In November 2016 Qatar airways started a new route between Doha and Helsinki, which opened up a completely new gateway from Finland to the East. This coincided with my plans of an exotic vacation around the end of the year. In addition, the prices were very competitive in comparison to other alternatives. So I booked a trip to Bali, Indonesia with a layover in Doha, Qatar. Qatar Airways has been voted best airline in the world several years and usually ranks among the top 3, so naturally I had high expectations. However, high expectations can be deceitful. You tend to expect too much and then be disappointed on the wrong grounds… I’ll sum up my experience in a pros and cons list as usual.
Checking in at Helsinki airport was so-so. There were no check-in machines, which meant that although you complete the check-in process online, you still have to wait for the check-in counter to open to drop your luggage off. Since there is only one Qatar Airways flight per day departing from Helsinki, the ground services are more limited than e.g. Finnair’s. Not living in the Helsinki area, we arrived at the airport in time just in case, thinking we could kill the extra time in an airport lounge. Instead we ended up waiting in the departures hall to get our bags checked in.
The plane between Helsinki and Doha was your standard Airbus 320-100 with rows of 3+3 seats. I was a bit disappointed that there was a bus transportation from the terminal to the aircraft, instead of gate departure. Same thing in Doha. The aircraft between Doha and Denpasar was bigger, a Boeing 777-300 with rows of 3+4+3 seats. We had the aisle and middle seats on the latter flight and window + middle on the former. Both aircrafts were modern with onboard entertainment systems with touch screen in each seat and wifi onboard. The return flight to Doha was operated by an Airbus 330-300 with less leg room, no wifi, and a remote control-operated entertainment system.
The service on board was friendly and efficient, and the selection of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages was excellent. For example you could choose from two different brands of beer (Fosters and Heineken), both complimentary. Snacks and hot meals were served regularly and you could choose between three different hot meals; white meat, red meat or vegetarian. On other airlines you usually you just get two choices, tops. With every meal the flight attendant also asked you to lift your seat as a courtesy to the person sitting behind you, even if you were sleeping. I think this is a nice gesture, it is crammed enough as it is, even without the eating part. I can’t say the food was good, but it was eatable, even for me (have I mentioned I’m squeamish about food?). The staff was extremely friendly and helpful, and patiently repeated the meal choices when I had a hard time understanding through the accent in my blurry post-nap state. (Oh, and a little protip: I like to cut the bun in half and then heat it up on the lid of the steaming hot meal before removing the lid to improve the experience a bit.)
The onboard entertainment was somewhat slow at occasions, in particular on the aircraft that hadn’t been updated to touch screens. The selection was okay, it could have been better but I was sufficiently entertained during my 2x (7+9) hour flights. You could choose between new releases and old classics, and even audiobooks which I liked (although the the selection audiobooks was a bit narrow). You could even read/listen to the Koran if you felt the urge and naturally there was a wide selection of Middle-East productions. At first I was royally annoyed by the “visit Qatar” commercials that you had to watch through every time you changed movie/series. Seriously, more or less five minutes of commercials – every time. I was a bit less annoyed when I discovered the possibility to fast forward through them, but still not pleased.
There was a USB-outlet for recharging your electronic devices in the back of the seat in front of you. Super! On 3/4 flights there was also wifi onboard. The first 15 minutes was complimentary and if you wanted to surf more you paid 5 dollars per hour or 20 dollars for the entire flight. It worked okay for onboard-wifi, no complaints.
As Icelandair’s safety video that I commended earlier, the Qatar airways safety video starring FC Barcelona also differed from what you’re normally used to seeing. It was fun and creative. I like that airlines are clearly thinking about how to make this, let’s face it, rather boring part of every flight, more attractive. Another thing that I, as a western agnostic, found peculiar was that in addition to showing the direction we were going, the interactive maps also indicated in which direction Mecca was located at all times. And the flight attendant reminded that it is advisable to keep your seatbelt fastened at all times, also when praying.
A big part of the layover experience is the airport. I found Hamad International airport to be modern, clean and logical, making the transit as painless as possible. Everything worked smoothly, the announcements were clear, the toilets clean (however, somewhat crowded) and the gates easy to find. It’s an impressive airport with a lot of interesting aspects. It is allegedly one of the most instagrammed airports in the world; everyone wants to photograph the enormous (in my opinion rather creepy) 6.8 million dollar, 7-metre, 16.000-kg teddy bear in the middle of the departures hall, with a lamp penetrating its head and back (come on, it’s a bit creepy, right?). In general, the spaces were creatively decorated by innovative artwork, some turned into practical solutions, which really was a nice addition to the otherwise sterile airport atmosphere. For example, there was a giant two-storey bronze sculpture that serves as a huge playground for kids. Another pleasant surprise were the outlets integrated in the seats (not all but enough), available for anyone. At no point of the whole layover experience did I have to worry about my phone battery dying, neither onboard the plane or on the ground. The airport also provides iMacs that anyone can use. The atmosphere was surprisingly quiet, relaxing and non-hectic for an airport. A great plus were the “quite rooms”, separate rooms for men and women of course, where you could lay down and doze off between flights.
If I needed to criticize something at the airport, and I’m really reaching now, it would be that when we arrived in the morning the toilet lines were quite long and the prices mainly being indicated in the local currency. I wanted to buy some snacks for the connecting flight and ended up buying a fancy bag of dates, without the slightest idea of how much they would set me back. Yes, I could have used the airport’s complimentary wifi to check the currency rate, but quite frankly, after traveling for x hours I really didn’t care. It turned out the airport rather pricy and the dates set me back more than I would have wanted, but they were good dates.
The flight times were actually quite ideal and the flights took off on time. Our flight departed around 5 pm local time from Helsinki and we landed in Doha around midnight. We had three hours to kill at Hamad International airport before the nine-hour trip to hot and humid Denpasar. We caught some z’s during the flight but we were still quite tired and weary when we started our descent to Bali Ngurah Rai International Airport around 6 pm local time. After a late dinner and a good night’s sleep, we woke up to the crowing roosters at dawn without any jet-lag to speak of.
So my overall experience? Well I can’t disagree, it’s a top class airline. It’s just got that “something extra”, like three hot meal choices – also for breakfast. Great onboard services, functional ground services, excellent onboard entertainment system and generous selection of drinks. And you’re allowed 30 kg checked in luggage. Just don’t fool yourself and expect business class service if you’re flying economy class. If you want an individual seat with business class perks, you’ll need to buy a business class ticket. Hamad International Airport is a modern hub in the Middle-East offering comfortable access to the East from Europe. The airport will exceed your expectations and your layover will be smooth, even though you’d have to spend several hours at the airport between flights. I definitely give the airport two thumbs up!
Here are some pros and cons based on my experience:
|+ onboard services||– limited ground services at HEL|
|+ modern fleet|
|+ food and drink selection|
|+ 30 kg luggage allowance|
|+ flight times|
|+ affordable tickets|
|+ modern entertainment system|
|+ attentive and friendly staff|
Hamad International Airport:
|+ well-arranged airport||– um, crowded toilets?|
|+ innovative airport solutions|
|+ relaxing, non-hectic atmosphere|
|+ quiet rooms|
|+ complimentay use of iMacs|
|+ easily accessible power outlets|
|+ complimentary high-speed wifi|