This is the first in a series of posts about my June-July 2018 trip to Iceland.
Reader: I made a foolish mistake. At the end of March, I started looking into options for travel around July 4th, as I realized I had no travel on the calendar between Memorial Day and Labor Day. That was pretty late for booking for such a peak time, but there were still some reasonable flights left to Iceland—a destination that I haven’t been too though it seems everyone else I know has since WOW came to town. It’s not that Iceland itself turned out to be a bad choice – though I had neglected to realize just how expensive it was – but that I booked on United (well, United-marketed but with the transatlantic flight on Air Canada) rather than taking a nonstop on Icelandair or WOW for about $150 more, both to save money and to earn miles. The flight cost $483 – not great for Iceland, but not bad on such peak dates booked relatively close in. But what I had neglected to realize was that the flights were operated on Air Canada’s new Boeing 737-800 MAX aircraft, widely regarded as the most uncomfortable aircraft in the sky. And while Montreal isn’t out of the way for a flight to Iceland, it makes for a super short red-eye flight, making for little sleep. Oh, and then the worst, I hadn’t paid attention to just how bad my outbound routing was. The flight from DCA to YUL on United showed as having one stop, in Newark. Not ideal, but not the worst. What I didn’t think about was why the “single flight” would take over six hours to get from DC to Montreal. On a single flight number, the stop in Newark was more than three hours. And I wouldn’t even have lounge access in Newark. Oh, and then I’d have a 3-hour 10-minute layover in Montreal. In light of what seemed like it would be a disastrous travel day – 14 hours to get from DC to Reykjavik rather than the under 6-hour nonstop (despite a difference of only about 50 miles) – I ended up just biting the bullet and paying $50 each way to sit in Air Canada’s “preferred” seats. Thankfully, the return routing includes just one 2h45m stop in Montreal, and I’d be back in DC for July 4 fireworks.
My plan for once I got to Iceland came together pretty well. I know I wanted to use my Hilton Aspire Amex free weekend night voucher at the Reykjavik Konsulat Hotel, a brand-new Curio Collection property, that had rates going for over $600 a night (and 95,000 Hilton Honors points on the day of my visit). For my second night in Reykjavik, I was originally going to stay at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica for 60,000 points, which gets pretty good reviews, and supposedly has a nice spa and executive lounge treatment, but is a bit out of town. I decided to switch to the Canopy hotel, though, in the center of town and by the Konsulat. Since it’s for a weekend night, being at a hotel in town seemed worth the extra 10,000 points, but I’m probably giving up some free food and drink too, due to the lack of a lounge and not as good Diamond treatment. After two days in town, I’m renting a car and driving down the South Coast a bit. Every hotel was sold out down there, and nearly all of the Airbnbs as well. But I found a guesthouse on Airbnb that seemed very nice, wasn’t that far from where I wanted to be, and was “only” $210 a night. On the way back to Reykjavik, I’ll do the famed Golden Circle, before returning the car and spending my last night at the Radisson Blu Saga, which has not good reviews but was available for 44,000 points (versus a 220 EUR cash rate).
Now, onto the first part of my trip – the disgusting journey on United Express from DC to Newark to Montreal…
United PR has been in hyperdrive lately, “inviting” bloggers to check out its way-behind-schedule Polaris lounges, which a tiny minority of its passengers will have access to. This comes after its ad campaign promoting its new Polaris business class…which was announced nearly two years ago and still isn’t installed on most of its long-haul planes. (You can check out my experience in Polaris-ish last year here.) I don’t fly United a lot, though, because I’ve found it to not be a very good flying experience—especially in coach. I fly in coach a lot – and often on regional carriers. But my experience on United Express regional jets was some of the worst flying experience I’ve had on a US carrier in a long time.
I had checked in online, but was checking a bag so had to head to the counter anyway. United has a largely self-service system, but there was no wait and the agent came to affix my bag tags to my bag fairly promptly. As I left the counter, the flight showed a 30-minute delay, which would eventually disappear.
United flies out of a side pier of Terminal B, where there’s a United Club and some minimal services and seating. Since I had no lounge access at Terminal B, and I knew the United pier at DCA is terrible within minimal services and seating, I passed most of my wait at a table snacking in the Delta/Alaska area. A week later, and I would have been able to use my Priority Pass for $28 worth of food and drink at the Bracket Room – an interesting alternative to the Skyclub for my future Delta flights.
Boarding began on time. Since I don’t have status, and Chase won’t give me a United credit card, I was in boarding group 4. The plane was an ancient ERJ-145 operated by Expressjet, in a 1-2 one class configuration. Since the plane is so old, the overhead bins (which are only on one side of the plane) are too small for rollerboards anyway, which were all gate-checked, so there was plenty of room for my small backpack. The cabin interior looked like it hadn’t been refreshed since the early 1990s. The seats were severely beat up, the overhead panels were old-fashioned. Paint was peeling everywhere, including on the metal armrests, and anything that was supposed to be white was a dingy yellow. I was shocked there weren’t ashtrays.
As I walked to the back of the plane, I noticed there was one seat where the window shade was closed. Guess who was seated there? You got it; moi. The window shade was broken and stuck closed. I obviously would have picked a different seat. It was a completely full plane, so I couldn’t move. And obviously the crew knew about it since they’d opened every other shade on the plane, but no one seemed to care.
The one plus is because the plane was so old, there was a fair amount of leg room. The bad thing is that the seats are particularly short, providing absolutely no head/neck support for a tall person. Since I couldn’t look out the window, I dozed off, finding the seat was sufficiently broken that it reclined just from me sitting in it. I woke to a beverage service, and shortly after, we were on the ground in Newark.
My inbound and outbound flight both left the United Express pier at Terminal A. But since I didn’t have lounge access there (there’s a Maple Leaf Lounge in a different pier of Terminal A but Priority Pass users don’t get in after 3pm), and I had more than three hours in Newark, I figured I’d try to go to one of the two Priority Pass lounges in Terminal B. My first choice was the Virgin Atlantic lounge, which is behind security and a new addition to Priority Pass. There are limited hours for Priority Pass customers, but they worked for me – I imagine they have limited food and beverage then as well (Priority Pass says beer and wine only, in fact). There’s also the pre-security Art & Lounge, which seemed like a standard more mediocre Priority Pass lounge.
The Airtrain at Newark connects all the terminals landside. There is a behind security bus that United runs between all three terminals at Newark. You have to show your boarding pass, and I made up some story that I was going to try and switch to the nonstop from Newark to Reykjavik, and she looked the flight up to confirm it left from Terminal C. I was afraid the bus wouldn’t stop at Terminal B, but the driver announced “Anyone going to Terminal B?” Alas, it dropped you off at the pier served by most of the Star Alliance carriers, and I didn’t feel like clearing security again just to check out the Virgin lounge. (Maybe I should have….)
So I left the secure area and went to the Art & Lounge, arriving around 4pm, only to see this sign out front:
Deflated, I figured I’d go in and ask what time they thought they’d open it up for Priority Pass. I was friendly to the agent, and said “Hello, I just wanted to see what time you thought you may be allowing Priority Pass customers in.” The response was quite curt: “What time you board? Show me your boarding pass!” Um, okay. “Okay, but you must leave by 5:30!” Okay. The other agent was yelling at someone on the phone about her personal life. I get the feeling this sign is up a lot to discourage folks, so don’t be discouraged.
While it was crowded, there was a fair amount of seating. The lounge, though, was pretty gross. There was close to no food- just chips and crackers. There was self-serve wine and soft drinks, and then a bartender with bar. One thing I noted was all the signage of things that were “NOT GLATT KOSHER,” which I imagine is because El Al, along with a lot of other random carriers, uses the lounge.
They fit a lot of seats in a small space. But it was better than nothing. I could not get the wi-fi to work, unfortunately. And the name of the lounge was reflected in art on the walls that just seemed cluttered.
I found a seat and small table, and settled in with a glass of wine and a diet coke. The lounge emptied out a fair bit and at around 4:25pm, I went for a second wine. The empty bottle that I had pulled out of the ice bucket 20 minutes earlier and thought I handed to the bartender remained, and no new bottle replaced. I asked for a glass, and the woman at the bar rolled her eyes, walked slowly to the back, brought out a new bottle, opened it and handed it to me. In the interim, customers had been going to the buffet, and the woman and her friend were yelling at people “It’s not ready!”, as they were preparing to put out the evening spread I guess. One poor woman asked if she should put back the plate of food she had served herself already.
I later checked out the evening buffet, which I’d describe as “Boston Market sides.” There were herb roasted potatoes, a green salad, cheese, random salsa, frozen mixed vegetables, spaghetti, dinner rolls, and mac and cheese. The sign said there were meatballs, but there were not. Whatever, the world is terrible, so carbs are fine.
I left the lounge at around 5:25, and, including a turnaround due to forgetting my passport wallet at the lounge (damn Pinot Grigio), I made it in about 15 minutes to Terminal A, including the Airtrain and Precheck security. Although I had printed out my boarding passes, I checked the United App to see which gate I was departing out of, only to find that the app had completely deleted my boarding pass for my second flight. My guess is that the app got confused that I had two boarding passes for the same flight number, and once the first was completed, deleted the second. But I didn’t know if there was any greater problem with my reservation. When I went to the kiosk, the computer also told me that my only remaining flight was on Air Canada so to talk them. I wasn’t angry at this point, just checking to make sure what was going on, so went to the customer service counter and asked if the agent could re-print my boarding pass. Oh, that was fun. First, she told me that she didn’t see my reservation on the Montreal flight. Uh oh. When I showed her my confirmation number, she then said I was wrong and was on an Air Canada flight. Then she showed me on the screen that no, I was only supposed to fly from DCA to Montreal, without a stop. I pointed out the flight time of 6 hrs and the fact that it was the same flight number as the EWR-YUL. Up to this point, she was totally nice – not the most competent, but at least present.
She called a supervisor (or some other woman who was just sitting in a seat behind the counters) over. The woman came over and immediately asked me where my boarding pass was. I tried to explain it was on the app and … she turned away and ignored me. Then as she was talking to the first colleague, she started writing on the printout that the kiosk had given to me “MAYBE HE’S” and that’s all I saw. Her colleague then said “Uh oh, I don’t deal with those.” I still have no idea what she was referring to and it was entirely rude and customer-unfriendly and I had done absolutely nothing wrong. This wasn’t even a case where I was angry or anything other than perfectly pleasant. Indeed, the supervisor then started making calls, and the other two agents at the desk and I continued to have jovial banter.
After about 5 minutes of calls, whatever it was got sorted out, and a new boarding pass was printed. No “sorry for the inconvenience”, no “have a great flight! Thanks for choosing United.” The whole experience made me feel better about my decision the day before to book a flight from DC to Houston for work connecting on Delta rather than the nonstop on United.
I still had about 20 minutes til boarding and stood at one of the charging/work areas. (The terminal’s services are limited to the Earl of Sandwich, Auntie Anne’s, and Hudson News.) Boarding began on time, and I boarded with Group 4 again. The ERJ-145 was just as beat-up and outdated as the last one (and similarly a single cabin). It’s shocking to me how United has no interest in getting a good product on its regional carriers, as Delta and American seem to be able to do. If you spend thousands of dollars to fly the would-have-been-groundbreaking-five-years ago “Polaris” product into Newark, only to have the final leg of your journey on a plane like this, I can’t imagine it leaves a good taste in your mouth.
It took us awhile to get going, but eventually we were airborne. The window shade worked this time, at least, so I got some nice views of Manhattan and then Newark itself as we did a loop on our way towards Canada. Right after take-off, the flight attendant came down the aisle offering snacks of stroopwafel or pretzels (possible I missed this on the last flight, possible it didn’t happen), followed by the drink cart. Efficient service for one flight attendant working a full flight.The rest of the flight was uneventful, but I did get some great views of Montreal as I landed thanks to my functioning window shade.
There was a fairly long taxi around the terminal, but it made for some cool plane-spotting: the full range of international carriers (Qatar, KLM, Air France, BA, Turkish, Icelandair and WOW visible to me alone), along with Canadian carriers like Air Transat, First Air, and Sunwing. We made it to the gate around 8:25pm, and then there was a loooong walk via a series of moving walkways to immigration. There were very few connecting passengers it seemed, either on my flight or the flight from Cancun arriving at the same time, and I was the first passenger in the special transfer facility. There were about 20 kiosks which looked like more modern versions of Global Entry, and asked arrivals similar questions. There was no real human interaction, and by 8:41pm, I was in Montreal’s main terminal for my three-hour layover, where our story will continue…. I am glad this was the last of my United experience. Note, I reached out to United via Twitter about both the broken window shade and the boarding pass/rude CS agent. They have expressed they were sorry to hear about it and sent their thoughts and prayers.
The day before my flight, I had to book a work trip to United. For the same price, I could do a nonstop on United, or connect on Delta. I chose the latter. I’m glad I did.