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Happy trails?

Are you irritated by the flight “reviews” which populate the travel columns of our daily papers? The reporter is shouted a trip to an exotic location, typically travelling up the flash end of the plane.

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Most can only dream about this. It’s not the experience most of us ”enjoy”. We’re crammed into the cheap seats down the back making the best of what can be a cramped nightmare.

Here’s my take on the way the rest of us fly – a review of a recent flight that, according to friends, is typical of what to expect when travelling on a connecting “international” flight to destinations in North America.

The Flight: Air Canada AC796.

The Route: Los Angeles to Toronto. This connects with Air NZ 6 at LAX. It departs on time, which creates a degree of stress, owing to the typical, slow, LA airport US entry process. Allow at least 3 hours for your connection! But we made it … our 2 hours 35 minutes on the ground was just enough to clear immigration, pass security again, grab a bottle of duty free, and some lunch – which we had no time to eat.

The Plane: Airbus A320. It was looking well used even though www.seatguru.com says it’s one of Air Canada’s newest.

The seats and comfort factor: Right down the back, 33E and 33F. Seatguru describes them as bad seats, with slightly less pitch and limited recline compared to the rest of economy. Proximity to the lavatory and galley may be bothersome. Well, yes, and the smell was not from reheating food.

The seats were cramped. Seatguru is spot on and unlike our Air NZ flight we weren’t able to choose seats. Admittedly that’s better than a previous Air Canada flight where my wife and I were seated in different rows. Check-in staff said to sort it out on the plane. Turned out, we were not the only couples separated, so we all sorted it out quick-as.

Entertainment: Seat back screens operate by touch-menu, which was temperamental. A reasonable choice of music, movies and TV was offered, also in French (mandatory in Canada) and other languages. But as regular travellers on the route, we’d seen many of them before. And Air NZ seemed to offer four times as much of everything. Take headphones or buy them on the flight, $C3.25. Note: credit cards only.

Food & drink: We knew what to expect and bought food at LAX. Onboard, there are snacks from $C3, wraps and sandwiches at $C6.95-$C7.95 – as above plastic payment only. The sandwiches looked the size of a 4” subway. We asked for a cup of tea (free), but were told it was too turbulent to serve hot drinks. (Turbulent? Not in our book. They’ve never flown in NZ!)

They would be back later. We were not offered juice or soft drink – also free as I found out post-flight. They seemed to want us to buy their alcohol: beer $C6.50, wine $C7.50. 3 hours later the trolley returned, and we got a cup of almost cold tea that tasted of coffee. Oh well – this is almost over!

Service: Very keen to offer us food and drink if we were paying. Otherwise, most of what we saw of the staff was them lounging in the back row on the other side.

The verdict: There’s not much choice connecting to Toronto. United Airlines is the other main option, and it operates a similar basic service model. It’s only a 5-hour flight, and if you take headphones, food and drink on-board (expensive at LAX but more choice of food and drink) it’s bearable. We just wish we could choose our seats, but that’s only possible if you’ve booked directly through Air Canada. I’ve discovered it’s sort-of possible, if you can find out the booking code that applies, and if you do an online check-in – but that’s only available within 24 hours of the Air Canada flight taking off. Of course, that’s when you are buzzing around frantically packing and doing all the other last-minute stuff.

Air Canada was tested by Hamish Wilson and his wife, who bought their own return tickets to Toronto from Expedia.

What to do?
There’s ways you can make your flight better – even in economy. Sites like seat guru tell you what seats are good – or not so good, and www.routehappy.com tells you which routes and airlines are more pleasant to travel on. If you are planning a long-haul journey, both are worth a look.

Our preferred route to Toronto rates well on routehappy.com. We’d say that’s largely because of the Air NZ leg and the relatively short overall journey time for such a long haul. We’ve done one of the other (twice as long plus some) routes which rate poorly, and say that rating is much deserved. Since then, we’ve avoided lower-cost, longer journey routes and look to get it done as fast as possible, with minimum lay-over time.

The seats we chose on Air NZ cost $30 extra per flight as “preferred seats”. Seat guru does not yet tell you they cost extra. We chose one of the few pairs of seats on the 777-300, down the back, where the aisle is wider – so less bumps on your arm in the night. Seat guru says “ideal for couples” and we agree.

In “preferred seats” you get priority boarding (when the premium economy folks go aboard) so you easily win the battle of the overhead locker space. We reckon it’s well worth the extra $60.

About the author:

Hamish Wilson has been working for Consumer forever. Well, at least longer than most of our staff can remember! He's tested old technology such as video recorders along with a steady stream of the latest washing machines, dishwashers, fridges, TVs and DVD recorders.

It's the variety that keeps him here. There's always new technology to explore, or even to go exploring with. It can be entertaining following directions from car navigation systems through dead end streets.