Middle Age Miles

Flight Review – Smartwings Between Prague and Dubrovnik

Flight review Smartwings ALK Airlines Prague Dubrovnik
The Middle Age Miles crew flew Smartwings non-stop between Prague and Dubrovnik

This article is part of our Trip Report – Our Summer Holiday in Dubrovnik and Beyond

As we mentioned in our “How We Got Great Value” article in this Trip Report, we chose Dubrovnik as our ultimate destination for this trip in part because it had convenient non-stop flights back-and-forth from Prague. These non-stop flights, however, thrust us into a world of aviation with which we were not familiar – flying a Central European local carrier. It was an interesting and ultimately very satisfactory experience, although there were times when we weren’t quite sure what we’d gotten ourselves into.

Flights and Times

Our outbound flight from Prague (PRG)-to-Dubrovnik (DBV) was:

  • Czech Air (OK) 4824, operated by Smartwings as QS 1084
  • Depart PRG 12:15 pm on Sunday, 8/5/2019
    • 1:40 flight time
  • Arrive DBV 1:55 pm on Sunday, 8/5/2019

Our return flight from DBV-to-PRG was:

  • OK 4825, operated by Smartwings as QS 1085
  • Depart DBV 2:40 pm on Friday, 8/10/2019
    • 1:50 flight time
  • Arrive PRG 4:30 pm on Friday, 8/10/2019

Our outbound flight ran on time, but our return flight was delayed by about 90 minutes.

Purchasing Our Flights

Smartwings is the only carrier that operates non-stop flights between Prague and Dubrovnik, so there are no competitive pressures on pricing. Those flights are once per day and operate daily during the summer holiday season (it’s a seasonal flight, so there are no flights during the winter, and flights 3x/week during the shoulder months).

In addition, the Smartwings flights run at very convenient times for leisure travelers. One-stop flights are available on other carriers, such as Austrian, but they can’t remotely compete in terms of convenience. All this to say – this isn’t a bargain flight. Paid fares were about $282 each round-trip for the sub-2-hour flights.

We wanted to use points for these flights, but we were thwarted. The flights weren’t available at all on the Chase or Citi travel portals. We couldn’t find any mileage options that would work for award tickets. Amex Travel had the flights on its portal, via a Czech Airlines codeshare. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough MR points to purchase the tickets using pay-with-points, as we’d just burned a large stash on the tickets for Philly and me between DFW and Prague.

So, we swallowed hard and booked paid fares via Amex Travel. At least we used our Business Platinum card to earn 5x MR points on our airfare purchase! And we wanted to book our flights via Amex Travel rather than directly through Smartwings, the idea being that if we ran into trouble, we could call Amex Travel and be sure to have an English-speaking agent to help us.

Finally, for our class of ticket on a Czech Airlines codeshare on Smartwings, there were no options to earn miles with any loyalty program. We had hoped that Czech Airlines being part of SkyTeam would at least allow us to earn a few miles on Delta, or perhaps Flying Blue or Miles & More – but alas, no luck. Let’s just say that it was painful for points-and-miles people like us to have to pay for a flight and not even earn any miles for it!

Baggage Allowance

Our economy fares on the Smartwings flights included one checked bag up to 15 kg (33 lbs) plus a full-size carry-on and a personal item.

The 33-pound limitation was interesting, as we’re accustomed to having up to 50 pounds on our US flights. Fortunately, we had the luxury that we were staying at the same hotel in Prague (Sheraton Prague Charles Square) on the night before we left for Dubrovnik and the night after we returned. The staff at the hotel was very nice to store a couple of bags for us for a few days while we were in Dubrovnik, which greatly helped us deal with the weight limit on the PRG-DBV flights.

We did have to weigh our bags when we checked in at Smartwings. But our check-in agent was kind and didn’t say a word when one of our bags weighed in between 15 and 16 kg.

What Airline Are We Flying On???

The Middle Age Miles travel party was rightly confused about what airline we were flying on and, at times, whether we were in the right place at all.

  • Our flight was marketed by Czech Airlines, so our receipt had a Czech Airlines logo and flight number
  • It was operated by Smartwings, so we needed to check in at the Smartwings counter and look for Smartwings (QS) flight numbers when finding our gate, etc.
  • Although our flight was operated by Smartwings, a lot of the identifiers in the airport (Prague especially) said “Travel Services” instead of Smartwings
  • And when we got to our plane, its livery was for ALK Airlines

I think it’s fair to say that our confusion was legitimate. We continued to double-, triple-, and quadruple-check ourselves at every turn to make sure we were going to the right gate and boarding the right plane to the right destination!

We didn’t know any of this at the time, but we later figured out:

  • Our ticket purchase was a standard codeshare, but it turns out that Czech Airlines is actually majority owned by Smartwings. Czech Airlines sounds very official, and it’s a member of SkyTeam and all, but Smartwings is the parent and the largest airline of the Czech Republic.
  • “Travel Services” is a prior name of Smartwings. As of the past year or two, all flight operations are now under the Smartwings name. And my understanding is that now, the name of the company has been formally changed to Smartwings.
  • ALK Airlines is a Bulgarian charter operator based in Sofia. It has 5 active planes, including the MD-82 that we flew back and forth to Dubrovnik. ALK apparently operated the PRG-DBV route for Smartwings in 2018 under a “wet lease” deal.
    • For 2019, the PRG-DBV flights are being shown as operated by a 737-800 rather than the MD-82 that carried us last summer.
Our ALK Airlines MD-82 for our Prague-Dubrovnik flights
The livery told us that ALK was operating this flight for Travel Services and Smartwings

Our Flight Experience

In Prague, check-in was smooth. We departed from Terminal 2, which services most European destinations. One point of note is that there was a fairly long and disorganized line to clear security into the Terminal 2 gate areas. It took us close to 30 minutes to get through security, so be sure to leave time for this.

Priority Pass lists 2 lounges in PRG Terminal 2 – the Menzies Aviation Lounge and the Erste Premier Lounge – but we didn’t have time to visit.

As usual with European flights, our gate wasn’t announced until a few minutes before boarding time. We thought we were cutting it close, but it turned out we were within the first 10-15 passengers to arrive at the gate area. Signage for the flight featured the Travel Services name and logo, which made us anxious at the time that we were in the wrong place for a Smartwings flight!

We loaded onto a bus, which again is a pretty standard for intra-Europe flights but was a new experience for the Middle Age Miles kids and my sister. And as we mentioned earlier, we had another round of surprise and confusion when we pulled up to a plane that said “ALK Airlines” instead of Smartwings!

The Middle Age Miles kids got a kick out of boarding using the bus-tarmac-staircase method

We boarded by climbing a staircase and entering the front door. Our MD-82 was configured in the standard 2-3 seat arrangement. It was all-economy seating, and I believe configured with 172 seats. We were in about row 20 and got settled in.

Our plane was obviously an older one (more on that below), and it had some interesting quirks. We took a few pictures to memorialize the experience.

Philly & Craig settled in to our ALK MD-82 for our Smartwings flight
KB modeling the Travel Services-branded barf bag!
Headrest covers had Smartwings branding
Seat backs had instructions in English and what I presume is Bulgarian Cyrillic (?)
My 6’1″ self didn’t have any extra legroom, but it turned out to be fine

Once in-flight, the experience was surprisingly good. The seats had plenty of cushioning and were comfortable. Legroom was a bit cramped for me at 6’1″ but it turned out to be fine for sub-2-hour flights. The flight was about 60-70% full, and there was plenty of overhead space for us. And we received drink service during the flight.

All in all, even though we were skeptical of the older plane and “off” branding, our in-flight experience turned out to be better than many if not most US domestic flights these days.

One tip if you’re flying from Prague to Dubrovnik – sit on the left side of the plane. The left side had some spectacular views as we cruised over the Adriatic, just off the Croatia coastline, past Dubrovnik before making a 180-degree turn for a south-to-north landing. Unfortunately, Philly and I were on the right, so all we could see was the Adriatic Sea, and we weren’t able to get pictures.

Our return flight from Dubrovnik to Prague a few days later was rather uneventful after being delayed for about 90 minutes. Dubrovnik has only a single terminal, and it was easy to clear security there. We relaxed in the lounge while we waited for our flight, and we’ll review it separately. There were also shopping areas in the Dubrovnik airport that helped us pass the time – including, surprisingly, a small Michal Negrin store which Philly surely appreciated!

We again boarded by bus in Dubrovnik, and we had the exact same plane as we had flown in from Prague.

Our Airplane for These Flights

It’s not often that I’m interested enough in the exact plane we’re flying on to look it up, but this one was definitely an exception, given the mis-matched livery and apparent age of the plane.

It turned out that our MD-82 was 29 years old. It was indeed owned by ALK Airlines.

[Airplane info courtesy PlaneSpotters]

Our ALK Airlines MD-82, tail number LZ-DEO flew from 1989 until 2012 for Alitalia and its onetime subsiary Aero Transporti Italiani. In 2012 it went into storage. In late 2013 or early 2014 it appears to have been sold, and it had a variety of owners until April 2016, when ALK Airlines purchased it.

The plane entered service for ALK in May 2016 and has flown with ALK since.

Almost 30 years in the skies – wow. As we said, it certainly seemed comfortable enough for what it’s being used for.

Here’s a beautiful picture of our ALK MD-82, tail number LZ-DEO, in the skies in full glory [image courtesy PlaneSpotters/Andrew Fietz]

Conclusion

We definitely had an interesting flight experience on our Czech Airlines/Smartwings/Travel Services/ALK Airlines flights between Prague and Dubrovnik. It turned out to be fun and memorable, and that’s what our holiday trips with family are all about!


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