When I first told my parents I had booked a ticket to Germany for a week they were ecstatic. I had been vacillating between going and not going for weeks with no good reason to not go, so getting over my commitaphobia, I bought a ticket. I had been saying that if I could find a round trip ticket for under $1,000 I would just buy it. After some intense digging I found a ticket for $640 round trip into Frankfurt. When I told my parents that cheap ticket was by flying Aeroflot - Russia’s national airline - and had a 7 hour layover at Sheremetyevo International Airport (AKA the Snowden airport), they were less ecstatic.
If you don’t live in the United States, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of or flown on Aeroflot as they fly to a ton of large airports and were one of the most profitable companies in the world a few years ago, but here in the contiguous United States with our JetBlues and Southwests and Frontiers, we have a sort of inside-facing airline world. But I love travel, and love flying to places I’ve never been on airlines I’ve never flown. Even knowing that North Korea’s Air Koryo is a one-star airline, I still sort of want to fly it just for the experience (well, if that experience isn’t death).
Now, I mentioned that I found a ticket for $640 round trip into Frankfurt, which is exactly where I wanted to fly into, but before I go on I should make one thing clear: I pretty much pride myself on finding the cheapest way to travel somewhere so that the bulk of your vacation money can be spent at that somewhere. And due to that, I’m pretty flexible when it comes to how I travel. I also trust statistics and realize that flying really is insanely safe, so flying across the ocean in an airline I’ve never heard of didn’t totally phase me, but it might some. But after more intense research into what sort of plane’s Aeroflot flew (almost new 777s), I felt pretty at ease about the whole thing, regardless. They’re part of the Sky Team! How bad could it really be? It’s only a 10 hour flight!
Living in Upstate New York one has access to a ton of airports if you’re willing to travel a little bit to get to them. Logan, LaGuardia, JFK, Newark, even the Albany airport have great flight options, but I found this flight out of JFK, so the next step was to find a way to get to JFK. Car service? Got there too late. Amtrak? Haahahahaha yeah right. Greyhound? Ugh. Greyhound. Greyhound had a special of $22 round trip so I snatched that up and just should have forked over the extra $60 for Amtrak. I’ll say this: spending a week on planes, trains, hitchhiking, even a bus WHILE PEOPLE WERE BEING DEPORTED NEAR THE CZECH REPUBLIC was not as aggravating as these simple Greyhound rides. Turns out I bought a wrong return ticket, so had to fork over another $25 (more than the round trip tickets) for one return ticket, and of course they don’t take credit cards at the bus terminal because Greyhound is perpetually stuck in 1975 so, which, alright let’s just get moving.
I don’t need to tell you about JFK. It was the typical insane-attendants-screaming-at-everyone experience we’ve come to expect from any transportation in New York. And though Aeroflot allows you to “check in” online, it doesn’t actually do anything for you, so you still have to go to the counter and get a ticket like a normal person. Being so used to Southwest I almost forgot what this was like. Anyway, the best part of JFK was the Aeroflot folks, who were all ridiculously nice and noticeably from all different countries, which I thought was neat.
We queued up to get on the plane with some irritable JFK employee screaming the whole time and suddenly the world fell quiet. Angels began humming the Russian nation anthem. Lights backlit four silhouettes who slow-motion walked by me in line. The flight attendants. I can’t accurately describe how much presence these ladies had. They knew they were the shit. The embroidered golden hammer and sickle on their wrists let everyone else know. They were...cool.
We boarded the flight and were welcomed into an immense cabin with what felt like totally new amenities all over. Every chair had an entertainment system - which is pretty standard for long-haul flying, but these were nifty. I don’t fly internationally too often so this may be fairly commonplace, but the entertainment systems had remotes to control the screens or play games or listen to music, etc, and the movie choices were things that were almost still in theaters. You could even access a camera above the cockpit and see out the front of the plane!
I will say, you’re crammed in like a tuna can (read: that’s flying). And after 10 hours of movies and trying to sleep and folks smoking in the bathrooms I was getting a little bit antsy in the economy chair. But I haven’t even talked about the best part yet: THE FOOD.
This is what pretty much every meal looked like and it was just absolutely amazingly delicious. They fed us so often and gave us so many drinks it was hard to fall asleep for fear of missing out on another round of amazing food. IN ECONOMY. At one point I couldn’t eat a huge piece of salmon they had brought due to fullness, sleepiness, and the fact it was like 6am in my timezone world and salmon at 6am just no and the flight attendant seemed pretty miffed about this. He made sure to say in a heavy accent please enjoy your meal when the next round came out - so I gobbled it all down. Seriously though - this was one of the best parts of the trip. The food was outstanding. (pro tip: learn a few Russian words like thanks, please, coffee, still water, and with cream if you fly Aeroflot. It’s much easier to say these little words over two sleeping tourists and the roar of plane engines than repeating YES PLEASE WITH CREAM to your Russian flight attendant).
The Glitch In The System
This was my first international flight with a connection, and in order for Aeroflot to be cheap, it seems like they route basically every flight through Sheremetyevo - their homebase - and just have you wait for a plane going where you want to. Which isn’t a bad plan! My plane landed about 20 feet from my connection, score! But it turns out everyone has to go through customs in order to get into the connections area, or “transit area” as Sheremetyevo calls it. This is where Snowden spent 3 weeks and I was going crazy after 7 hours. They have two TGIFridays.
Anyway, get to the connection customs and and the passport lady makes a “legs walking quickly motion” with her hands and I’m like I KNOW CAN I PLEASE RUN NOW? So I run to the x-ray machines where four more Aeroflot folks are sitting and obviously do not care about people getting on connections and basically wave me through. Sprint to my flight where they’re lackadaisically checking passports and boarding people. The rush was really not needed.
Another flight, this time on an A320. More awesome food for breakfast for just a 2 hour flight, no entertainment this time and I was in Frankfurt. Easy peesy!
The Long Way Back
The flights back were relatively the same. Amazing food, same great movies, easy flights, etc, with one big caveat: a 7 hour layover in Moscow in the middle of the night. Now, I mentioned that Snowden spent three weeks in this place, and that enough would drive someone crazy. Sheremetyevo is not bad whatsoever. It’s got two TGIFridays! But it’s essentially three terminals that you can walk around in and shop in until your flight comes in. If you’ve ever been to Orlando International Airport (MCO) - it’s similar. Part of it is sort of a mall showing off the finest Russian goods you can buy (watches, alcohol, Putin memorabilia). I bought a shot glass with young Putin on it, a water, and crab chips for about ₽75,000,000,000 rubles or about $85 billion dollars (conversion rates are hard).
I tried unsuccessfully to get into one of the lounges and didn’t feel like paying to just sit alone in them all night, so I chose these seats in a secluded part of the terminal and got into an awkwardly comfortable position to finish watching The Fall. My plan all along. Eventually a handful of flights came in around 4am and people began to sit around me so I went to go read and take some photos of planes for a few more hours. I call this one “7 Hours in Moscow.”
But what I really wanted to get to was this: when it came time for my flight we were in this weird little terminal with only 5 gates and one convenience shop. While going through security an Aeroflot employee pulled me aside and was like “hey I think your flight is in a different spot. I’m going to find out for you.” She started clacking away on a little phone-looking thing and then found me in line and told me where the flight had been moved to! Totally unprovoked.
Once I got through security I asked someone to confirm that the flight was actually moved because the flight never showed up on the boards. This guy. This Aeroflot employee devoted like the next 20 minutes to just running around asking people what was going on while I devoured some Russian McNuggets. Russianuggets, if you will. Anyway, this guy put all his effort into finding out what was going on with this one flight and kept checking in with me. It was amazing! Maybe it’s sad that general customer service is something to note, but he might be the reason I decided to write this. I felt like I should have tipped him. Spasibo, I told him.
(Side story: About 12 people went through security with me. About 4 of these were female. One of these females was particularly good looking. When she went through the scanner a group of weird old airport employees started laughing and talking Russian and next thing you know the pretty lady had her bag opened and had to go into a private room for a private scan. It was fairly obvious the random spot check wasn’t too random, which her husband also noticed.)
When I returned I went through what every American ostensibly goes through: figuring out where to go next, when you can, and creating fake trips for yourself. But in doing so I realized that you can travel nearly anywhere on the planet with Aeroflot if you leave from the right places for under $1,000 (economy) and don’t mind a weird flight path. Only a few places from JFK cost more than a grand if you plan far enough out. I’m looking at you, Japan.
Aeroflot has had a rough last year with some canceled routes, canceled plane orders, and general unrest in the Russian travel world, but I can’t recommend them enough. The big question after a flight is always would you fly on that airline again, and if that’s the question with Aeroflot, you damn bet I would. And this time I’ll eat all my salmon.