Norwegian Airlines adopts the Ryanair model

In September we took an impromptu trip to Ireland, partially to take advantage of the Labor Day weekend and to visit my aunt and uncle. The other factor was the price: $304 round-trip, per person, though it came with a catch: the flight was from Stewart Airport near Newburgh, NY, roughly 1.5 hours northwest of the city.

This is a change from the usual Norwegian Airlines flights from JFK. Norwegian generally has flights that are sold individually and cost from $150-300 each way. When we traveled to Europe last year, this is what allowed us to fly round-trip from NYC for around $530! We thought it couldn’t get any more affordable than that. We were wrong.

The Ryanair model

In flying from Stewart, Norwegian apparently has decided to adopt what I call the Ryanair model, which involves flying from a small, underutilized airport near a major city. Flying from a smaller airport allows for lower ticket prices, but then there’s the issue of getting there. My first experience of this strange trade-off was flying into Paris-Beauvais, which appeared to be a World War II-era airfield situated in the middle of a tiny village. Paris was nowhere to be seen. Luckily, Ryanair runs a shuttle service to the city.

In Europe, this model works because the history of wars throughout the 20th century has left the continent littered with military airfields. It has never been adopted to intercontinental travel, to my knowledge, until now.

Stewart Airport incidentally started its life during World War II as Stewart Army Airfield outside Newburgh, NY, the closest airfield to the US Military Academy at West Point.

Does it work? Yes.

Is it worth trekking to Upstate New York to save a few bucks on a flight? Well, I would say yes, for the following reasons:

  • It’s roughly half the price. When we checked, it was $300 vs. $600 for a similar flight from JFK.
  • Shuttle service is provided. Norwegian has contracted with Coach USA (i.e. Megabus) to offer a direct bus from Midtown Manhattan to the airport. It’s timed to get you there with plenty of time to spare and costs $20 each way, which is less than taking the train and a cab, which is another option. If the flight is late on the return, the bus will wait for you, since it’s specifically for Norwegian passengers.
  • Less chaotic check-in. Picking up international flight tickets at JFK often resembles a Depression-era run on the bank. When we flew to Copenhagen, we spent nearly 1.5 hours in line with roughly 250 fellow passengers. It was pure chaos. The desks at Stewart were still understaffed, but we arrived early on the shuttle and had a 15-minute wait for our tickets.
  • Reasonable scheduling. Flights are scheduled for overnight travel, departing at 9pm or so, which allows leaving in the afternoon to catch the flight after a full day of work. We don’t want to lose a travel day by flying east in the morning! On the way back, flights leave in the afternoon, getting you safely home by evening.
  • Customs in Ireland. Much like the process on flights to the US that connect via Canada, arrivals go through US customs in Ireland before departure on the return flight. There was no line. Avoiding customs in JFK was an amazing and unexpected perk.

Once you add it all up, flying via Stewart is roughly the same amount of time investment and way less stressful. If you’re driving from Upstate, Northeastern Pennsylvania or Northern New Jersey, you also have it made, since you can avoid all the traffic.

Not so great stuff

The timing of everything was pretty well done, with plenty of time for potential delays, though the few annoying parts had to do with waiting.

  • Traffic. On the departure, the shuttle to the airport got stuck in traffic. Still, we arrived at roughly 6:30 for a 9pm flight.
  • Waiting for the bus to depart. On the return, our flight got in very early, roughly 30-45 minutes. The bus, however, left at the scheduled time, which resulted in us waiting in line outside.
  • Understaffed check-in. This didn’t affect us, since we got in so early, but the check-in desk had a line snaking across the airport waiting to get their seat assignments. Still, everyone got through security before the flight departed. Notably, in JFK this same issue is amplified.

Where they fly

Flights from Stewart are mainly to Ireland and the UK, as well as Bergen, Norway. Dublin is an excellent jumping-off point for a trip around Europe because it’s home to so many discount carriers. Also, given Norwegian’s pricing per leg, you can always fly in to Ireland and return to the US from somewhere else, like Copenhagen or London.

Flight prices are very cheap now that it’s cold and dark in Europe and prices stay under $200 each way through April or May. You can book now through October 2018 on Norwegian.com.

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.

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.

How I got 21% back towards travel (Really)

I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred (referral link) card this past year to take advantage of the 50,000-point sign-up bonus, plus an additional 5,000 for adding an authorized user ($1155 at 2.1 cents per point !). It’s a good card that I use on a daily basis for most purchases, and it gives you 2x Chase Ultimate Rewards points on dining and travel, plus a host of other benefits, like no foreign transaction fees, rental car damage waiver and extended warranty protection, all of which I’ve used successfully. It has a $95 annual fee which is waived the first year.

Meanwhile, my old Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard was discontinued and converted into a Chase Freedom card, which is free. This card offers 5x point bonuses on rotating quarterly categories and 15,000 points ($150) for signing up. Currently (Q1 2016) the bonus category is local travel, including subways and taxis. Last quarter (Q4 2015) it was 10x (double the usual) on Amazon and Zappos, which was perfect for the Christmas season.

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Chase Freedom bonus categories for 2016 (Source: chase.com)

These both being Chase cards, they accrue Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Points can be combined between accounts and can even be pooled between you and your spouse. Now here’s the good part:

While the Freedom card only lets you redeem points for cash, the Sapphire card allows redemption at 1.25 cents for travel (cash value through Ultimate Rewards portal), as well as a 1:1 transfer to United Airlines (valued at 1.5 cents), British Airways, Singapore Airlines, and more. Having the Sapphire card lets you in on the benefits for all your Chase Ultimate Rewards cards (Freedom, Ink, Sapphire, etc.)

Thus with the 10x points earned during the Christmas season from Amazon mentioned earlier, each dollar spent gave us 21 cents (21%) back towards redemptions via Chase Sapphire and 15 cents (15%) on United Airlines in particular.

We’ll definitely be planning some flights this year. Happy travels!

Experiments in Extreme Weekend Travel

We just returned from a weekend getaway to Barbados, and I wanted to share impressions on what I’ll term our first experiment in “extreme weekend travel”.

To fit nearly a week of travel time into one weekend, all you need are the following:

  • two vacation days that connect to the weekend or a three-day weekend that you can stretch to four;
  • a direct, red-eye (overnight) flight in both directions;
  • a discount flight (under $300), ideally, to make the short duration worthwhile;
  • an inexpensive destination or somewhere to stay.

We’re both trying to save our vacation days for a larger trip later in the summer, so this was an experiment born of necessity — taking only two vacation days, we managed a full four-day vacation. As noted, this required a red-eye flight in both directions and a return straight to work from the airport.

A direct flight was essential, since changing planes in the middle of the night will ruin your chances at arriving rested to your destination.

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Thanks to The Flight Deal and a great deal on JetBlue, we were able to get an overnight flight direct from New York (JFK) to Barbados (BGI) for $192 round-trip. We departed at 9pm on Thursday, arriving at 3am and returned at 4am on Tuesday, returning at 8:30am to New York.

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barbados_boats

We survived, and on the return flight we both slept soundly, thanks to the extra leg room and comfy seats on JetBlue. There was actually enough room in coach to fully extend your legs under the seat in front of you and stretch out. Bring your own pillow and blanket, however, as they carry an extra charge.

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Returning to JFK, New York on Tuesday morning

Destinations

Flying from New York to the Caribbean allows you to get far enough away for a real vacation, visit a foreign country, yet stay in a similar time zone.

JetBlue flies to dozens of destinations in the Caribbean and from my experience, many of these flights are direct and of the overnight variety. Their flight map can be consulted here.

Norwegian flies from JFK to Guadeloupe and Martinique and offers some great deals, though these are daytime departures and would require an extra day of vacation.

If you’re looking to fly domestically, nonstop cross-country flights, i.e. JFK to SFO, OAK, LAX, LGB offer the chance to get some rest, though jet lag can be an issue if you’re returning straight to work. Given the time zone difference, the return (West-East) flight needs to be overnight, though the East-West flight only takes 3 hours and could be done in an evening.

Searching for Flights

Use ITA Matrix to search for arrivals and limit the selection to flights departing at night or early morning.

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Example: Searching for overnight flights to California

For flights in a similar time zone, also select “Early Morning” and be sure that you’re searching for nonstops. Running a search to a series of nearby destinations, as shown below, can be very useful if you’re just looking to get out of town.

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Example: Searching for flights from NYC to all airports within 1000 miles of Barbados

I hope these tips inform and inspire. Good luck in planning your next Extreme Weekend Getaway.