The radio alarm wakes me at 7am with the news that Serbian General, Ratko Mladic, the alleged perpetrator of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia during the 1990’s, is to go on trial today at the international court in The Hague. It’s a poignant reminder that the flight I am taking from Heathrow to Istanbul will pass just south of the scene of the trial and just north of the scene of the atrocities. But, when you fly over places you are strangely detached from what is going on or has gone on below.
This is a short trip to Kalkan, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey and our second home, to do some post-winter maintenance. As we’re now into the summer schedules, there is a choice of airlines and routes. More often than not we take one of the low-cost providers such as easyJet or flythomascook. But it’s always worth checking all the options and weighing up costs, comfort and convenience.
The low-cost airlines, as any frequent traveller will know, draw you in with their very attractive prices. When this type of airline first started, the advertised price was more or less what you paid although taxes were not included until you came to the point of payment. The law was changed so that advertisements had to make it clear what the actual price would be including unavoidable taxes. This bit of well intended consumer protection was taken as a challenge by the airlines. There emerged a new minefield of charges for everything from luggage, seat selection, priority at check in and boarding and using a credit card. The list is endless and, whilst you know what the basic cost will be, a million obstacles are put in your way on the journey through the worldwide web to the final price.
With scheduled airlines essentially everything is included at no further cost (although recently I have been charged for seat selection on long-haul by BA). After checking out all the options I decided to take the scheduled route with Turkish Airlines which worked out in hard cash about £40.00 return more expensive than the low-cost alternative once everything had been taken into account. But, as I hope this account of the journey will show, that money was an investment that reaped tangible, monetary benefits.
The first saving came with on-line check-in. With Turkish Airlines check-in can be done up to 24 hours before flying and there is a full choice of seats – window, aisle, exit, near the door – with no extra charge. With easyJet you can take pot luck and see what seats are available once you board. To get more chance of a seat that you actually want, you need to adopt a queueing strategy that gets you to the front of the boarding queue – not a very relaxing experience. To get an even better choice you can purchase “speedy boarding” at a cost of £20.50 for the return trip. And this airline has started to experiment with priced seat selection so that in the future there’ll be more opportunities to part you from your money. With flythomascook you can buy specific seats at time of booking or seats are allocated at check-in. All a bit of a lottery.
The next big advantage and cost saving is that Turkish Airlines flies from Heathrow which is accessible by public transport from home. And, an even bigger saving, I can use my Freedom Pass which gives free travel on all London Transport services. So, travel cost to Heathrow using bus and tube – £0. To travel by train to Gatwick at this time of day would cost £12.30.
Today I’m travelling with hand luggage only as the airline allows one carry-on bag of decent dimensions and weight plus one other item. The other item I’m taking is a laptop bag stuffed with netbook, passport, phones (UK and Turkish), wallet, Kindle, pen and boarding pass – all the travel necessities. If I’d been travelling low-cost then the carry-on bag would have had to go in the hold as the laptop bag would have counted as my carry-on bag and there would have been a luggage charge of around £30. With Turkish Airlines I could have had a piece of hold luggage weighing up to 23kg included in the ticket price. It’s so much less stressful to know that there will not be constant checks on baggage weight and size, not even for carry-ons.
[On the return trip my carry-on bag was weighed at Dalaman and came in at 10kg, 2kg over the airline 8kg limit. It was checked in for the Dalaman to Istanbul leg of the journey and retrieved at Ataturk Airport. No further checks were made so it came into the cabin on the second leg to Heathrow.]
At the gate it is announced that “due to the late arrival of the incoming aircraft” – how many times have you heard that?? – there will be a delay in boarding. When we are told that boarding is about to start and that it will be by seat row number, there is a mad rush by about half the passengers to be first on. The gate staff announce in English and Turkish that boarding will not start until everyone sits down. About 90% comply. The other 10% either stand obstructing access to the gate or try to become invisible whilst standing as close to the gate as possible. Given that we all have pre-allocated seating, what is this about??
And so on to the plane, a new Airbus A330, with comfortable seats complete with cotton covered pillows, decent pitch (legroom), a seat back TV screen, USB and LAN connection to give internet access during flight (not yet operational). The seating is arranged 2-4-2 which is comfortable for all on a wide-bodied aircraft as you are never more than one seat from an aisle. If Margaret had been flying with me we could have had our favourite combination of an aisle seat for her and window for me with no one in between.
As with so many airlines these days, the safety briefing was broadcast through the seat-back screens. To draw the attention of passengers, Turkish Airlines has recruited a ‘comic’ turn in the form of Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney and five of his team mates. Between the necessary routine parts of the announcement, the squad are seen messing about with seat belts and life-jackets and sliding down escape chutes. All a bit childish but it does keep you watching.
Shortly after take-off the cabin crew come round distributing menus and handing out small bags of hazelnuts. In Turkish the front of the menu says “mutfakta kim var?” quirkily translated as “who’s in the kitchen today” – sounds a bit like a TV cookery show. It also says “we hope that the tastes in your mouth will last beyond your journey” – not something you would want to happen after a low-cost airline meal!! The food is excellent – a green bean salad in olive oil followed by a choice of chicken or beef. I have the chicken which has flavour, if a little rubbery, accompanied by excellent peppers, onions and tomatoes – al dente – and a good rice pilaf. For dessert its plum sponge – light and tasty – followed by biscuits and white Turkish cream cheese and coffee. As airline meals go in the economy cabin this was a first class experience. And on top there was a free, well stocked bar.
So, in summary, the on board experience was excellent. Seat selection worked for me, the actual seats were comfortable with decent legroom, the food was far better than” just edible” which is so often not the case with low-cost airline food and the wine flowed. And all included in the basic ticket price.
This part of the blog is being written at 11,800 metres over Eastern Europe. We crossed the English coastline near Dover and could see a vast wind farm in the Channel off Ramsgate. The coastline of continental Europe was crossed near to the France/Belgium border just north of Dunkirk. As we flew parallel to the Belgian coast looking over Ostend and Zeebrugge we could see north into Holland up to the distinctive Hook of Holland and The Hague (as mentioned earlier). The last bit of ground we saw, before the cloud cover grew too dense, was around the German city of Koblenz on the banks of the River Rhine. The Alps were unfortunately completely hidden from view. Then the route took us over the former Yugoslavia, and here I have to rely on the live map shown on the seat-back screen, passing south of Belgrade and to the north of Sarajevo and Pristina.
Because of the delay in departing from Heathrow, the lay-over in Istanbul was going to be shortened by about 1 hour taking the four hours down to about three. From past experience having a decent lay-over time at Istanbul can be a benefit. On two occasions where the layover was short, immigration took up so much time that the connecting flight was missed and the airline had to put us up for a night – another advantage of scheduled airline travel where the airline is responsible for getting you to your final destination.
No sooner had we landed than the pilot came on to announce that it will take 15 minutes to get to the stand. And it did and we finish up some distance from the terminal. Our nearest neighbours on the stand are planes from Afghanistan and Tehran. Technically we’re still in Europe but it is beginning to feel as though we’re in Asia already. The buses are well organised and we’re in the terminal within another 15 minutes. Fortunately I have a valid visa from my last trip in February/March so a 20 minute queue is avoided. The passport queue is equally long but well managed and it takes about 20 minutes – better than Heathrow arrivals by all accounts. So from landing to entering the domestic terminal has taken about one hour and a quarter and could have taken more than an hour and a half if I’d need a new visa. Fellow travellers on this route beware. So now it’s time to settle down for a couple of hours till the Dalaman flight is ready for boarding.
There are plenty of seats, eating areas, bars and small shops in the domestic terminal. If you have a TTNET broadband account then wifi access is free in the terminal. I have an account but didn’t have the details with me so it cost 7 TL (less than £3) for two hours internet access. On the scale of things, quite a reasonable charge.
Just for the record, in the Domestic Terminal, a half litre of draught Efes beer cost 11.50 TL, a reasonably tasty mozzarella and tomato ciabata was 8 TL and a ¼ bottle of red Angora wine was 11.75 TL. That’s roughly double the street price in Turkey but we all know that airports are masters at the rip off.
[On the return trip I was able to take advantage of the HSBC Lounge in International Departures with free food & drink, free wifi and very comfortable seats.]
The plane to Dalaman was a little delayed in boarding but we landed on schedule. One black mark for the airline, when I had checked in the day before at home I was able to select the seats for both flights and print off the boarding cards. When the boarding card was scanned before getting on to the domestic flight, there was clearly a problem. After a bit of discussion between the gate agents I was told that there had been a change of aircraft and instead of getting a window seat near the front I would be in a middle seat near the back. No apology was offered and nor was I convinced that there had been a change of aircraft.
As it happened the seats were comfortable enough with decent legroom and for the one hour flight it was not a big deal. During the flight we were served with a tasty, well-filled sandwich, some dried fruit and a piece of cake plus there was a drinks service (no alcohol) and all at no charge. On landing at the Dalaman domestic terminal with no luggage to collect and having already gone through immigration and customs at Istanbul, it was straight through the terminal and into the pre-booked taxi.
A couple of words of warning. If you are travelling this route with hold luggage, on landing at Dalaman domestic terminal you will be bussed to the international terminal to collect your bags and clear customs. Also because you have to change terminals at Istanbul and go through security to get into the departure lounge, you can’t buy duty free drinks, perfumes, etc in London. If you do they will be confiscated before you can board the second flight at Istanbul.
In summary, the journey definitely takes longer by scheduled airline because of the change of plane in Istanbul but the hassle factor is minimal when compared to low-cost travelling. Comfort on the ground and in the air is far superior and you don’t have to keep dipping into your pocket to buy snacks and drinks (including water). If you choose carefully, the flying times are sociable so no early morning starts or arriving in the middle of the night. And as for cost, when everything is taken into account, it can certainly be no more expensive than the low-cost offerings and, for me, there was a small saving. So don’t dismiss the scheduled carriers as being too expensive, do your sums and you might be agreeably surprised.