Flying Trans-Atlantic for Cheap on Norwegian's 787
When I went to London this winter, I chose to fly the first leg in business class (booked with miles) and jumped on a super-cheap economy flight back with Norwegian Air Shuttle (you can read about how I booked the flights here). I’ve flown on RyanAir, EasyJet, WizzAir, etc. before, but this was my first time on one of the trans-Atlantic low-cost carriers (LCCs) and I was interested in seeing how it compared to a mainstream airline.
To cut straight to the point: if the price was right and the schedule worked out I would absolutely choose Norweigian over a legacy carrier again. At least, when I don’t have bags to check. As the LCCs expand service between the US and Europe, the mainstream airlines are going to have to figure out a way to make their coach product seem worth the extra price.
Getting to the Airport
Norwegian, which recently expanded its U.K-U.S. service, operates its trans-Atlantic London flights out of Gatwick Airport, using Boeing 787-8 aircraft on the airline's main routes (including this one), and soon adding 737-MAX planes on the newer routes. Unless you’re connecting to/from a flight at Heathrow, Gatwick is nearly as convenient as the larger London flight hub. The Gateick Express train shuttle runs every 15 minutes from Victoria Station and takes about half an hour. I was coming from visiting a friend in Cambridge, so I took a train to Victoria to catch the Express with a connection at Finsbury Park.
Norwegian flies out of Gatwick’s South Terminal. Signage from the train station is straightforward, leading you towards the terminals and check-in areas. Once I found the Norwegian area I printed my boarding pass from the self-serve kiosks, and zipped through security. The queue was almost as fast as what I've come to expect from PreCheck in the States — I guess Tuesday afternoon isn't a busy time to fly.
Gatwick’s South Terminal has a few lounges including one, the No. 1 Lounge, open to Priority Pass members (available as a perk with a handful of credit cards, including the Chase Sapphire Reserve). Although I’d read that Priority Pass members occasionally have trouble getting in due to over-crowding, there was plenty of room and I had no trouble.
The lounge was spacious and comfortable. There were a ton of seats with nearby power outlets, and huge windows overlooking the outside of the terminal and the runway — perfect for some plane spotting.
There were self-serve sweet and savory snacks, a staffed bar with a decent selection, a coffee station and a menu with more substantial food. All food and drinks were complimentary (except for champagne and possibly premium spirits).
The No. 1 lounge was a nice place to relax pre-flight. I had an Estrella beer and a chicken caesar salad, which was a bit small but good, especially considering that it was free!
I hung out for a few hours until close to boarding, charging my phone and iPad, watching some TV (and doing some work) with the wifi, which was generally fast, and enjoying some avgeekiness outside of the windows.
The one complaint I have is that the bathroom was small, poorly maintained and incredibly hot for some reason; to be fair, they were doing some maintenance work that day.
If you aren't planning to eat on the plane — meals aren't included with your ticket on Norwegian or other LCC flights, and Norwegian requires you to purchase meals in advance — I suggest getting something more substantial to eat than what the lounge offers. There are a handful of restaurants to choose from in the South Terminal. About two days after my flight, the Priority Pass network announced that cardholders and guests will receive a £15 credit PER GUEST per visit to the Grain Store Café and Bar, so that’s a great option instead of (or before or after) the No. 1 lounge. I ended up being short on time leaving the lounge, so I just grabbed a pre-made sandwich and a few snacks at M&S as I made my way to the gate. I’m still kicking myself for missing a chance to grab a cheeky Nando’s.
In the part of the terminal where my flight boarded, each gate is inside an enclosed area, It turns out it's a highly effective way reducing crowding in the terminal. You show your boarding pass and passport to the gate agent right before walking into the gate area, which almost felt like a giant compartment on a European train (or the Hogwarts Express), since glass windows looked out onto the hallway to other gates running parallel.
Boarding was surprisingly quick and efficient, even though it looked like the plane was full. Rather than boarding groups, it was a simple back-to-front model starting with the last rows. Since checked bags cost extra, even if they’re gate-checked due to the overhead compartments being full, I figured there would be a mess of people fighting to get on first or hide their extra carry-ons from the gate agents. However, it all seemed fine. Because I was sitting in the first row of economy, I was in the last group to board. The person sitting next to me must have been running late, because she complained that the overhead compartments were full and the gate agent had forced her to check her bag and charged her credit card on the spot. Ouch.
Norwegian, like WOW and pretty much every other LCC, charges extra to pick your seat in advance. Since this was an eight hour flight, I figured it was worth it to avoid being stuck in the middle. Lucky for me, there was a window seat available in the bulkhead row — row 6, the first row of regular economy, has a nice bit of extra leg room (thanks to Zach Honig at The Points Guy for the tip).
The seats on Norwegian are perfectly fine and fairly unremarkable. They’re well-padded with moveable headrests. Tablets are built in to the back of the seat in front of you, offering in-flight entertainment (IFE), the air show, duty free shopping and food and drinks to order. In the bulkhead row, an arm swung up from the seat with the tablet.
While the bulkhead row had a bit of extra room, the rest of the seats in the cabin looked about the same as what any of the legacy carriers fly across the Atlantic. On Norwegian’s 787-8, seats are a hair over 17 inches wide, with 31-32 inches of pitch. That actually bests the economy seats in American’s flagship 777-300ER fleet, which are 16.2-17.1 inches wide, with 31-32 inches of pitch.
I settled in and pretty soon we were off. It was my first time on a Boeing Dreamliner 787, so I was curious to see how the much-hyped aircraft would compare to an older wide-body plane. All in all, though, it felt like a normal flight. While the engines might have been a little quieter than on a 777, it wasn’t a huge difference and I still had to turn the volume up on the movies I watched. The cabin pressure and humidity didn’t feel that different, and I wasn’t any more refreshed by the time we got to JFK. Maybe it’s more noticeable on longer or overnight flights. It was perfectly comfortable, though, and each seat had a personal air vent which is uncommon outside of the US.
Meal service started quickly once we reached cruising altitude. Because meals had to be purchased in advance, the flight attendants only brought food to the people who had ordered it beforehand — from where I was sitting, it looked like about one-third of the cabin. It seemed that a lot of people brought food on board, instead. Norwegian’s meals cost £25 or $45, depending on which country’s website you use to book, so I guess those people felt that if they were paying for dinner anyway, it might as well be something better than airplane food. A downside is that all of the take-out foods from Gatwick’s restaurants can be a bit smelly on the plane at first. After a little while, the flight attendants came by to clean up the dinner service. The cabin lights were dimmed (and the electronic window shades darkened) and we settled in for the rest of the ride.
The flight was fairly uneventful, aside from being kicked and elbowed a few times by the vaguely annoying drunk American woman sitting in the middle seat next to me. I watched a few movies on the IFE and my iPad, and ordered a few drinks and a snack through Norwegian’s tablet. The only real notable moment came when we hit some moderate turbulence at cruising altitude, and I made the mistake of looking out the window.
On 787s, much of the plane is made from a lightweight composite material, which helps the plane improve fuel efficiency over older models. One effect of the use of carbon fiber is that the wings are ver flexible, curving up during flight and moving a lot during turbulence — Boeing designed the wings around this, taking advantage of a swept-back, longer design with trailing edges to generate more lift. The flexibility supposedly helps dampen turbulence, though a new computer system is more directly responsible for that. One thing that happens is that when the plane is cruising through choppy air, the wings move and bend a lot. When you’re used to standard planes like 737s and 777s, it can be quite unsettling to see the wings violently flapping around. I turned back around and decided to order another drink
What I was most interested to see on Norwegian was how flying trans-Atlantic on a low-cost carrier compared to flying with a normal full-service carrier like Delta or British Airways. In terms of service, there’s definitely a difference. The flight attendants aren’t proactive. There’s no beverage cart, no in-flight snack and the FAs spend most of the flight running back and forth fulfilling orders that passengers have placed via tablet. They don’t come around collect trash at all during the flight (besides service items if you purchased a meal). At one point as we began our initial descent, I got up and walked to the galley trying to track down a garbage bin or someone I could give my trash to. I was a little surprised about this — I thought that collecting and securing refuse was more of a safety thing before landing than a convenience thing.
The hard product, though — the seats, IFE and plane — were indistinguishable from a mainline carrier. I was perfectly comfortable, or at least no more uncomfortable than on another airline. Seats are in a 3-3-3 configuration, which is the same as what American and United offer on that plane — on bigger planes like the 777, those legacy carriers tend to arrange economy seats 3-4-3 or worse. Norwegian only provides pillows and blankets on request — and for an additional fee — but that was more or less the end of the differences. The seats were well padded, maybe even better than the slimline seats United is installing, and the IFE offered an interactive airshow as well as a nice library of movies.
The only other consideration is that, while Norwegian has their own take on a frequent flier program, it doesn't work quite like other airlines. There's no opportunity for outsized redemptions, and there are no partnerships and alliances through which to redeem miles. That said, 99% of the time, you're better off saving money by flying Norwegian than paying more and earning legacy miles. The exception is when Norwegian's fares are around the same as the legacy carriers, whether because of base fares or because you need to pay for checked bags.
Soon enough, we were descending and on the ground. Norwegian operates out of JFK's Terminal One, and we landed just about as far away from it was possible so there was a long taxi to the gate. Global Entry is available in Terminal One, so it was a quick stop through passport control and customs. This was my first international flight without checked luggage, so it was incredibly nice to make it from the jet bridge to taxi stand in less than 10 minutes. I'll definitely try to stick with carry-on if I can again!
The low fares on Norwegian can be misleading. All they include is a seat on the plane, and maybe some space in an overhead compartment (if you get on the plane fast enough). Most leisure passengers are flying over for more than a few days, so chances are they'd have to pay extra to check a bag. If you want to sit with your travel companions, or just want to avoid a middle seat, that'll cost you, too. So does food, alcohol, soda, water, even the use of a blanket.
That said, even with the checked bag fees Norwegian is often cheaper than the legacy airlines. If you're able to pack light and looking for a fantastic deal, then Norwegian is a great choice if you are near one of their destinations or hubs. With a plane that's as comfortable as what you'd find on any other airline, Norwegian — along with similar LCCs like WOW and the newly-introduced LEVEL — is disrupting the trans-Atlantic market in a way that has serious benefits for travelers. It will be interesting to see how the bigger carriers, with their extensive route networks and alliances, continue to respond.