Flying with Aeroflot: What is it like?
Would you fly with Aeroflot? “Never never”, I’d say until a few years ago. You see a previous flight in a noisy Tupolev-134 on a class trip to Moscow did not really excite me, and I was glad to be out again, and years later, a very cheap trip to Istanbul while at university led me to fly in its bigger sister, an ancient Tupolev 154 with original 1970’s Soviet interior, already and antique in the 1990’s and I think I only survived that flight without going crazy by copious alcohol intake and some hand holding from the nice lady in the seat next to me.
Then, in Berlin, I regularly spotted their modern aircraft and cheap airfares to the East, and by that I don’t just mean ex-Soviet Union, but Thailand, India, Japan, all places I wold love to visit again.
And when our honeymoon led us to Spain instead of Japan because my husband refused point-blank to fly Aeroflot, I decided to prove him wrong. Due to changing jobs, I found myself with an extra week of leave, and a cheap Aeroflot flight offer to Samarkand, one of my top wish list destinations. So, if you’re lured by the cheap prices but never yet flown on Aeroflot, here is my experience flying with Aeroflot for the first time – and may it help in your decision to try this modern airline. And the only Russian aircraft Aeroflot now uses are modern Sukhoi Superjets – the Ilyushins and Tupolevs have all been retired.
Disclosure: This trip was entirely self-funded and I have not received any monetary or non-monetary rewards from any business mentioned here. I also apologize in advance for the few pictures, on the way in, I was too excited, on the way back, too knackered.
Booking and pre-flight
I often look on Skyscanner for my flights and found a Berlin-Samarkand round trip for under 400 EURO. I think most visitors fly to Tashkent as it has a lot more connections, then use the high-speed rail for onward transportation, but I had very little time and the flight to Samarkand was not only cheaper but also shorter. So while I would have loved to see Tashkent, the ancient Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara were my top priority. I bought the flight through a website operated by online travel agent Travix, who, on comparison had the cheapest flight and a decent review, and once I had my e-ticket, received regular updates from Aeroflot itself, up to SMS messages when it was time for boarding. I’ve not got the best experience with online travel agents, but I had no issues with Travix, who operate offices and websites world-wide.
Sadly, there was no option to order a special meal at the time of booking. I tried to order vegetarian meals through Aeroflot website which basically told me to phone a number in Moscow, which I could not be bothered with so I just packed some extra food. The dates and times of my flight did not change – well, I booked about three weeks before I was about to fly. Aeroflot duly informed me by email when it was time to check in online (it starts 24h prior to departure), but in my case, their website did not like my passport details and online check-in didn’t work for me.
Berlin-to-Samarkand via Moscow Sheremetyevo
I know Berlin-Schoenefeld quite well. Well… it’s my cheapskate airport of choice even though it may well be the worst capital city airport. Check-in was smooth and pain-free. They were generous with hand luggage. I took a small suitcase and a camera bag, and I saw people taking much more on board.
The plane to Moscow to was a Boing 737-800 with a clean and modern interior, and it was really full and felt a bit squeezed. It’s only a 2.5 hour flight, so not a problem. I really liked that each row had two charging points for standard continental Europe plugs and USB – first time I’ve seen this on an airplane. The second plane to Samarkand was an Airbus A320, with a modern cabin with new-ish slimline economy seating, mood lighting, the same style charging points. It had no screens and no inflight entertainment which can be somewhat annoying on a five-hour flight but since it was overnight it didn’t bother me, and best of all, the plane was so empty that I swiftly moved to an empty row at the back of the airplane and, bit of turbulence aside, managed to sleep a few hours.
Food and drink were generous, but of course, the Eastern Block and Central Asia are bad places to be a vegetarian. On the short flight, they served decent-looking but meaty sandwich with an apple and a sweet and generous drinks in somewhat un-classy but generous classy paper cups, on the night flight, they would serve us a pretty large dinner at 3am.
Arriving in Samarkand was swift and easy, and on time. EU citizens no longer need visa for Uzbekistan, and passport control was friendly, they asked how long I was going to stay then stamped me in, no customs check, nothing. Samarkand Airport is small and basic.
And if you ever arrive there, the only toilets in Arrivals are the small ones before immigration… took me a security screen and a bit of discussion in my best school Russian to be let into the Departures area to visit the facilities. Oh, and forget about an ATM or a Money Exchange. Not there. I always take some smaller dollar bills, they are universal currency everywhere, EURO probably would have bene okay too. There ought to be public transport into town, but I didn’t see any, nor did I find a bus stop. There are many taxis expecting arrivals, but I heard it is better to walk down 100-200m on the main road leading into town and just flag down a cab. I paid 5US Dollars to my hotel near the Registan without much discussion.
Samarkand to Berlin via Moscow
Another Red Eye flight, getting up at about 3.30 and having a cab (7US-Dollars) pre-arranged, I was driven to the airport in about ten minutes. Due to a bit of shopping including some ornamental scissors I had to check my bag (it’s free on Aeroflot). At present, approximately 5 flights operate out of Samarkand daily, and there are currently two Moscow flights in the early morning. Both were full and both check-in and security check seemed at full capacity. Add to that that normally Russian and Uzbek are spoken, this made for an interesting departure, and despite seeing many tourists in the country, one flying out of Samarkand still seems to be a rarity, as I got fished out of the long security queue and informally fast-tracked and searched very thoroughly but friendly. I think two hours is plenty to check in and pass security even when it’s full. Customs control was pretty non-existent, I think there was a customs check there but no one got checked. All the stories I heard about having to fill in forms, having minuscule amounts of medicine checked, being checked for cash – didn’t experience any of it.
The return journey was neither as smooth nor as nice. At first both Moscow planes were over an hour late, and there was not really much information available – the Departure screen just, disconcertingly, had both flights disappearing after a while. The departure lounge is tiny, crowded and with insufficient seating. There is a cafe and a Duty Free upstairs but being fed up I didn’t bother. The airplane was another Airbus A320. Finally, we boarded and I sat i a middle seat between two blokes who were discussing the routing of aircraft for the entire flight, screaming children, the full package. Sleep impossible! The food had definitely taken a turn for the worse and as someone who isn’t that picky, well, I didn’t eat it. I asked the purser who spoke excellent English about the delay and they just advised that I would not make my flight and just go to the Transfer desk in Moscow to be put on another flight.
I still ran like a maniac and was allowed to jump a queue or two, and actually DID make it to the gate but they had already put me on the next flight in just over an hour. This was uneventful, but this one did not have phone charging points and was relatively full again. It was incredibly noisy in the cabin again – passengers talking really really loud, playing videos on their phones at full volume… I think our Eastern European neighbours have a different perception of noise, so bring earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones. Also, watch your Duty Free closely… I had bought a nice bottle of Ararat Cognac which got swapped for two litres of vodka while resting in the overhead bin… I am sure this was an unfortunate mix-up as I got the better deal overall, but vodka wasn’t exactly the tipple I wanted for a quiet drink in my salon…
Transit in Moscow Sheremetyevo
Most travellers need a visa to visit Russia, and I read all sorts of stuff on internet forum about needing visa when changing in Moscow… you won’t need one unless you plan to leave the airport. With two exceptions: if you fly on to the Belarus or Kazakhstan, at the time of writing, a transit visa is required as Russia is in a customs union with these countries. For any other countries, if you change within Sheremetyevo (and its different terminals) you won’t need a visa. If you change airports (Domoededovo and Pulkovo) you need a visa, so its best to avoid flights with a change of airport unless you want to stopover in Moscow.
However, on an Aeroflot flight, if you arrive in SVO, you would usually leave from SVO. The airport is enormous. I arrived and departed from Terminal D and on one occasion had to transfer to Terminal E which is next to D, just a short 5-10minutes walk. I had one passport control and one smallish security check with just one scanner while changing within the same terminal. There are some moving walkways but not many so in my opinion, an hour is needed to transfer comfortably. I did it on twenty minutes on the way back, and with other travellers being friendly, you may be given preference in queues if you ask nicely, and if you sprint and have just hand luggage, you can make your connection in a very short time.
The signage is modern and in both Russian and English but could be improved on. Terminal D, where I changed, is light, has a lot of restaurants, and several Duty Free Shops. Duty Free is huge for alcohol and cigarettes, you get the usual cosmetics, and each one has a humongous caviar fridge. Most brands are the usual international brands, but there is (as one might expect) a large range of Russian vodka and some ex-Soviet Union highlights. I found Ararat Cognac, for example, but did not see Kvint. You can pay in roubles, they accept EURO and dollars, or cards.
The restaurants are rather uninspired looking but offer the usual fare – sandwiches, pizza, cappucchino… prices are in roubles but most accept EURO or cards. There is not really a need to change money into roubles while transiting through SVO.
Terminal D is spacious, modern generic, and very very noisy! There is not quiet or dark place – there are relax couches in various places, but they are extremely well lit and noisy. You can charge your phone easily on special charge points, and there is free WiFi. To get into WiFi, you need to log in and provide you phone number, which may put you off. I did it and so far have not had any strange calls… but an email from my (American) Email provider smelling a rat and asking if someone unauthorized had signed into my email… never happened in Western Europe but I notice they did this when I was in Ukraine too.
On the way back, I missed my connecting flight (well I made it but my luggage didn’t) and I was worried to be stuck in a country with visa regulation for ages, but seeing how efficiently Aeroflot had picked up the delay, cancelled my ticket and booked me on the next flight 90 minutes later, I would be less worried about missing a connection now, as Aeroflot appears to handle these issues well.
Would I fly with Aeroflot again?
Kids can scream on any flight, flights tend to be full nowadays, airplane food is never like your home-cooked dinner, so yes, absolutely, I would fly with Aeroflot again. My return journey was horrible but these problems were not Airline-specific. Aeroflot is a modern airline with a good recent safety record and a modern aircraft fleet, and I personally put them on par with any major Western European Airline.
Some more posts on Samarkand and Bukhara are coming up, once I sort through my pictures and have job and life admin running smooth once more. If you have any questions on Aeroflot, or on Samarkand and Bukhara in the meantime, feel free to drop me a line!