It’s not every day that you can boast being taken to the skies by a famous explorer.
OK, so I can’t pretend I was alone on my adventure. The truth is, there was a plane-full of us. Nevertheless, the portrait of Irish Antarctic explorer Tom Crean on the tail fin of the Norwegian Boeing 737MAX leaving Belfast International for New York inspired an added sense of excitement for those, like me, who were heading to the Big Apple for the first time.
We were travelling with low-cost airline Norwegian, who continued the expansion of its trailblazing transatlantic network with the launch of a new, year round, twice weekly direct flight between Belfast and Stewart International.
The attraction of this much smaller US airport - which offers good access into the New York area - is its significantly lower landing charges, which means that Norwegian can offer some amazingly affordable fares.
Now when I say “amazingly affordable”, I really do mean it. As in, single fares start at an incredible price of just £99.
Norwegian is the world’s sixth largest low-cost airline, but for those - like myself - who had never flown with them before, I really did wonder what lay in store for anyone who booked a flight at such a ridiculously low price,
My first impressions of checking in at Belfast International were absolutely great. There were so few other passengers in the check-in area ahead of our late Saturday afternoon departure that we swiftly made our way to the head of the queue to be greeted by a cheery smile and prompt bag drop-off.
Boarding was swift and simple too, with plenty of staff to offer assistance and ensure a slick operation.
With Norwegian, you literally only pay for what you need, which in my mind is entirely sensible unless you’re the sort of person who wants to pay unnecessarily more for things. There are three price bands on the Belfast-Stewart route - Lowfair, Lowfair+ and Flex offering package variations including checked baggage, seat reservation and meals. You can just book the Lowfair rate and add on extra baggage if that suits your needs better.
We travelled with Flex tickets - which included 10kg of hand baggage, a generous two x 20kg checked in baggage allowance, free seat reservation and in-flight meals. Our seats at the centre emergency exits had plenty of extra leg-room, which of course, comes with the slight downside of knowing you’d need to be responsible for opening the emergency door in the case of ... well, an emergency.
The interior space of the Norwegian 737 is a three-three seat format, so it’s not an enormous plane compared to some transatlantic jets. However, it was spotlessly clean and definitely the newest plane I’ve ever been on.. In fact, the airline has one of the youngest aircraft fleets in the world with an average age of just 3.6 years.
The Belfast flight doesn’t offer personal in-flight entertainment, but there were numerous fold-down screens that showed a variety of short sub-titled programmes throughout the Stewart-bound flight.
That’s where I learned about Tom Crean - one of the iconic figures featured on the tail fin of Norwegian aircraft who symbolise the spirit of the airline through innovation, pioneering achievement and inspiring others.
Born in Co Kerry in 1877, Tom Crean joined the Royal Navy aged just 15, quickly becoming recognised as an accomplished sailor. In 1901, a chance encounter with Robert Falcon Scott saw Crean join Captain Scott’s ship ‘Discovery’ for an exploration into the unchartered Antarctica waters – it would become the first of several polar expeditions undertaken by Crean that led him to become known as one of Ireland’s greatest Antarctic explorers.
The majority of other passengers had brought their own entertainment anyway - spending the flight time either listening to music, watching downloaded TV or films on their smartphones or tablets or even, wait for it ... reading books.
We found the Norwegian cabin crew to be professional, friendly and attentive, without being over-bearing. They offered drinks and snacks for sale at appropriate times and served the tasty in-flight meal, with a hot chicken or beef option, to those who had pre-booked it.
Most passengers around us seemed to have brought their own “meal deal” type sandwich-and-snack food on board, after a quick purchase at the airport.
Some also brought their own travel blankets - not necessary at all on the US-bound flight but would have been useful on the return night-time flight to Belfast. A coat or fleece would do the same job, however.
From start to finish the whole Norwegian experience was top rate. It was the perfect no-frills flight which did everything that was needed. No, you didn’t get airline socks, a little wash kit or other non-essentials, but really ... are they such a deal-breaker? I’d certainly rather have some extra cash to spend on what I really want.
I had sussed out that Stewart International wasn’t exactly going to be the largest of airports and while that was entirely correct, I was more than pleasantly surprised at what I found on landing.
My travelling companion had visited New York before and warned me about the overwhelming pressure that you can feel when a large number of people converge in an airport like Newark.
Landing at Stewart was an absolute dream.
No sooner had we walked into the arrivals lounge than our baggage was on the carousel.
The line for Immigration and Customs was more than bearable, with numerous helpful members of staff to answer any queries as you waited.
Once through the formalities of entering the US, we just had to get ourselves to New York City itself. Some may think that an airport like Stewart is too far away from the bright lights to be practical, but that’s far from the truth.
We had pre-booked Coach USA’s Stewart Airport Express which is timed to the Norwegian flights and we just had to walk a few steps after the Customs check to find the coach waiting. It was so easy and for just $20 each, well worth the money.
My companion said on more than one occasion that he would far rather travel to Stewart International than one of the larger New York airports because of the sheer ease of the experience compared to what he’d encountered previously. No hassle, no fuss, no long waits - we were relaxed all the way through.
The coach whisked us straight to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in the centre of Manhattan in less than 80 minutes.
For more details on Norwegian flights, visit www.norwegian.com/uk or call 0330 828 0854
n Next week: a first-time visitor’s view on the best things to do and see in New York.