News from British and Canadian Conservatives

Monday, September 03, 2007

Rating airlines between England and Canada

Given the number of times that Corissa and I have flown between England and Canada over the past few years, I thought it would be good to tell people about our experiences of different airlines. We've flown on most of the carriers operating the route - only Monarch and Zoom have not yet had the pleasure of our company on board - so here's the verdict.

1. British Airways

Undoubtedly the best service of any of the operators, but rarely the cheapest. It's always worth a look though, as there have been occasions where BA have been cheaper than the others, and sometimes the difference is negligable (even pennies)! BA's seats are the most comfortable and you can expect a reasonable selection of entertainment. The food is also better than you can expect on other airlines. It's also regular, as are the drinks, which is particularly important on long-haul flights. I've also flown BA World Traveller Plus (to Chicago, rather than Canada, admittedly). It's not much more expensive for that bit more precious space and comfort - I managed to sleep so well that I didn't have jet-lag.

2. Air Canada

Unsurprisingly, the second best airline is the only other scheduled operator. It's worth shopping around for Air Canada fares - it can often be cheaper to book through bmi, their partners in the Star Alliance. Air Canada isn't quite up to BA. The seats aren't quite as comfortable, and I didn't get much sleep on the return overnight flight. The service was good though. The food was quite reasonable, although not quite as good as BA's and the drinks were still regular.

3. Air Transat

Generally, Air Transat are quite a bit cheaper than the scheduled operators, but that isn't always the case. If you're flexible with your dates, I'd certainly recommend that you look at the scheduled operators closely, as you can often pay less for a better service. This is a much more cramped option than the scheduled operators, and the seats seem to be shaped for some kind of alien life-form, making them less comfortable. The seats don't recline much, as they're packed in tightly, and the head rest is not quite right. The arm rests only lift part way too, so you have to leave them down unless you have removeable arms yourself! The entertainment consists of small communal screens which are barely visible from some seats. It's hard to see the safety demonstration, let alone the films. Not that it's worth watching the films generally - Firehouse Dog and the Astronaut Farmer this year! They sell you headsets or adaptors to use your own headsets, but I found that you can use a single pin headset in the two-pin socket without difficulty. I wouldn't recommend this flight for travelling to the west of Canada, particularly as the return is overnight and you've got no chance of sleeping. For flights to the east, which are considerably shorter, I'd certainly consider using Air Transat. I was unlucky to be next to a very large lady on my flight to Toronto this year, but that can happen on any airline and it would have been quite OK otherwise. The food is not bad actually, but is not a regular as I like. I'd recommend taking food and your own water to snack on in between meals. Also, the in-flight water tastes really strange, with a horrible, bitter aftertaste.

4. Thomas Cook

Utterly awful airline that I wouldn't even recommend to my worst enemy. The flight is a form of torture - I'm waiting to see the MD in court at the Hague for human rights abuses. If they treated animals they way they treat people, there would be protest and prosecutions. I used the to fly home from Calgary last month. It was my first time using Thomas Cook, and will be the last if I can help it. I was lucky to have an empty seat next to me - I really don't think I'd have made it if the plane had been full! The food is the worst of all the airlines by a margin. The entertainment is better than Air Transat's, as you have personal screens and a selection of films, programmes and games - although many of them require you to pay a £5 supplement to view! You will need the entertainment though, as there's no way you'll get to sleep without drugs, which I don't like using. You have to pay for their headsets with two pins, but again I found that my one pin headphones did work, and there was a good selection of programmes, including old episodes of the Vicar of Dibley and various US and UK programmes as well as films. The premium films included The Queen. I don't know why The African Queen was classed as premium though - it's on television all the time! Now for the bad bits. Uncomfortable does not begin to describe the cramped seats, particularly if you have a window seat. They have to put the boxes to control the seat-back seats somewhere, and they chose to put it under the seat where your feet normally go. Obviously, no-one told them that you need to put your feet somewhere. Throughout the journey, you can only move one foot! I couldn't even spread on to the seat next to me confortably, as it was shaped for there to be two people, of course. The service is not as good either. If you want a drink, you can expect to have to get it yourself from the "bar" at the back of the plane. They actively promote their free water, but it's certainly not a selling point, although it tastes better than Air Transat's. How are you supposed to go and get water if the person in the aisle seat is asleep? It's bad enough not being able to go to the loo, but no water either is like torture. When I did venture off to find water, the hostesses were more interested in chatting amongst themselves than telling me where I would find the "bar", which is actually a jug on a small shelf in the area passengers aren't normally allowed into! When they did finally drag themselves away from their conversation, the glare and abrupt "can I help you" made me feel that the only reason that she spoke to me at all was that she felt I was listening in on her conversation! Corissa's experience was made worse by the plane breaking down in Gatwick on its way to pick them up. The flight was delayed by sevaral hours, while they waited for the plane to be fixed. Charter Airlines keep costs down by not having spare planes like the scheduled operators. Despite the delay, they carried on serving the same food at the same points of the flights, meaning that Corissa was treated to a full meal late at night, having already needed to eat dinner before boarding, and then breakfast just before she landed, which was mid afternoon! That doesn't help to dort your body clock at all. If they'd altered the food schedule a bit they could have served breakfast at breakfast time and a meal at lunchtime, allowing passengers to try to sleep. On the plus side, my luggage was on the carousel before I got there, and I didn't dawdle! We had sat on the tarmac a while though, as we were in the cheap landing slots of course, and had to wait for Easyjet to vacate our gate.

The verdict

The above are based on experiences that Corissa and I have had on flights, and others may have very different experiences and/or opinions. Between us and friends we have all reliably found Thomas Cook to be the worst option, and I'd strongly recommend avoiding them for flights to the west of Canada at least. The east is a much shorter flight, so it may be OK, but I'd avoid the window seat like the plague. If you will have a baby on your lap, you really should avoid the charter flights. I can't imagine it would be comfortable on any plane, but I'm sure I'd die on a charter flight!

I really think that it is worth paying the extra for scheduled flights to the west. In future, we will do our best to fly BA or Air Canada to Calgary. There's often not much difference in price, and sometimes the scheduled airlines are cheaper than the charter ones. For Toronto, the flights are shorter so, as long as you don't have a baby on your lap you could go for charter flights, which do tend to be significantly cheaper.

You can also fly indirect. Corissa has used Northwest a couple of times. However, out of season they normally cancel the most direct route which requires only one stop and transfer you onto another route with two stops, which makes for a long journey. You do get to stretch your legs though! I can't comment on Monarch or Zoom, as I've never used them.

Frequency of service

The flexibility of the airlines varies a lot. Air Canada have the most frequent service. They fly every day, sometime more than one flight per day in high season. BA are not far behind on that count, with flights daily in season and most days out of season. The charter flights are much less frequent, by Monarch, Air Transat and Thomas Cook have reciprocal agreements. You can book them all through, meaning that you can travel out on one airline and back on another. That means that they have services most days in the summer, and a few times a week in winter. Monarch only fly in winter - for the skiing - and Thomas Cook only seem to fly in summer. Zoom also only fly on certain days, but they have no reciprocal agreement, so are not as convenient. I've never managed to get flight with them when I need them, but they run some good promotions if you can get them. With the charter airlines, you find that booking separate one way flights in each direction is a lot more expensive than booking return flights through either Zoom or Canadian Affair, so mixing Zoom with other charter flights is often an expensive option.

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