Since I am not a huge fan of long reads, I hesitated a lot whether I should write this, longer than 2-minute reading, type of trip report. Yet, to mark my 10th trip report published on our favorite EX-YU Aviation, I decided to write this, at least by my standards, rather long one. Actually, the report will be long, not because I will go into some banal details, but because it will cover 5 flights, 2 of which are long-haul.
Having in mind that Macedonian passport holders need a visa to enter South Korea, my initial plan for 2023 summer vacation was to travel to Japan from Belgrade with Flydubai and Emirates and to have few a days layover in Dubai on my way back. However, my younger daughter, who is big fan of K-pop and anything Korean, persuaded me to apply for a Korean visa and to make a new plan for visiting Japan and South Korea while skipping Dubai. The new plan meant a new itinerary, so the most convenient and cheapest option I ended up booking was with the routing Skopje -Tokyo Haneda via Istanbul, followed by Tokyo Haneda – Seoul Gimpo and lastly Seoul Incheon – Skopje via Istanbul. Pricing for all these flights on a same ticket came to 5.000 euros for 4 passengers in economy class. I want to note that on Turkish Airlines’ website, these multi segment tickets cannot be booked so I bought the tickets on an independent travel website. If I am not mistaken, Macedonians are the only ones in the region that need a visa for South Korea, so here is some information for Macedonian readers who want to travel to South Korea: adults must apply in person at the Korean embassy in Sofia, the visa will cost you 40 US dollars and, aside the usual documents for other visas, you must present an actual return or onward ticket.
Now let me guide you through the flights, one by one:
Flight 1: Skopje-Istanbul
Out of about a dozen travels I have started from Skopje on Turkish Airlines, this was my first time flying on the evening TK flight from Skopje. The reason for this is that the evening departure provides good connections if you are continuing eastbound via Istanbul. All my previous destinations were in Turkey or Western Europe so the morning TK flight was always more convenient.
Check-in for the flight was very crowded but passport control and security check was surprisingly fast. Once airside, everything was crowded again with departing flights on all 6 gates on the first floor, plus one departure from the ground floor gate. Prime class business lounge was under reconstruction so there is a temporary improvised lounge set between security check fence and Burger King.
My flight was leaving from the awkward gate 203. In the past, this gate was like a separate room, but now it is open with a small waiting area near the boarding counters, than there are tables from the nearby coffee shop, as well as the passage to gates 201 and 202 and another waiting area. I don’t know if you can get the picture, but it looks really weird.
Our flight on the Airbus A320 was delayed by 30 minutes but with 3 hours transit time at Istanbul Airport I had nothing to worry about. The 16-year-old Airbus was fully booked in both classes. I must admit I didn’t like the interior of the aircraft because it looked very outdated and with some unappealing pink colored elements in the cabin. Cabin crew were rushing to serve the 3 course cold dinner trays to all passengers on this, 70-minute long flight. As I wrote in one previous trip report, I think the hot panini sandwich briefly served on TK flights to/from Skopje in 2018 is a much better option on these short flights.
In absence of Qatar Airways and Flydubai from the Macedonian market, I was not surprised at all that the majority of passengers on this flight were flying to Australia transiting through Istanbul and TK destinations in Southeast Asia. After a pleasant experience by preordering a special Hindu meal my previous TK flights, my wife opted for the Hindu meal again, so some of the meal photos will feature those meals.
Flight 2: Istanbul – Tokyo Haneda
After spending 2 hours in the central part of Istanbul Airport, the gate number for our next flight was announced and we headed to gate D16. Neighboring gates hosted TK departures to Manila and Hong Kong, so this part of the airport was very busy. TK has 2 flights per day to Tokyo. An afternoon departure from Istanbul to Narita and an early morning departure to Haneda. I chose Haneda because it is closer to the city and arriving tired in the evening in Tokyo and going to bed as soon as possible would help adjust to the new time zone.
This flight, TK198, is always operated with the biggest bird in TK’s fleet, the mighty Boeing 777-300ER. Boarding went very fast and soon we were in our seats 35 A, B, C and D. When it was announced that boarding was completed my wife moved from 35C to 35D and I was able to find free aisle seat 46D with empty middle seat. When the seatbelt sign was turned off, cabin crew started their service by distributing amenity kits and catering menus followed by dinner and coffee/tea service. Here I would like to say something about TK catering. Everything is fine regarding taste and size, but there are 2 things that I didn’t like. First one is timing of their meals in regard to local time. On this flight we were served dinner at 4:30 am departure airport time and then breakfast at 6:30 pm destination time. I think it should be breakfast then dinner but maybe there are some reasons that I might not be aware of. Second thing that I didn’t like is the ever-present mousse when the catering is prepared in Istanbul. Being the flag carrier of a country with national cuisine so rich with sweets and desserts and to serve some artificially flavored mousse is inexcusable.
This was my first long-haul flight with TK and I have only good words about the cabin crew. They were working hard to keep the cabin well served and I have never been on a flight where the lavatories were kept so clean and perfumed like on TK long-haul flights.
Small part of our route to Tokyo was over Kara-Bugaz lagoon, a highly saline part of the Caspian Sea. This reminded me of the book with the same name written by Konstantin Paustovsky. Long time ago I read this book about this unexplored and harsh part of Central Asia. So maybe after overflying it, it is time for me to step foot in this part of the world.
Another remarkable part of the route was avoiding the airspace over Beijing with some odd 90 degree turns. If someone knows what the reason for this is, I would really like to know.
My estimate about the occupancy in economy was 90%, and I was told upon disembarking the aircraft that there were 33 passengers in business class out of 49 seats.
At Tokyo Haneda Airport, it didn’t take too long to go through passport control and to collect our luggage, but we were queuing more than 15 minutes to take a taxi to our hotel in Ginza district of Tokyo.
Flight 3: Tokyo Haneda – Seoul Gimpo
For the hop across the Sea of Japan, just shy of 2 hours, I was due to fly on ANA All Nippon Airways, one of the 2 big Japanese airlines together with Japan Airlines. ANA is a Star Alliance member and partner airline with TK, so this was a natural combination of 2 carriers on the same ticket. International flights At Tokyo Haneda are operated from terminal 3. ANA check-in counters are the most modern and advanced I have ever seen. The airport is very well organized and gives you a nice feeling. What I didn’t like is the metal frame around the windows that prevents taking photos of the aircraft on the apron.
My flight, NH865, is operated by a mix of Boeing 787-8 or A320 NEO. I would prefer the Dreamliner but our flight was on the NEO. We were bussed to a remote stand where the aircraft was parked. The cabin looked very fresh and modern. Even for a flight this short, blankets and headphones were provided on every seat. Service onboard was outstanding and we were served full meal with single choice named hamburger steak that was actually a big meatball in tomato sauce. For my drink I got ANA’s signature Kabosu juice. Judging by how very few passengers took arrival cards for foreigners distributed by flight attendants, most of the passengers were Korean citizens. I wish this flight could have lasted longer but in less than 2 hours we landed at Seoul Gimpo Airport. This airport is mainly used for domestic flights with three fourths of the passengers flying to/from Jeju Island and limited regional international flights to China, Japan and Taiwan. This was my best short-haul flight ever and I can only imagine what their long-haul product looks like.
Flight 4: Seoul Incheon – Istanbul
75-minute taxi ride in the Seoul morning rush hour later and I was at terminal 1 of Seoul Incheon Airport, the main gateway to and from South Korea. Check-in took quite some time because the agent was still undergoing her training, but she eventually managed to find 4 seats in the same row 31. Seoul Incheon Airport is huge and with so many exclusive fashion stores, it resembles a high-end shopping mall. Boarding for our flight TK21 started with a 10-minute delay and we boarded through door L2 of the Boeing 777-300ER. I was surprised to see a second business class compartment completely empty. As I understood later, on this flight there were only 6 passengers in C and 227 in Y. When the boarding was completed, I moved to seat 11C in the first row of economy class. Suddenly, one guy took his belongings and went in the forward section of the aircraft. Soon on the intercom we were informed that he insisted to disembark and that this will cause a delay because, for security reasons, cabin crew will have to match every cabin bag with the passengers onboard. All this resulted in a 1 hour 10 minutes delay, so I was uncomfortable because my connection time in Istanbul was 1 hour and 50 minutes. Seat 11B remained empty and my neighbor in seat 11A was a Korean gentleman who was guiding a group of 70 Koreans on a Central European tour starting and finishing in Zagreb. He was even more worried about the delay because the flight to Zagreb was 30 minutes earlier than my flight to Skopje.
Once airborne and after some initial zigzagging over the Yellow Sea we took a western route along the Chinese-Mongolian border, overflying the land of Uyghurs and their capital Urumqi before entering Kazakh airspace. On top of the initial delay, all the way almost to abeam Aktau on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, strong headwind was present causing flight time to be 35 minutes longer than usual on this route. Again, cabin service was excellent and again we were served breakfast at dinner time.
We ended leaving the aircraft 30 minutes before our next flight and we managed to get to gate B6A when the last call for passengers to Skopje was announced.
Flight 5: Istanbul – Skopje
We were the last to board the Airbus A320 to Skopje. There were 4 passengers in the business class cabin and a full load in economy. What was a bit strange, the class divider was set between rows 8 and 9, leaving an almost empty forward section of the aircraft. Once more, the cabin crew were working crazy fast to serve dinner on an even shorter flight than the one to Istanbul from Skopje. 3 out of my 4 checked bags made the tight connection in IST, while the last one was delivered to me the next morning, marking the end of my journey.
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