Friday, February 19, 2016

A Trip Report: InselAir, Trinidad to Curacao to Miami (January 2015)

A Trip Report: InselAir (January 2015)
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

We had decided to spend half of our vacation in Curacao, and so we needed a way to get from Trinidad & Tobago to Curacao and from Curacao back to Miami.  While looking online, Insel Air kept popping up as the most convenient and economical way to travel.  Insel Air is the national airline of Curacao and connects Curacao to its regional partners.  It is a small airline as the fleet only consists of Fokkers and MD airplanes.  They currently mostly serve regional destinations in and around the Caribbean and South America.  They also serve two U.S. destinations – Miami and Charlotte.  Serving Miami is something that I understand, given the proximity and location but serving Charlotte seemed out of place (it seemed more out of place after flying on board – but more on that later).  Given all this I was a bit hesitant to try out Insel Air, but given the convenience plus the low costs I decided to check them out.  Overall, they provide a basic product with low costs and low frills.  Free bags are nice, but service and timeliness definitely needs improvement.

We took two flights with Insel Air – the first flight was from Port of Spain, Trinidad to Willemstad, Curacao and the flight time was 1hr 30mins.  The second flight was from Willemstad, Curacao to Miami, Florida and the flight time was 3hr 10mins. The commonalities between both flights were that they were both delayed and that the service was minimal on both.  The difference between the two flights was the operating aircraft.  The first flight was booked directly through InselAir’s website, while the second flight was booked through a booking agency.

The first flight was originally scheduled for the evening, but then about a week prior to the flight the schedule was changed and the flight now departed in the early afternoon (not sure if this was to compete with Surinam Airways, which flew the route earlier in the day).   Our flight was scheduled to take off at 12:40pm, while Surinam Airways was scheduled to take off at 1:30pm.  I had booked this flight directly from InselAir’s website, and overall the website does a decent job of booking flights but it is definitely not very user-friendly (ie there are better and worse sites out there).   On the website I was able to check into my flight 24-hrs prior to departure and was able to select seats on the plane so both of these were pluses.  InselAir does provide free checked baggage so that is also a perk as well.  We arrived at the airport about 2-hours in advance and checked our bags in and received our confirmed boarding passes; the gate agent said nothing about a delayed flight.  There is not a lot to do at Piarco International but to wait, so that is what we did.  Around the time that boarding was to commence, there was a notice that the flight was going to be delayed.  The new departure time was 1:30p (so one hour delay).  The plane landed at Piarco International around 1pm and taxied to the gate. 

The operating aircraft was a Fokker and due to the small size it did park at the gate but next to it (so access to plane was from the ground and not a jetbridge).    The turnaround time from arrival to departure took a very long time, and despite the delay the ground crew did not seem to be in any rush.   We started the boarding process around 1:30pm and, since the load was very light, we were boarded pretty quickly.  We were approximately 12 people total on the plane.  The plane itself looked brand new and was nice, clean, and updated – it still had a new plane smell.  The seats were in a 3-3- layout and were newly designed slim seats that were comfortable enough for the short flight.  The seat pitch was very tight, for everyone but especially for someone who is tall.  Given the light load, most people had three seats to themselves.   Again, there seemed to be no rush neither from the ground staff nor the airline so despite everyone on board, it still took a while for the doors to close and pushback to begin – throughout the delay there was little to no communication from either the captain or the ground staff.

The doors were finally closed and we pushed back for take-off.  Once in the air, the flight attendants passed out immigration cards.  Even though it was a very light load, there were 3 flight attendants on board.  This was also surprising because of the minimal service InselAir provides. InselAir does not provide meals on any of its flights – no matter the distance nor length.   Some snacks are provided as well as drinks, but no full meals are provided.  The flight time from Port of Spain to Curacao was 1hr 35 minutes so as soon as we reached cruising altitude, the in-flight service commenced.  We were offered a drink plus a snack – the snack was a slice of cheese between two buns wrapped in plastic.  It was neither fresh nor warm nor appetizing.  The plane had no PTVs and no other inflight service, so most passengers either slept or passed the time reading the inflight magazine.  The flight attendants spent most of their time conversing with each other while sitting in the first class seats (since it was empty). 

There was something unique to InselAir, and that is an on-board raffle.  Approximately 4 years ago, InselAir started an on-board raffle and it proved so popular with the passengers that the airline continued the raffle all-year long.  Raffle tickets are passed out and the number is drawn – I am not sure what the prize is, as it was never announced nor explained but it seemed like a fun and unique aspect of InselAir.

As we left late, we also landed late as well as no time was made up in air.   When we landed, we did not park at the terminal but rather at a remote stand and had to take the bust to the terminal – and what seemed odd was that the bus waited (for a long time) so that the flight attendants could also come on the same bus.  I am not sure if there were a lack of buses or this is standard procedure in InselAir, but it was the first time I experienced it and it seemed a bit odd (also caused further delays to the passengers who were already delayed with the late departure and arrival of the flight).  The delayed arrival time meant that we landed with many other aircraft at the same time, and this made the immigration wait time VERY long (and very inconvenient).   Given our experiences during this flight, we were a bit apprehensive on our next flight and remembered to keep our expectations low.

The second flight was from Curacao to Miami, which was a direct flight of 3hr 10min.  When booking the flight we were able to select our seats, and 24-hours prior to departure we were able to check-in online.  Also available online was the opportunity to bid on an upgrade to first class.  If you decide to bid for first class, your credit card is charged immediately and you are notified 24-hours prior to departure if your bid was successful.  If the bid was unsuccessful, then the credit card payment is refunded (and the refund was pretty quick). 

Our flight was scheduled to depart around 11:25am and arrive into Miami around 1:40pm.  We had arrived to the airport 2 hours prior to our departure, and there was a very long line for check-in.  Not only where there are a lot of people, but the line was moving very slowly and it took almost 2 hours to go through the line, check-in the luggage, and receive our confirmed boarding passes.  The check-in is on the first floor while the gates are on the second floor, so we went upstairs to go through immigration and security and proceeded to our gate.  The gate was quite full by the time we had arrived so it looked like it was going to be a full flight. 

Boarding start right on time and we boarded a very old, worn out looking MD-80.  The plane looked very old, had older features, and looked and felt like neither the plane nor the seats had not been updated.  The seats were in a 2-3 layout, and they were uncomfortable with a tight seat pitch (especially for a 3hr flight).  Even though the flight was full, boarding happened fairly quickly so we were in the plane prior to the scheduled departure time – and then we had to wait at the gate.  We waited for over 30 minutes, with no communication and no explanation neither from the captain nor the flight staff.  It was very hot and very uncomfortable in the plane, and this plus the lack of information made some passengers very agitated – especially those with children as the AC was turned off as well.  After the 30-45 minutes of waiting, the doors finally closed and we were able to push back from the gate.  We taxied to the runway, only to wait again – for another 30-45 minutes we waited without any communication or information from either the captain or the flight staff.  After 30-45m minutes of waiting with no communication, we started down the runway and took off for Miami. 

The flight was very uneventful and both the service availability and level was equal to that of the first flight – within the first hour drinks plus a snack of a slice of cheese between two buns was served and that was it.  First class was full so they did receive a fuller snack box plus free drinks.  During this flight, there were no raffles, no PTVs, and nothing else to occupy the passengers time.  The service on-board was extremely minimal and poor, as after the service concluded the attendants rarely came through the aisles to check on the passengers.   As we were late leaving the gate and then taking off, we landed late in Miami as well.

Overall, we did not know what to expect from InselAir and on board we experienced a basic airline that provides basic services.  I definitely would not choose InselAir for long-haul flights, but short-haul flights of less than 1.5hr seemed ok with the airline.  Even then, be prepared for a longer flight given the delays.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Trip Report: Caribbean Airlines, international + domestic (December 2015)

A Trip Report: Caribbean Airlines 
international + domestic (December 2015)
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

When we were planning our trip to the Caribbean and had decided on Trinidad and Tobago, the obvious choice in terms of getting there was Caribbean airlines.  Caribbean Airlines is based in Trinidad and Tobago and they offer direct flights from a number of U.S. gateways including Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and New York.  They also have many sale fairs, and we found a great deal from Miami to Port of Spain.  We had two flights on Caribbean: the first flight was from Miami to Trinidad and then connecting to Tobago and was booked through a travel website; while the second flight was from Tobago to Port of Spain and that was booked directly through Caribbean Airlines.  The website for Caribbean Airlines is not very user friendly and definitely needs some improvements - it is fine when booking flights but very cumbersome and not user friendly when managing a booking or managing options.  Another reason we choose to book with Caribbean was for the perks – two free checked bags as well as meal in economy.  Given all this, we were eager to experience Caribbean Airlines.
The day before our departure, I was able to check-in online and print out boarding passes – I have a dietary restriction so I had called to ensure that was on the reservation and I was assured it was.  We got to the airport about 2 hours early, and the line to check-in was not too long – even though it was Christmas Day there were a lot of people travelling to the Caribbean.  Check-in was smooth and we proceeded to go through security and head towards our gate.  Our flight was to depart at 2:05pm and land in Port of Spain at 7:05p, our next flight was around 8:30pm given us about an hour to clear customs and immigration in Trinidad (which I was told was going to be enough time).  The plane was already at the gate when we got there, as it had come from Trinidad earlier that morning and this was going to be the return journey home.  Usually, the tail of the Caribbean Airlines is painted with a bright blue bird but the tail of this plane was white.   Boarding started and we were seated and in the plane by 1:40pm.

Overall impressions of the plane were that it was an older plane – with older seats and an older look.  There were no PTV’s in front of you, no USB ports, and no coat hooks.  The seats were in a 3-3 layout, the covers on the seats were a bit worn out, and the seats had a ‘sat-in’ feel.  While not completely comfortable, the seats were also not completely uncomfortable and were decent for the 3-hour journey (not sure if they would be comfortable for a longer flight).  The only good thing about the older plane was the good amount of legroom that was provided – it was really good legroom and as someone who is tall, I appreciate the legroom.  Other amenities of the plane included a magazine in the seat-back pocket and TV’s that dropped down from the ceiling.While we had left Miami late, we landed in Port of Spain on time. 

There was not a lot of communication from the on-board staff to the passengers – the flight attendants did not communicate that much and neither did the pilots.  Even when our departure was delayed, there was still not a lot of communication.  We were just delayed and then all of a sudden they closed the front doors and we were off, and that is when the flight attendants came on and welcomed us on board.

 The overall flight from Miami to Port of Spain was pretty uneventful.  The screens were showing a commercial for Trinidad and then a really old movie (one that I had never heard of) was screened.  As Caribbean is a full-service airline, a meal was provided to all passengers.  The overall flight time from Miami to Port of Spain is about 3hr 40 minutes, and the meal did not commence until at least 2 hours into the flight.  I am not sure why Caribbean decided to wait this long – was it to coordinate with the 7pm arrival time in Trinidad, or heating up the food? Whatever the reason, the delay was noticed by the passengers as there was nothing else to do on the flight (had they given passengers food earlier, passengers could’ve eaten and then fallen asleep and not been a bother to the flight attendants; that did not happen).  The meal provided was either fish or chicken, and there were also a vegetarian option provided (for those with dietary restrictions).  The food was decent enough for the 3.5hr flight – there are definitely other airlines that provide you with more and others that provide you with a lot less so at least something substantial was provided.  In addition to the food, drinks were served.  Tea and coffee were supposed to be served as well, but those were only individually served to those who requested it.  Even though there was enough time to provide all the services, the crew seemed a bit overwhelmed or unsure about the meal delivery.  Overall, the flight attendants were not rude but they definitely did not embody the ‘warm Caribbean spirit’ –they seemed there to just to do their job.

We were connecting to a domestic flight from Port of Spain to Tobago, so we had to clear customs in Trinidad, collect our baggage, exit the arrival hall and proceed to the domestic check-in hall.  Even though everything took a long time, we still made it in time for our flight to Tobago.

The flight from Port of Spain to Tobago only takes 25 minutes and is operated on an ATR flight.  On both sectors that we flew on – Port of Spain to Tobago and return – each aircraft was brand new with slimline seats that were nice and comfortable for the flight.  Due to the short length of the flight, no inflight services were provided but the plane was comfortable and extremely nice.

Overall, Caribbean Airlines offers you access to the Caribbean to a flight for a low price.  How enjoyable is that flight depends on your expectations.  If you are expecting a 5-star airline, you will be disappointed.  If you are expecting a low-budget, LCC carrier your expectations will be exceeded.  Caribbean Airlines seems to be a hybrid – low fares, free checked bags, meals on board, sometimes older planes and sometimes newer planes.  Given the free meal and free checked bags, they are winning as compared to some of the American mainline carriers they are competing with; however, now airlines such as JetBlue are entering into Caribbean Airlines territory and they offer snacks, PTVs, comfortable seats and lower cost.  We will see who wins in the end.