Saudi Arabian Airlines: A set of surprises

The below is a long and detailed post on Manika and my experience with Saudi Arabian Airlines, flying to the US West Coast from India and back. If you don’t want to read through the entire story, here’s a quick summary and highlight of the airline that suddenly everyone flying to the US wants to know about.

Love:

  • Fares – at least 20% cheaper than the other biggies and flying via Jeddah/Riyadh to New York, Washington, D.C. & Los Angeles.
    (Comparison further down in the article)
  • Seat comfort – best economy class seat when compared against Emirates, Qatar Airways, Oman Air, Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, Jet Airways and any of the American carriers, in my opinion.
  • Large toilets – while the average toilet on their ultra long-haul Boeing 777-300ERs is larger than that of other carriers, two of the six economy class lavatories were extra large sized and a dream to use.
  • Food – as expected with all of the Middle-Eastern carriers, food on Saudi was good.
  • Responsible staff – we were faced with a bit of a jolt (described below) which could’ve gone very sour if not for the ground staff who dealt with it calmly, surely and in a very organized manner. Very re-assuring.
  • On-time – flights left and arrived bang on time.

Loathe:

  • Transit airports – Jeddah and Riyadh aren’t exactly what you’d call world-class airports, with very limited dining, entertainment and rest options.
  • On-board staff – like most Middle-Eastern carriers, the staff were cold though not rude like some other airline staff.
  • Dress code – Yes! You cannot just hop onto the plane wearing whatever you want. Neither men nor women can travel in shorts and women have to wear something that covers their upper bodies upto the neck.
  • No Alcohol – not exactly a loathe for me but I can imagine a lot of international travellers who’d be quite annoyed at the prospect of not being able to “pass out” on an international flight after a quick night cap. What’s worse, you cannot carry any spirits as a part of your checked-in baggage either.
  • Call Center – I was on calls with their US office quite often towards the end of my trip and mostly dealt with inept staff who required incredible amounts of cajoling to understand what I was trying to say.

Verdict

Fly Saudia! I loved my experience. To read the full story, keep scrolling.


July 2015 was special for me. I got to take the entire month, 33 days to be precise, off from work and spent the time vacationing on the U.S. west coast and South-west Mexico, with Manika.

While I generally like to treat my family to comfortable travels vis-a-vis my fairly barebones brand of official travel, this was always meant to be a shopping trip. As a result, we chose to drive the best bargain possible on the air tickets so that we had more to splurge on ourselves.

We booked tickets late May, which was quite late for travel in July. Emirates and other popular airlines were quoting Rs. 85,000 / $1350 per head, round trip. However, Saudi Arabian Airlines was offering the same sector, Chennai to Los Angeles and back, for Rs. 58,000 or $920 a pop. This wasn’t entirely a surprise since, in 2014, my mom had flown Saudiaa (as its popularly referred to) to Los Angeles (LAX) and didn’t have too many complaints, save for the quality of the transit airport terminal in Jeddah. We decided to take it and I was to return on July 21st and Manika on July 31st.

As we neared our travel date, I started developing cold feet. I was wondering if it was a blunder booking a not-so-popular airline for what was essentially a 33-hour journey, each way. With not many options on hand, I decided to bite the bullet and we headed to the airport on June 28th to board our flight.

Onward, Chennai to LAX, via Jeddah. Or not…

Upon reaching the airport, we discovered that the incoming flight from Jeddah was delayed by 6 hours and this meant we would miss our connection to LAX! The worst had started even before it had started! However, Saudiaa staff responded in a calm, swift and effective manner to start accommodating passengers with connections, on to other airlines. Most people were being put on Etihad and that definitely put a smile on my face. However, we were soon informed that the spare seats on Etihad had filled up and the next option would be Gulf Air! Shiver-me-timbers! I did NOT want to travel GF all the way to LAX. It had a notorious reputation for the worst airline toilets! Soon enough, Saudiaa staff approached us and directed us to the… Emirates counter!! Joy knew no bounds at this point, especially since I knew they flew the A380 on the Dubai-LAX route! Despite a longer layover, I was looking forward to this a lot now.

The Emirates flight was great and that’s all I will say for now since this post is about the Saudiaa experience and not Emirates.

Changing Dates

My next brush with Saudiaa was once I landed into the U.S. I decided I wanted to extend my return and go back with Manika on 31st instead of 21st. On checking with the airline office, we were informed that for some strange reason pertaining to the Emirates flight we flew into the U.S., a date change would now cost only Rs. 3000 or $45! I had been dreading what the actual cost might have been. Glee! Dates changed, now onto the holiday.

The Return Leg

After a great 30 days, I again started sweltering at the prospect of my impending 33-hour journey back to Chennai from Los Angeles. In fact, I was quite miserable and spent a long time exploring options ranging from upgrading to Business Class to reading up every possible review out there to get a sense of what the journey might be like. I hardly found any information online about the travel experience. Even the information on the mostly reliable SeatGuru.com was mostly sketchy. And thus this post.

We reached the airport about 2 hours before our flight time, braced for the worst. Our secret prayers that we get moved to another airline again, were not answered. The other major worry on my head was the amount of excess baggage we were carrying. Between us, we were permitted 23 kg x 2 per person, so 92 kgs  in total. Comfortable, right? Wrong! We had maxed out each bag by atleast 2 kgs and had 2 additional bags of ~23 kg each! (Yes, it had been that kinda trip that left Uncle Sam smiling)

The check-in line seemed short and we fell in line. While mentally rehearsing lines to try and get excess baggage on the 2 pieces waived or minimised, I felt a tug on my arm – a Saudi staff. What I heard next absolutely shocked me. He told me that I could not travel on Saudi Arabian Airlines wearing shorts and that I would have to change into trousers or anything full length. Flabbergasted, I had to rummage through each of the 6 bags to find the one, sole, singular linen trouser that I had carried on this trip. Thank God for that!

Now if you’re thinking of this as ludicrous, there’s more. One one of the many websites I had scoured reading reviews, I learnt that Saudia didn’t allow passengers to carry alcohol of any form, not even in checked-in baggage! So not only do they not serve alcohol, you cannot ferry any either! Go figure!

Having changed into trousers and won the baggage battle (we only paid $60 for one additional bag), we moved towards security and towards our gate.

Once on board, we made our way past Business Class, my mind still racing if I could pull off some coup to secure an upgrade. As we wade across to our seats, I remember distinctly feeling the cabin to be very well cooled; not too cold, not too warm. As we sunk into 43K & L, we couldn’t help but notice the leg room and seat width. The leather seats were plush and the entertainment screen was LARGE (not as much as the A380 but large for a 777-300!). Saudi Arabian Airlines cabin Boeing 777-300 ER

The next 18 hours to Riyadh via Jeddah (fuelling stop) was the best international economy class airline experience I’ve ever encountered. Top notch food, great thermostat control, enjoyable array of entertainment content and on-time performance made the flight an absolute delight.

The airport in Jeddah as well as Riyadh makes the layover very painful and that’s where you dearly wished you were on Business Class. Uncomfortable seating, lack of too many dining options and very few outlets accepting credit cards made our stop at Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport rather laborious. We were told by an enthusiastic Indian employee that a fancy transit terminal was in the works and could be expected in the coming years.

The final leg to Chennai on-board Saudia’s A330 was just as we had expected. Mediocre – like all Middle Eastern carrier flights from/to Indian destinations. But even there, it was less mediocre than Qatar Air, Oman Air or Emirates on the same sector.

Final verdict

Go for it. At fares atleast 20% cheaper than the competition and manageable trade-offs, Saudi Arabian Airlines is a hidden gem – at least till their fares remain where they are.