Norwegian Airlines Post-Mortem / Review

I wrote this after our trip to Europe and forgot to post it until now.We had a full-fare experience at a discount-fare price on Norwegian and I hope you will too.

Norwegian Air competes on price and their planes are new, plus your seat still reclines. Your biggest hassle will be the ticket line prior to departure and checked bag fees.

Prior to this trip we didn’t quite know what to expect with Norwegian Airlines, which is the first budget carrier to enter the trans-Atlantic market. We were pleasantly surprised.

For $530 total, per person, we booked two one-way direct tickets in mid-September, an 11pm red-eye from JFK to Copenhagen and a Sunday afternoon return flight from London to JFK.

Having flown RyanAir, I was expecting the worst: strict carry-on weight and size limits, seats that don’t recline, and usurous prices for food and drink. This did not come to pass, but getting to the plane was a struggle.

Ever see one of those photos from the Great Depression of a run on the bank? That’s what the Norwegian check-in line looked like at JFK.

Apparently both online ticketing and self-service kiosks are unavailable at JFK, forcing everyone, even those with carry-on bags only, to check in the old-fashioned way: with a desk agent. Arriving 2 1/4 hours before our flight turned out to be just enough to keep us from seriously considering whether we would miss our flight entirely.

Either you’ll have the situation we faced on a Friday night, or it could be clear sailing. Plan for 3 hours. You have been warned.

Once we got to the front of the line, we sailed through. They weigh your carry-on to see that its under the 10kg (22lb) limit, but you can bring a second piece of hand luggage (e.g. a small backpack or laptop bag). They charge around $50 each way for checked luggage, which includes a meal. We skipped this extra charge by packing light.

Once on the plane, the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner is roomy, with huge carry-on bins, high ceilings, and air quality technology that is supposed to reduce jet lag. The only downside is the constant mood lighting in the aisles prevents the cabin from being dark enough, so bring a blindfold like a dork if you plan to sleep. Also bring a snack and a water bottle to save on snacks.

Each seat has a touchscreen display with free movies, games, and TV shows. Color me impressed.

On the way back from London Gatwick online check-in was still not available but we were able to check in with no line via the self-service kiosk. Ticketing and security at Gatwick are efficient and secure, no wonder the British love queueing.

All in all, a positive experience that we would repeat again with a bit extra time on the outbound.

Our Personal Best-of-Europe

How was Europe? I don’t know, how was your childhood?

I’ve never had such trouble answering a question in the span of a few sentences. Possibly because I’ve never visited five very distinct countries in two weeks. Either way, now that we’re back from our grand tour, I feel like I need to sum it up since everyone keeps asking.

I can’t pick a favorite because they’re all so unique, I can’t even play the “where would I most like to live” game because we had such a great time in each place and stayed with such welcoming families, both my own and strangers-turned-friends (thanks to CouchSurfing).

Either way, here are the highlights:

Best Food Culture: Taste and value-wise, we had our best meals in Paris and Versailles. First dinner was duck, cooked medium-rare, and then we had the same the next night because it was so good the first time around. Those that think the French are thinner because of their food have definitely not had a nice red duck filet or any of the half-dozen ways they fry their potatoes. It’s hearty food from the countryside, we were both very impressed and also very full.

Best Breakfast Tradition: The Full English breakfast is a plate of fried things and vegetables that would be good for any meal: a huge plateful of deep-fried hash browns, eggs, grilled tomatoes, stewed mushrooms, baked beans, sausage, and back bacon. Oh, and four buttered half-slices of toast in case you weren’t full yet. Plus coffee, and good Italian non-watery coffee, I might add. I salute this British dish as the progenitor of the modern American diner breakfast, which happens to be my favorite meal when at home.

Eating the Animal: There is a trend, which I believe is unique to our generation, of being afraid of food that is still shaped like the animal it came from. Case-in-point: boneless chicken breast, the ubiquitous protein object. In life, and especially in travel, I aim to get to the source and eat the animal-shaped animals.

Eisbein, known in English as ham hock, is the fat-encased salted joint and foreleg of the pig. Germans love their pork in bulk, together with sauerkraut, mustard, potatoes, beets, and cabbage. I realize that the staple globalized ethnic foods like ramen, sushi, gyros, pizza, etc. are probably more common for dinner for the average German of our age, but we wanted some authentic grandma’s home cooking. We did not go hungry.

Most Like Home: Paris reminded us both of Mexico City: old boulevards and claustrophobic little streets, cobblestones, the tall interconnecting 19th-century style of architecture and the Haussmann layout of the city, including the subway. Also the noise, traffic, and general mess on the street. Not that we don’t both love Mexico City, but I think we were looking for something more out-of-the-ordinary and for Paola, something “cute”.

Best Tourist Sight or Museum: Versailles was monumental and well-worth the hour trip outside the city. This palace built to escape the heat of Paris in the summer has its own mini-palace to escape its heat, which then has its own mini-mini-palace. It’s like a nautilus shell of opulence.

Cutest: Rings of canals and row houses, canal boats, flowers, dozens of bridges, cobblestones, trams, bicycles, plus tiny little trucks the size of motorcycles. Amsterdam was the prettiest of the cities we visited. It was walkable and full of little shops, restaurants, and beautiful little homes. It felt human-sized and also easy to get around. There were bicycles parked literally everywhere to the point where they became part of the cluttered background, like trash on the curb in the East Village or scaffolding in Midtown.

Cinematic Deja Vu: We stayed outside of central London in a suburb called Walthamstow. Rows and rows of identical row homes and apartments and a Tube-to-red-double-decker-bus trip from the city center. Imagine visiting Manhattan but realizing that most families can only afford to live in one of the outer boroughs. It felt like we were in an episode of Skins, accents included, innit?

Most Unconventional Accommodations: Was it the boat in London or the train in Amsterdam? These were both former modes of transportation, if you’re asking. We did wake up both times in the same place we went to sleep the previous night.

Best Beer: Belgium. There’s a reason why both Dutch and French bars serve Belgian or Belgian-inspired beers. Their local stuff is serviceable, but not great, LOL.*

* LOL = Lots of lager. Germany too.

Of all the endless lagers, I’d cast my vote for one of the pours from the Carlsberg brewery tour or Bintang which went great with our Dutch Indonesian chicken satay dinner.

Most Hipster: Paola would say it was Amsterdam, which is one giant Instagram feed of a city. I would say it’s Berlin, with its inexpensive pre-war apartments, gritty charm, Cold War nostalgia, graffiti, and the lowest prices of the trip.

Smallest Big City: Ever get the sense when you visit a place that everyone knows one another? It was hard to escape that feeling in Copenhagen, which must have been a function of the wonderful host family we had and the human-sized architecture, which made you feel enclosed, not dwarfed by the city around you.

The center of the city was reminiscent of soldiers’ barracks: tall apartment buildings built efficiently close together with courtyards in between.  At the Carlsberg Brewery tour, we learned that the city of Copenhagen was originally a garrison and the gates were locked at night. Counter-intuitively, this gives the city a feeling of unity and togetherness, not the drab Soviet vibe you might expect.

Hopping cheaply across Europe by air and rail

Here’s some good news about your dream trip across Europe. With a little advanced planning, and carry-on luggage, you can get there and get around fairly affordably. After months of planning and procrastination, our full Europe itinerary is now booked. Here are the details of our grand tour with some super secret discount tips at the end.

Conveyance

With the recent boom in discount airlines, flights in Europe are often as cheap or cheaper than a train or bus. These companies make their money by charging extra for everything from seat assignments, to checked baggage, to food, so check the fine print before you book. Norwegian follows the same principles but covers to and from the US.

While they may give you flexibility, Eurail passes were prohibitively expensive for our itinerary, so instead we’ve booked two one-way flights and a bunch of intra-Europe travel. We got the cheapest non-flexible tickets, booking everything outright, so we better not miss any connections!

Trains are great, but this was really about getting the most reliable, efficient, and inexpensive trip from A to B, regardless of mode. For the cheapest tickets, find the carrier’s direct website for the ticket in question (e.g. DeutscheBahn, Eurostar, Thalys, etc.), and book early. Most bookings open 3 months in advance, though the Eurostar can be booked 180 days early.

Itinerary

I’d say we did a great job at choosing our stops. The only ticket that I wished we had bought much earlier was the Thalys, which started around $50 per person and went up to $90 by the time we bought it. Oops.

Everything else we purchased recently, 4-6 weeks prior to travel. Here is our itinerary:

  1. New York (JFK) to Copenhagen on Norwegian 4098 NOK ($249 per person)*
  2. Copenhagen to Berlin on EasyJet 25 EUR
  3. Berlin to Hameln by DeutscheBahn 24 EUR
  4. Driving to Leer, Germany
  5. Driving to Groningen, Netherlands
  6. Groningen to Amsterdam by train 25.50 EUR
  7. Amsterdam to Paris by Thalys 80 EUR
  8. Paris to London on the Eurostar 41.50 GBP*
  9. London to New York on Norwegian 4828 NOK ($294)*

TOTAL: $769

That’s $543 pp for US-Europe flights, $226 per person for intra-Europe travel

* These tickets can be purchased in the native currency for a significant discount over the dollar-denominated amount on their site.

Super Secret Discount Tips

In the case of Norwegian, on their norwegian.no site we saved almost $100 per ticket, if memory serves. The layout is the same as the US page, but everything is in Norwegian, so you have to use Google Translate or keep a page open in both languages simultaneously to know where to click. For an extra 30 minutes of annoyance, we saved $200.

For the above flight and for any train tickets, get yourself a credit card like Chase Sapphire that doesn’t charge foreign currency fees, which can be as high as 3%. It really adds up when you’re buying tickets and booking hotels or hostels.

The Eurostar tickets were $65 if purchased in dollars or 41.50 GBP ($54) if purchased from eurostar.co.uk. If you sign up for an account and give a US address, you won’t be able to get this discount. They also charge extra for using a credit card, so use a foreign fee-free debit card like the one from Charles Schwab.

I’ll have more updates in the coming weeks as we try to complete this itinerary with no hiccups. Safe travels!

Featured image: View from Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Paris, by Ed Webster [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Bucket List: EuroStar from Paris to London

Featured image: Fraselpantz at en.wikipedia [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The high-speed EuroStar train crosses the English channel en-route between the French and British capitals. It is blindingly fast, direct, and happens to link the last two destinations of our planned summer’s trip to Europe.

If there is a single simple two-hour train ride that I’m looking forward to without reservations, it is this one: it’s iconic. (more…)