There are two airlines that run direct flights from London to the Azores (SATA Azores Airlines and Ryanair) and it just so happened that I got to experience both of them on my trip. If you are trying to choose how to fly to the Azores from London, read on for a comparison of the two.
You might also like: Travel Guide to Sao Miguel, Azores
SATA Azores Airlines (Air Açores), as the name implies, is an airline based in the Azores. I've got to admit that I hadn't heard about this airline before, but it serves a surprisingly large amount of routes, covering mainland Portugal, rest of Europe, US and Canada and, at the time of writing, has a fleet of 13 planes.
Unless you know nothing about flying, Ryanair doesn't need much of an introduction - a cheap and not so cheerful (apart from the CEO's famously controversial remarks) low-cost airline, charging you extra right, left and centre. A bit of an airline Marmite that one, you either love it or hate it...
My outbound flight from London to Sao Miguel was with SATA Azores Airlines and the flight back was with Ryanair. Below, I have pulled out the main comparison points to make it easier for you to pick your flight to the Azores.
Departure airport from London:
SATA Azores Airlines: London Gatwick
Ryanair: London Stansted
The departure airport is of course a matter of personal preference and convenience and as someone living in South London, I would go for Gatwick anytime!
Arrival airport in the Azores:
Both SATA Azores Airlines and Ryanair fly to Ponta Delgada airport on Sao Miguel island. If you want to visit a different island, unfortunately, you won't be able to fly direct and will have to either change at Lisbon or Ponta Delgada.
Flight frequency and time:
SATA Azores Airlines: once a week (Saturdays) May to September
Ryanair: once a week (Saturdays) throughout the year
Departure and arrival times vary through the year, so check when booking. When I travelled to Sao Miguel in August 2017, SATA Azores Airlines had a very late flight to Ponta Delgada (arriving after 11pm) but a decent timeslot for the return flight to London. Ryanair, had a really late arrival time into London, which gave us almost a whole extra day to enjoy Ponta Delgada, but meant that we didn't get home until around 3am.
This is where you probably expect me to tell you that Ryanair easily wins, but actually that wasn't the case for me. At the time when I was making my booking (which was relatively short-term and for peak season), both airlines were obscenely expensive and came close to £1000 return for an August flight. Checking prices at the moment (Jan 22nd 2018) on Skyscanner for 4th to 11th August 2018, I can see the following prices:
SATA Azores Airlines: £489 (23kg hold luggage, meal included)
Ryanair: £440 (no hold luggage, no meal)
Not £1000, but still expensive for a 4-hour flight and £440 is certainly not something I associate with a low-cost airline.
Of course prices vary between peak and off-peak season and how far in advance you make your booking. If you are looking to go outside of peak season, Ryanair suddenly becomes a lot more affordable, with return flights in the region of £150 without hold luggage. SATA Azores Airlines remain consistently expensive at above £400 whether you look in May, August or September.
With most mid-haul flights in the same 3-3 seat configuration the only way to measure comfort for me is the amount of legroom. I was very happy with the standard seats of the older SATA Azores Airlines plane (an Airbus A320, if that means anything to you), which was made before the times when they decided seats in planes deserved all the legroom of a backseat of a supermini car. This is the amount of legroom in a SATA Azores Airlines standard economy seat (for reference, I am 179cm / 5'11'' tall):
Ryanair is not known for legroom generosity, so we splurged for extra legroom emergency exit seats straight away which also gave us priority boarding. What can I say, living the high life! I do have to say that the emergency exit seats are lovely (look at all that legroom in the photo below!) apart from having to put all the bags into the overhead lockers for takeoff and landing. Since everyone and their mother try to save money and travel with hand luggage only, that priority boarding was certainly handy, saved us the trouble of trying to find space in the lockers crammed with people's two bags plus airport shopping.
As a sidenote, I have to say that I am one of the few people who welcomes Ryanair's reduction in the number of bags taken into the cabin - maybe, for a change there will actually be enough space for everyone and also no more guessing games of 'will my bag be put into the hold at the gate?' Maybe even fewer people will feel the need to get a spot in the boarding queue an hour before actual boarding?
SATA Azores Airlines: You get a hot meal and drinks, but I have to say what we got wasn't the most appealing meal, it certainly didn't do any justice to the amazing Azorean foods we tried on our holiday:
You might also like: What to eat in Portugal (Azores and Madeira)
Ryanair: It's Ryanair, what meal? You can of course buy food and drinks off the on-board menu or stock up on food at the airport.
Reliability and punctuality:
Let me start this by saying that the only reason we ended up on Ryanair on for the flight from the Azores to London is the looming strike of SATA Azores Airlines staff, which would mean a cancellation of our return flight - this I feel speaks tons about reliability. The strike eventually got called off at short notice, but by then, after a mild panic, we already had a booking on Ryanair, checked in, paid for extra legroom seats and also booked a taxi from Stansted airport to South London, so we chose not to change all the arrangements again.
The punctuality of SATA Azores Airlines is slated in many reviews on the Airline Quality website, so I was not surprised when the outbound flight was delayed by about an hour. But so was the return flight with Ryanair, which was much more of a headache due to its near-midnight arrival in Stansted and a taxi pickup waiting. I was worried the driver would just give up and leave and we would be stuck in Stansted in the middle of the night! On arrival, it took ages for the bags to come out as well... And then of course Ryanair is the airline of the infamous pilot holiday scheduling disaster of 2017 with numerous flight cancellations and people left in the lurch. Not a great reliability record for either airline unfortunately.
So what's the verdict, is there a clear winner between the two airlines? Surprisingly, not really! It all depends on when you want to fly (if it's something like March, it's not like you have a choice really, nothing but Ryanair flies direct...) and whether you find Gatwick or Stansted more convenient.
Whatever airline you choose for your flight, I hope your Azores holiday gives you many fantastic memories!