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A TPG deal alert toward the end of June afforded the opportunity for me to visit my sixth continent on SkyTeam metal for less than half the cost of a new iPhone.
Comfortable seats, half-empty plane and great food (for economy).
The lavatories could have been cleaner, and a whole lot of plastic involved with each meal service.
Back in June of last year, Virgin Atlantic and KLM offered deals to South Africa, which eventually resulted in a series of sale fares for between $500 and $600 round-trip in coach. I managed to snag myself one of the budget tickets headed for Cape Town, connecting through Amsterdam (AMS) on a series of KLM/Delta codeshares. At the time, I had no idea what my life would look like three months into the future, so I arbitrarily picked a date — my birthday weekend at the end of January — and decided to figure out the rest later on.
I paid $575.11 for the ticket with my Chase Sapphire Reserve, earning 3x on my travel purchase. Both Delta and KLM offered the exact same itinerary at the same price, so I chose to book my flight through Delta because I have Silver Medallion status with the airline and am more familiar with the carrier’s booking interface.
Next, I had to decide where I wanted to fly from. Given the number of blizzards that consistently stall winter flights in the Northeast, I wanted to avoid connections that had to pass through icy weather lest I run into unwanted delays. The deal I purchased was valid for departures out of Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Los Angeles (LAX), Miami (MIA), Chicago (ORD) and San Francisco (SFO). Since I live in Austin and would require a positioning flight to get me to my departure point, I looked through my options to see which airport would be the most convenient.
I have a stash of Southwest points that I tend to utilize for occasions such as these, so I wanted to find a departure city where I wouldn’t have to commute between two different airports. That ruled out Dallas, Miami and Chicago, since Southwest flies into Dallas Love Field (DAL), Fort Lauderdale (FLL) and Chicago Midway (MDW), respectively, out of Austin. And while Southwest flies into San Francisco, the airline doesn’t offer direct flights from Austin. So by simple process of elimination, LAX was my best option. I booked Southwest positioning tickets to and from LAX for around 8,000 Southwest points and $5.60 in fees per ticket, opting to arrive into Los Angeles a day early, just in case something happened to delay my arrival. This turned out to be a good call, as I’ll explain later.
I had the option of selecting my seat during the booking process, so I got middle-row aisle seats in the hopes of scoring a poor man’s lie-flat seat on at least one of the segments. Over the next seven months, Delta proceeded to email me every time something changed with my itinerary — a total of eight times, according to my inbox.
The first email took place within hours of my booking, informing me that I had received a complimentary “upgrade” to a Delta Comfort+ seat. (I use quotations because, let’s face it, the phrase “upgrade” should be reserved for a cabin change.) The next few had to do with perfunctory schedule changes.
Early on the morning of departure, I received another, more urgent email at 5:48am, informing me that my 1:50pm departure time had been pushed to 3:15pm, which meant that I would miss my connecting flight in Amsterdam. Since I had several hours’ advance warning, I called Delta and requested to be rebooked on an earlier LAX-AMS flight. After about 35 minutes on the phone with an agent, I was booked on Delta Flight 78 departing from Gate 27 in LAX’s Terminal 2 at 12:20pm.
My mileage earnings appeared in my Delta account within 36 hours of trip completion. The number of base and bonus miles was laughably low, and I earned just $104 Medallion-qualifying dollars (MQDs). But I did earn 5,579 Medallion-qualifying miles (MQMs), aka butt-in-seat miles, for my efforts. I’ll take it.
Despite my slightly accelerated timetable for the day, my experience at the airport couldn’t have been smoother. I checked in online as soon as I was booked on the new flight, and arrived at the check-in desk just over one hour before our scheduled departure time.
I printed a boarding pass at one of the many kiosks dotting the Delta area, then was directed to bring my bag to the dedicated bag-drop desks. All of the gate agents were very friendly and helpful in a way that felt genuine, which added a bright note to my day.
Even though the government shutdown had led to some reported delays in several airports, I personally haven’t run into any TSA-related snafus yet, and this was no exception.
After checking my bag, it took me just under four minutes to walk back toward the security checkpoint, up the escalator through the TSA PreCheck line, and through the scanner.
Although our scheduled boarding time was 11:25am, we didn’t begin until 11:45am. But once we started moving, things progressed very quickly; the entire plane was seated and ready to go by 12:05pm. I boarded right after the Delta One passengers, and got from gate to seat within five minutes flat.
Cabin and Seat
DL78 was operated by a 3-year-old Airbus A330-300, tail number N826NW. The plane looked to be in great condition, with no damage that I could see. The seat leather was nice and breathable for the long haul, and I didn’t feel restless from or irritated by the material at any point. As a bonus, it also made the plane look that much sleeker, compared to the fabric covers on many other airlines’ seats.
My flight ended up being so empty that I overheard another passenger ask a flight attendant if this was typical or not for the route. She laughed and said, “I’m sure it’s just because it’s 30 degrees in Amsterdam right now.”
Delta’s coach cabin had 40 Comfort+ seats and 219 standard main-cabin seats. By my rough estimate, maybe only about 100 of those seats were claimed by travelers. This meant that a number of us scored poor man’s business-class seats once the plane doors were secured, ensuring that there would be no additional passengers joining us.
I received an upgraded Comfort+ seat based on my Medallion status. For the sake of this review, though, I ended up sitting one row behind my seat, in standard main-cabin seating. It didn’t make much difference to me, since I’m only 5 feet, 2 inches, but I could see the extra space being a welcome boon for someone with longer legs.
While Comfort+ seats are the same size as standard coach seats with 18-inch width, they have significantly more legroom with a 35-inch pitch, as opposed to 31 to 32 inches in the main-cabin section.
I found the leather seats in both Comfort+ and standard coach to be very roomy and comfortable for the nearly 11-hour trip. In fact, I worked throughout the flight without reclining my seat even once, except to test it out for the sake of this review.
The bedding was clean and the pillows were fluffy, but I hated the disposable paper pillowcases they came in. Not only do they get hot and uncomfortable on long flights, they tend to look cheap and wrinkly in no time at all.
This minor complaint, and the relatively small tray table, were the only detracting factors as far as the cabin seat went. Everything else was just a little bit better than any economy product I’ve experienced on either American Airlines or United.
We were offered paper menus before takeoff. Those of us in Comfort+ also received a simple amenity kit, which included a small eye mask, earplugs and a tiny dental kit. It’s the little things, y’all.
The six lavatories were small, but not quite as cramped as some I’ve experienced. On an unrelated note, PSA: Don’t ever walk into these barefoot. Look how gross that floor looks, even at the very beginning of the flight.
Bathroom amenities were another area where Delta’s product was a bit more barebones. Although there’s never really any expectation that coach class lavs will feature little extras such as facial spray or body lotion, I’ve been a bit spoiled of late from flying a number of Asian carriers. But Delta’s standard foaming hand soap was available in abundant quantities, at least at the beginning of the trip, and that was more than enough function for me. I did notice that Kleenex started running out in one of the lavs toward the end of the flight, but, hey, I guess that makes sense, and I don’t fault the airline for running out.
Interestingly enough, the Wi-Fi speed was generous enough for me to [slowly] download the images for this review from mid-air; however, I wasn’t able to complete a speed test as I received “latency test error” messages multiple times throughout the flight. So my very unofficial assessment is that, for the most part, the Wi-Fi is more than sufficient for basic email browsing and even Facebook scrolling. But don’t depend on the in-flight Internet to let you finish streaming the latest Netflix special.
Amenities and IFE
The inflight entertainment had one of the most robust portfolios of movies that I’d ever seen on board a flight, with more than 300 to choose from. Each seat had a USB port embedded below the screen, and a standard audio port to the bottom left of the screen. Headphones were offered, but they were of typical low quality. Standard power outlets were available, one between every two seats.
Delta doesn’t offer tailcams, but the flight tracker offered up helpful information regarding our aircraft du jour. My one small complaint is that, while watching a movie, you couldn’t just tap on the screen to see how much longer you’d be in the air. Instead, you had to wait until you exited the movie viewer. I had a spare seat next to me, though, so I just checked on that screen, but that would’ve annoyed me on a crowded plane.
Delta only played one short commercial before each movie, which was nice. For movies with a PG-13 rating or above, a little “parental advisory” notice appeared before the movie.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
Our first meal service didn’t begin until almost 90 minutes after departure time. The drink cart came through first, with snacks offered at the same time, which helped tide me over until food was served.
For dinner, I had three entrees to choose from:
- herb-roasted chicken piccata with lemon caper sauce, creamy polenta and green beans (yes! yes!)
- burrata ravioli in classic pomodoro with tuscan tomato and nut-free pesto (this sounded pretty great as well)
- Thai chicken salad with sesame ginger dressing
All of the meals came with salad and dessert, and hot entrees are served in plastic containers covered with foil. I didn’t care for how mismatched the meal trays felt from the tray tables themselves; the square trays kept sliding around on the skinny rectangular tables in a way that felt very unstable, even before factoring in mild turbulence.
That being said, the food itself was — dare I say it? — delicious, at least by coach class standard. While my actual chicken breast was pretty dry, the lemon caper sauce had such a bright, balanced flavor to it that I never anticipated experiencing in economy. I rushed my way through the veggies, but savored the polenta mixed with sauce for a little bit longer than I probably should have. Also, I almost never eat salads on-board planes, but this one was impressively fresh. The cherry tomatoes were firm and bursting with goodness, and the lettuce was crisper than the stuff I have in my fridge back home. I didn’t care for the roll, the texture of which made me feel like I was gnawing on my dish sponge, but the chunky wedges of cheddar and the chocolate fudge brownie both tasted exactly as they should.
I liked my entree so much, I flirted with the idea of asking for a second one if the crew had any extras sitting around after meal service. Instead, I opted to wait for my mid-flight snack. This was a turkey-cheddar sandwich inside of a dense little roll, plus some Milano cookies. I didn’t care for the bread at all, but I did eat the lunch meat and cheese inside.
I was particularly pleased with the little snack mix bags that were handed out and also available in the back galley in between meal services. These tasted like knockoff Doritos and were surprisingly good.On this flight, Delta really seemed to like serving food in plastic bags. My breakfast came in the same red-corded clear plastic pouch as my mid-flight snack. Inside was a cup of honey Noosa yogurt (very good), a carrot cake muffin (meh; very sugary) and a cup of Minute Maid orange juice.
Flight attendants were very attentive, making many trips up and down the aisle to distribute water and other amenities throughout the long flight.
Service was great throughout, and every flight attendant who passed through greeted me with a smile. Their response time to the call button was nearly immediate, although that could have partially been the function of a fairly light passenger load. The best thing about the service was that they were really proactive about offering water and other hydration throughout the service; I must’ve seen flight attendants carrying trays of water cups at least three times, in addition to offering full bottles of Dasani water twice between meal services. It’s a little touch, but an important one: More water means more getting up to walk around (and avoid blood clots), and less trips one needs to make in order to ask for just a bit more water. I definitely feel like Delta went above and beyond on this front as well as with a number of other small details that provide comfort.
I walked off of my flight with plenty of time to spare before my connection. This was one of the most comfortable long-haul economy flights I’ve taken in several years. Although the hours weren’t the most conducive for sleep, I could have slept quite well in those Main Cabin seats, even in a middle seat if I had truly had to do so. I also collected my checked bag promptly and with no issues upon arrival. I felt well-fed, hydrated, rested and relaxed – a nearly unbelievable statement for flying coach internationally on a US major carrier. From this United 1K member — well done, Delta!
All images by the author for The Points Guy.
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