Flight Review: TAP Air Portugal may be one of Europe’s best kept secrets (Flying Barcelona to London via Porto)

After arriving in Barcelona without a suitcase, hours of flight delays and not even a glass of water thanks to British Airways, I was starting to think that non-budget airlines were non-existent in Europe. With the likes of Ryanair and EasyJet defining the budget carrier model for the region, other, once full-service airlines have followed their lead, taking away seat selection, meals, drinks and included baggage one-by-one. They argue it’s to provide a cheaper ticket for consumers in the wake of increased operational costs. But ultimately it comes across as cost cutting at the expense of the user experience.

Departing Barcelona back to London with TAP Portugal Airlines (a trip which included a quick stop over in Porto), however, I’m glad to report my concerns were at least partially undeserving. The Star Alliance member proved to provide an experience on par with an airline like Virgin Australia – with a couple of exceptions.

Carrier: TAP Air Portugal
Route: Barcelona, Spain to London City Airport via Porto, Portugal (IP 1003 / IP 7442)
Class: Economy
Seat: 10B (Middle of Exit Row in 3-3 Lay0ut) / 5A (2-2 layout, window seat)
Aircraft Type: A319R / Embrarer 190
On time? First leg departed and arrived 25 Minutes Late, and the second was on time

Booking Options

There are four different types of economy tickets with TAP: Discount, Basic, Classic and Plus. “Discount” will give you the seat with a meal and a carry out, while “Basic” (which I purchased), gives you checked luggage . If you want to pick a seat, that’ll be the “Classic” fare, and “Plus” will give you access to preferred seating, partially refundable tickets, priority baggage and other extras. The difference between the “Discount” and “Plus” fare is quite large – the latter being more than double the cost. Interestingly, out of luck, I ended up with “Preferred Zone” seating on my second flight – as well as the extra leg room of the exit row on the first flight – though I did get regular e-mails asking me to bid to upgrade to the preferred seating, or for business class. Preferred seating, as you’d expect, is at the front of the plane, and provides extra leg room.

Frequent Flyers

As part of the Star Alliance Network, you’ll be able to earn points and claim some benefits depending on your status with other airlines, like I did with Singapore’s KrisFlyer. Miles & Go by TAP Victoria is their internal membership program and will provide you with an immediate discount on any flight so long as you’re a member. I was able to claim this discount as well.

Checking In (Online)

Unlike many other airlines, if you’ve booked a “Basic” or “Discount” fare, you don’t even get to choose your seats when you check in online before arriving at the airport; I ended up with a middle seat I couldn’t change without money for the first flight, though I did get the comfort seat for the second flight. Other than that, the online check in was straight forward and if you have carry on baggage only, it should be all you need before you head to security. Though I will note that for one reason or another I wasn’t able to finalise the check-in for my second flight, so I may have had to line up anyway.

Arriving at Barcelona’s International Airport

I arrived at the airport later than one probably should, about 1 hour 40 before the flight. With check in of bags stopping 1 hour before the flight, this should have been enough time (and it was), but I barely scraped through. With only two (!!!) counters, the absurdly lengthy line that greeted you had all the hallmarks of an airline that ensured you would fear missing your flight the entire time you were in the queue. Thankfully they started opening up extra counters as the line got ridiculous. Managed to check in at 10am on the dot, one hour before my flight left. It’s worth mentioning that the “priority” line for business class and “Plus” passengers wasn’t much better, with only one counter serving them and a very slow moving line. Security was a breeze however!

The Seat

On the A319, which seemed to have a reasonably new fit out, there’s a USB and power point in the seat in front of you. The seats are super comfortable seats with extra leg room (thanks to being in an exit row), and a head rest with movable flaps. The leather seats of the Embrarer 190 are just as comfy, but there’s no headrest, and no power points, with a notably older fit out.

Service

In spite of the long lines at Barcelona, the service across the board was pretty good. I had some issues on the second flight, however; I wasn’t allowed to put my bags above my seat because it was “executive” baggage area, for the first two rows. But I was three rows behind them. Why did the first two rows get or need that much baggage space? They weren’t being used. Of course, I had no way of knowing this, so after putting my bag above my seat, the stewardess told me I had to put it under the seat in front of me. When asked why, given it was above my seat, and no one else was using the space, she rudely told me that the space couldn’t be used by economy passengers. She stood there until I had pushed the bag all the way under the seat in front of me. With massive leg room, it wasn’t much of an issue but they didn’t have to be so rude about it – and could have at least offered me another option for overhead storage.

Meal Service

There was a meal service on both flights, both with a ham and cheese sandwich served about half an hour or so after take off. The first flight accompanied that with a banana nut muffin. The second flight served them with a pack of gummies that looked like airplanes, with a slogan “With Arms Wide Open” on the packaging. Is the band Creed a sponsor of the airline? The food was more than enough to tide you over for the flights, and came with tea, water, soft drink or wine. If you get a wine, they make a point to give you water, or whatever else you need. They were very generous in that regard. The second flight was a bit longer so they did a second drink service later in the flight, too, and got you anything you needed, as you needed it.

Entertainment

There were no entertainment options on board either flight. So download some Netflix before you board!

Transit at Porto

They make transit at Porto Airport pretty easy, but note that there’s a security check and then another passport check between you and your gate, so don’t dawdle, especially if you have a tight connection. If you don’t want to limit your stay, however, and want a Portugal stopover, this is also something the airline will accomodate, with up to 5 days in either Lisbon or Porto possible for no additional charge. You can

The Verdict

I don’t know who told me TAP were a super budget airline, but my expectations were severely unmatched. You have to pay extra for baggage, and there was no entertainment on the flight but everyone got food and drink (with alcoholic drinks as an option), and the seats were super comfortable, which feels unheard of these days on inter-European services. In spite of some minor grievances with the check-in process and a brief moment of conflict with a staff member, this is a remarkable full service airline that are among the best I’ve flown within Europe.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

To book your next getaway with TAP, head to their official website.

The writer flew at his own expense. Photo Credit: Star Alliance.