and obviously just as tickled about the whole empty-plane situation as the passengers. We chatted amicably about the ridiculously empty flight. Later, while waiting to deplane, one flight attendant asked me where I was staying — she, too, had a trip to Los Cabos on her radar.
Would I recommend this flight? Absolutely. In a heartbeat. Of course, it's impossible to say whether or not you'll have the same experience. (You probably won't.)
I imagine it's not every day you get to fly imitation business class on a flight to Cabo for just $329. But it wasn’t just having a makeshift lie-flat seat to myself that made the trip delightful (though obviously, the recline here gets top marks).
The service really did surpass some of the true business-class products I’ve flown because the flight attendants were downright awesome (you could tell they were enjoying the laid-back, nearly empty flight as much as the rest of us) and everyone else on board was in a good mood too. When was the last time you boarded a flight and heard claps of delight from various travelers as they approached their standard, middle economy seat?
Obviously, a sold-out flight wouldn't be as comfortable, and it may not deliver the same level of personalized service. But so much of what made this flight enjoyable came down to helpful, friendly hospitality that started on the ground, when the gate agent told me I could take the time I needed and board early. Perhaps she'd seen the manifest or could just sense my anxiety. But those small courtesies go a long way.
Oh, and I landed in Cabo, which is never a bad way to end a flight. So, if you book this route, you at least have that much to look forward to.