Lately, one of the questions friends and family often lob at me is whether or not Norwegian Air is a comfortable way to fly to Europe. I'm not referring to very young, hyper-budget-conscious travelers (like my kids) who wouldn't hesitate to give up a few extras for a deeply discounted flight but rather folks who traditionally fly mainstream carriers and expect a certain level of service when they travel.
Of course there are plenty of travel agents who can answer these questions based on their own experience, but for those who haven't, here are some observations from my recent flight from New York to Dublin, with a return to New York from London.
The two experiences were so different that they could have been on two different carriers, but the one constant is that they were both nonstop flights, a feature I won't give up easily, especially on routes that offer plenty of nonstop options from other airlines.
My flight to Dublin departed from Stewart Airport, which is marketed as a viable alternative to JFK and Newark for New York City dwellers as well as for people located in or near Orange County in the Hudson Valley, about 60 miles north of Manhattan.
On arrival at Stewart (via the $20 Stewart Airport Express/Norwegian Air shuttle from midtown Manhattan), the gate agent checked my tiny carry-on because it weighed more than 10 kilos (about 22 pounds), which would have cost $100 had it not been prepaid at $45 with my economy ticket.
At the security line I discovered that the carrier didn't participate in TSA Precheck, although that thankfully changed in October, a few weeks after my flight, and applies to all of the carrier's U.S. gateways.
We flew to Dublin on a Boeing 737, a narrow-body, single-aisle plane with a three-and-three configuration. I had an aisle seat by preference, and the reservation was included in my Flex ticket (and in all but the least expensive LowFare category, where it sets you back about an extra $40). I'm fairly small, but I found the seats narrow and not particularly comfortable for an overnight flight. However, the flight was only about half full, so I was able to move to an empty row and stretch out.
Once I settled in, I found out that the plane wasn't outfitted with seat-back entertainment systems and that there were no USB ports and no WiFi. Fortunately, my trusty Kindle was tucked away in my purse.
Food was available for a la carte purchase, but if you wanted a three-course meal, you would've had to preorder and prepurchase it.
While I admittedly wasn't too thrilled with this dearth of amenities, I noticed that many of my fellow passengers were clearly not first-timers like myself. They had brought their own snacks; had preordered their meals, which includes a vegetarian option; and were sanguine about the service.
A middle-age couple sitting next to me, for example, were frequent travelers who lived only about a half-hour from the airport. To them, the notion of traveling into the city to JFK or Newark was a nightmare, and they pointed out to me that the parking fees at Stewart are a bargain at $60 a week.
To them, the flight was fine, they didn't care about watching onboard movies, and they shared anecdotes with me about flights they had taken in recent years on some European carriers where the gap between economy and business class was noticeably widening and where they felt like cattle in steerage at the back of the plane.
By comparison, they said, this flight was OK, and why pay more for bad service elsewhere?
All that said, the flight attendants were friendly, we landed early in Dublin without incident, the landing was smooth enough to elicit applause and my bag arrived safely.
Fast forward a week to my nonstop return flight from London Gatwick to JFK, where I flew Norwegian's Premium class on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
We drove to the airport but from previous experience I know that the Gatwick Express train from London city center to the airport is easy and quick.
From the get-go the Premium experience was a completely different animal from my earlier flight. Upgrade benefits included a dedicated check-in lane; more leeway on the weight of my carry-on, so I was allowed to keep it with me; a special security line; and, best of all, entre into Gatwick's No. 1 airport lounge, at least as good as some other business-class lounges I've used over the years.
The seats on the Dreamliner were roomy, partly reclined with pop-up foot rests and offered in-seat entertainment, making for a comfortable flight that I would describe as as good as or better than premium economy I've experienced on some competing airlines.
As we deplaned, I asked some passengers who'd been in economy on the same flight about their experience and got no complaints.
In the end, would I take these flights again? Given that I've seen the Stewart-Dublin flight as low as $113 (in November), I might be tempted, especially if our whole family were traveling together on vacation. The money we would save times the five of us would translate into some upgrades and extras on the ground, although I'd be more careful with the weight of my carry-on and, most importantly, I'd manage my expectations.
As to the return flight from Gatwick, fares as low as $550 for Premium would make this an attractive option if I'm traveling alone or with my husband. Times five if the whole family goes? Still a tempting bargain.
Norwegian serves 15 U.S. airports and flies direct to 12 European cities from the U.S., including Barcelona, Copenhagen, London, Madrid, Oslo, Paris, Rome and Stockholm.