Friday, June 26, 2015

A Trip Report: Turkish Airlines, Houston to Zurich via Istanbul (May 2015)

                    A Trip Report: Turkish Airlines (May 2015)
                              comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

In the last couple of years, Turkish Airlines has been winning a lot of awards for their service and product.  They seem to be doing this while still providing a competitive rate, so I was curious to experience the service myself.  After flying both Business as well as Economy class, I am not sure why the airline won all the awards -- while the product is decent and I have definitely experienced worst, I have also experienced better.

I was flying from the U.S. to Switzerland and Turkish Airlines was providing a very good deal from Houston to Zurich via Istanbul.  For another family member, we had previously booked a Turkish Airlines flight through a travel agent and it was difficult to manage the booking on the Turkish Airlines website, so this time we decided to book directly through Turkish Airlines website.  The website does provide good deals and options pre-booking and during booking, but it is not good post booking or managing the booking.  Seat assignments, for example must be confirmed by calling the airline - however if you book too far in advance than the airplane has not been confirmed for your flight so you are not able to book your seat.  There were other instances like this which does not make the site very user-friendly (as opposed to Qatar and other airlines which are more user-friendly).  

Another thing that you cannot do from this site - and I found this with other Star Alliance partners such as Ethiopian - is that they do not provide connections with Star Alliance partners such as United.  If wanted to book a United flight connecting to a Turkish flight, I am not able to do that on Turkish.  I would either have to book separate tickets or use a third party (the same thing for Ethiopian flights).  If you are in an Alliance, shouldn't you be able to book one ticket on multiple partners?  Oneworld and Skyteam do not seem to have this issue as you can book multiple partners through each site.

I got to experience both Business as well as Economy class on Turkish.  My original ticket was in Economy class but you are able to upgrade to Business Class at the counter, if space is available.  NOTE: if you are travelling on more than one sector, the upgrade is only valid on the first sector.  We were travelling from Houston to Istanbul and then from Istanbul to Zurich so the upgrade was only applicable from Houston to Istanbul.  In Houston, Turkish partners with Star Alliance member so you have access to the United Club; in Istanbul we would be back to economy so would not have access to the lounge.  Given all this, is it worth to upgrade?  That really depends on what you value.

We were flying on a Boeing 777 and the Business class is laid out in a 2-2-2 section.  The positive is that the seats do turn into completely lie-flat beds and there is a massage button to help ease the long flight.  They also do feed you a lot in Business class, with many courses and their advertised ‘Chef on Board’.  The food was good, not great, but good and they did provide a lot of it.  One thing to note was that the flight attendants never explained what any of the dishes were and, when asked, could not provide the answer as to what was being served.  Every time I asked for an explanation of the dish they had to run back to the galley to get the answer.   That was a negative in my opinion.  Other negatives were that the service in Business wasn't that good, there is very little privacy between you and your seatmate, and the beds are not that comfortable.  Additionally, the amenity kit in Business is the same one that was received in Economy.  Finally, the IFE is wider in Business class but they have less selection (overall the selection wasn’t that good, but it was worse in Business Class).  Given we were fed well and were able to rest, we did not feel as tired when we landed in Istanbul at 12 hours so in that aspect it was worth it, but given the lack of service and the other negatives we decided not to upgrade on the return flight (more about that later).

Just a note about the Club at IAH: Turkish does not have its own club so it partners with fellow Star Alliance member United and uses the United Club. The United Club is nice but the Club it is nowhere near the Turkish gate.  Turkish departs out of D gates and the closest Club location is in E gates – about a 15 minute fast walk or a 20 minute slow walk.  As it is a United Club, there are no announcements of the Turkish flight so you have to guess and estimate the time. 

We transferred in Istanbul to our flight to Zurich.  Istanbul airport is nice, but very crowded and very long – there are long walks between gates and when transferring from one gate to another.  Additionally you have to go through security even when transferring as well as go through a boarding pass check.  Given the immense crowds, seating space is a commodity especially since the gates are only announced about an 1.5 hour prior to the flight. 

The flight from Istanbul to Zurich was on an Airbus A320 with a 3-3 seat layout.  The seat pitch on the flight was very generous providing plenty of legroom.  There were no personal IFE and only the flight route was shown on the overhead screens.  The service on the plane was decent with a meal and drinks being provided; however given the 3.5 hour flight time some sort of entertainment - either personal or on the screen above) would have been better.

The return flight from Zurich to Istanbul was on the same type of aircraft and the service was the same (which was decent).  Transferring in Istanbul was a bit chaotic, especially for the flights to the U.S.  The plane was not parked at the gate so we had to take a bus to the plane.  It was a full flight with over 300+ passengers but the waiting area was so small and compact, with only 6 chairs and no food/beverage services.  Prior to the waiting area, you had to go through 3 security checkpoints so it was becoming very crowded, very quickly.  Given the crowded situation, Turkish opened the gate early and we were allowed to board earlier than scheduled.

The flight from Istanbul to Houston was operated by a Boeing 777 and this time we were in economy.  The seat pitch was extremely tight – there was barely any room to sit no matter what your height was.  The seats were also uncomfortable and so it made for a very uncomfortable 12+ hour flight.  The service included a meal upon takeoff, tea, distribution of amenity kit (which was the exact same one we received in Business Class on the departure trip) as well as a meal upon landing.  In addition, there were snacks and drinks available in the galley.  The service was decent, the only problem I had was that 30 minutes after take-off three bathrooms on one side of the plane ran out of soap.  I am not sure whether soap was not filled initially or too many people used it, but instead of refilling the soap or apologizing for that, the attendants’ response was ‘just use another one’.  It was this lackluster response that was indicative of their service throughout all the flights we took, and it was this lackluster response which did not make the flight enjoyable.  The seats did have a person IFE as well as USB port to charge your electronics.  The IFE in economy had a better selection of movies than business class, but the selection was not as up to date nor as vast as other airlines (including the US, Emirates, etc.).   The movie selection was enough to pass 12 hours but not enough to come back to the airline.

In the end, I neither had a positive nor negative experience on Turkish.  Everything was basic but there was not enough to make me want to repeat my travel with Turkish, and that is the sad point.  I have had experiences on other airlines that were decent but one thing stood out – either the service or the planes or the efficiency – which made me want to try them again, or not.  This was not the case with Turkish.  They keep stating they are winning all these awards, and after flying with them, I am trying to figure out why

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Trip Report: Swiss International Airlines, Geneva to Zurich (May 2015)

    A Trip Report: Swiss International Airlines (May 2015)
                         comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

Travelling around Switzerland is very easy and convenient given how well connected and smooth the trains, trams, and other public transportation run.  Given this convenience, it is difficult to see why a passenger would fly across Switzerland, until they experience Swiss International Airlines’ great service and free chocolates!
We were visiting Switzerland and had traveled from Zurich to Geneva via train.  This journey took 2.5 hours and it was very convenient to go from the downtown Zurich to downtown Geneva.   On the return, we decided to fly and we choose this option for a couple of reasons: 1) We wanted to try out Swiss as we had heard good things about the airline; 2) the price for the ticket was relatively comparable and included luggage; and 3) we were arriving late night and then heading out via plane early the next morning so going via train would have cost an extra journey.  Overall, the return journey only took about 30 minutes of actual flight time. 

I had booked my trip through an online site as purchasing directly through Swiss – for an internal flight – would have incurred a currency conversion fee whereas the online site was booked in my home currency.  The flight price included luggage – a bag of 23kg – but did not include seat assignments as pre-selected seat assignments came with a cost.  Not-preselecting seats is a gamble as sometimes the plane is empty or you are assigned the exit seat, while other times the plane is completely full and the only remaining seats are the ones in the middle in the back of the plane.

24-hours prior to my departure I was able to check-in online and receive my seat assignment.  Online there were plenty of seats to choose from as the flight did not look that full so we were able to select the seats we wanted (at no cost).  When we arrived at the Geneva airport, we presented our already printed boarding passes and passport to the desk and everything was done in less than 5 minutes.  As we had planned for a longer time, we had more time to explore Geneva Airport.

The airport is divided into pre-security and post-security.  There is free wifi (as is the case around the country, you receive the wifi code via SMS/text message so you need a text enabled phone to receive the code) and the wifi was pretty good.  There is no map of the airport but talking to the airport personnel, they informed me that there were more options pre-security than post.   Pre-security has a coffee shop (with sandwiches and pastries); a bookstore; a make your own salad; some shops; as well as a an area with about 4 restaurants and plenty of spaces to sit.  There is even a place to sit outside and see views of the runway.  The restaurants available provide a varied selection from fast food to sit down and near the seating they have screens with up-to-date flight information. 

Going through the security was also quick and took less than 15 minutes.  Post-security are the duty free shops, a coffee shop, a chocolate shop, sandwich shops, as well as bookstores and other standard airport stores.  While the availability is there, there was definitely more variety pre-security.  The airport has large windows that face the taxi and runway so you do a lot of plane-spotting.  You cannot take pictures as the windows have tiny dots on them that inhibit picture taking.

Our flight was in the evening and promptly on time we boarded.  Boarding was completed relatively easily as there only 30 passengers total (so each passenger had a row to themselves).   The seats of the Airbus plane were comfortable leather seats and the legroom was decent for a small flight – the legroom would be tight for a long-haul flight but decent for a short-haul flight.   As soon as we reached cruising altitude, we were served a bottle of water (standard size, which was nice) as well as swiss chocolates.  Originally two were given per passengers but if more were requested you could take as much as you want.  Both the chocolates and free water were a welcome addition, on any flight but especially on such a short flight.  The plane did not have individual IFE’s but rather had overhead screens which showed the progression of the flight.  We landed in Zurich on time and proceeded to receive our luggage, which also came rather quickly. 

If I was to compare the rail versus plane journey, they both took about the same amount of time if you factor in security and other time for the airport.  Another thing to consider that if you purchased the Swiss pass (which includes rail journeys), and still had some journeys remaining then the plane was an additional cost.  Both provided a comfortable seat and a pleasant journey so which one is better – it really depends on your destination and where you would like to final destination to be.  If you want to be closer to downtown without having the extra train connection between the airport and the city, then I would suggest the train.  If you want to be closer to the airport without having to transfer at the main rail station, then I would suggest the plane.  We wanted to be closer to the airport (as we had an early morning flight the next day) and did not want to transfer so for us the plane ride was nice and pleasant.  Definitely worth a trip on Swiss!