If you’re constantly looking for good deals to fly to Europe, chances are you’ve come across TAP Portugal, the state-owned airline of Portugal that frequently offers discounts for flights from the U.S. to European cities.
We fly to Europe every year but mostly on an American carrier or its European partner airline. Last month was the first time we flew on TAP. It was a four-day trip to Lisbon, a great city that also serves as TAP’s hub for connecting flights to Europe. We had a great time in Lisbon, which I wrote about in my previous blog post here, and wouldn’t hesitate to go back.
But Lisbon was not the destination we had in mind when we first bought our tickets. In 2021, TAP was having a sale on flights to several cities in Europe, and so we bought two tickets at $363 each to Geneva, Switzerland.
But due to the airline’s drastic schedule changes, we had to cancel the Geneva tickets and got a voucher for a future trip. This experience before, during, and after the flights gave us a good idea about the airline and whether we want to use it again for our future trips to Europe.
Here’s our experience flying with TAP for the first time:
It’s a good deal if you don’t have checked bags or require a seat assignment in advance
TAP is considered a “budget” airline, so that means the tickets are relatively cheaper compared with most American carriers. As I mentioned above, we paid only $363 for a ticket to Geneva during a sale, a great deal and certainly cheaper than flying to California from either Washington Dulles or Reagan National. Normal TAP tickets to Lisbon are about $100-$200 more.
For this ticket price, you can bring a carry-on and a personal item, but you can’t pick your seat in advance. You’ll get your seat assignment at check in, which you can do it 24 hours before your flight.
Things get expensive if you need to check a bag or want to reserve a seat so you don’t end up in a middle seat. My husband needed a window seat so he could sleep better, and I needed an aisle seat as I tended to use the bathroom a few times during a flight. We paid $45 each leg of the flight per person. So for each ticket, we paid $90 more.
My husband also checked a bag as he didn’t want to carry anything with him through the airport, and that cost him $80 each way – or $160 total. If our trip was longer than a few days, I would have to check a bag too.
And for our Lisbon tickets, we certainly paid more than our original tickets of $363 each. Now it was $508 a piece, which was in their normal price range. But because we reserved our seats in advance and needed to check a bag, it came down to $598 for me (just seat selection but without a checked bag) and $758 for him (with seat selection and a checked bag), not a great deal any more as other carriers like United charges a little bit over $600 with free seat selection and one checked bag each.
Bag size restrictions
I was worried when I bought the tickets and found out that the measurement of a carry-on bag was smaller than a normal size allowed on other airlines. The width of the bag allowed on TAP was only 8 inches when a normal carry-on bag allowed on most airlines measured about 9 or 10. I gathered all my carry-on bags – the ones with wheels – and all of them were bigger than 8.
So I had to go with a very small hand carry-on bag as both the website and some online reviews said they were pretty strict with bag measurements. This stressed me out a bit as I did not have that much space for my clothes, let alone space for any purchases if I wanted to buy something there. For this reason alone, I was really thinking I wouldn’t fly TAP again.
But when we got to the airport and boarded the plane at Dulles, to our surprise they didn’t check the size of anybody’s bag at all. Most people’s carry-ons were normal sizes that were certainly bigger than 8 inches, and they breezed through. But I was cautious – I wanted to see how they handled it at Lisbon airport, TAP’s headquarters.
On our return flight from Lisbon, they didn’t check the size or weigh the carry-on bags either. Everyone walked through with no problem.
Beware if you buy tickets far in advance
We originally bought our tickets for Geneva in July last year for our trip in November. But days later, we got an email from the airline saying they changed their flight schedules which affected our flights. From having to wait for a connecting flight in Lisbon for only a few hours, our wait time was now 18 hours. This would have changed our trip’s itinerary, and we didn’t want that. Usually, cancellation was not allowed for our kind of tickets, but because it was not our fault, they let us cancel our flights in exchange for credit that we could use for our future tickets.
Because of our busy schedules, we didn’t use the vouchers until a year later, right before the vouchers expired. I made a point not to make a reservation too far in advance to avoid changes in flight schedules.
Because of Covid, TAP had several flight cancellations and delays as they didn’t have enough staff after a massive layoff in 2020, just like many airlines. To avoid missing a connecting flight, we decided to change our destination to Lisbon as it was the only direct flight available.
In-flight experience was good
I didn’t have much expectation for a budget airline, but TAP’s inflight-service exceeded my expectation. Maybe because it wasn’t a full flight, nobody sat between us on our flight to Lisbon. The seat was comfy and not too small. There was a large selection of movies and shows. The food was surprisingly good. We had a good experience on-board. Six hours passed by fast. Even though our flight back to Dulles was a full flight, it was not bad either.
But Lisbon Airport’s check-in process was a bit chaotic
On our flight back, we checked in from our phone the night before and were supposed to drop our checked bag when we got to the airport. We got there more than 3 hours before our flight, and the lines were long because they automated everything and it took a bit for people to figure things out. In addition to the check-in machines, they also had machines for dropping off checked bags. You had to go through the process of weighing the bag and printing out a bag tag. Even though they had a few people walking around just in case you needed help, this could be confusing for people who had to do everything for the first time.
We were waiting in line and thought it would be a while when a staffer told us and a few others to go to the other side of the counter where there were more machines. Not only was there no line but an airline staffer was there to help us with the process of dropping off our checked bag.
Abrupt change of gate without notification
We thought we had everything under control after we had our boarding passes and checked our bag at Lisbon Airport. We went to our gate to make sure everything was okay. As we were there early, we walked around a bit checking out shops and grabbing a cup of coffee. When we went back to the gate again, something didn’t feel right – it was almost boarding time and nobody was there. We checked the departure board again and found out they had changed the gate! Indeed, we looked at our boarding passes and it was a different gate. We looked at our email and text messages and had not received any notification of the gate change.
To go to the new gate, we had to go through immigration. Good thing the line was not long otherwise we could have missed our flight as the new gate was so far away.
Chaotic boarding process in Lisbon
When we got to the international area where our flight was about to depart, there was a long line waiting to get to the boarding zone. This was where staff walked up to everyone and asked security questions like whether anyone had asked us to carry anything. Then they started “boarding” people in groups of priority.
But instead of walking right onto the plane, we went down an escalator to another waiting area to wait for a bus that would take us to the plane. It was a small waiting area and everybody was cramped in with more people coming down the escalator. It was crazy. People with priority boarding were not necessarily at the front as the line snaked across the room so many times until there was no line. We waited for the bus for about 10 minutes, and those standing near the doors got to get on the bus first. It was also an unusually long bus ride for boarding a plane.
Not user-friendly system and slow customer service
So we had to cancel our original tickets to Geneva and got vouchers for our future tickets. But when it was time for us to redeem our vouchers, I was totally confused.
I bought both tickets, so I logged in to my TAP account, expecting to see the credit amount there. When I didn’t see that, I tried to make a reservation thinking there would be a button where I could apply my credit, but it was not there either. Confused, I called the customer service number and was told the vouchers were NOT linked to my account. The staffer told me the vouchers were emailed to me when I cancelled my original tickets, and she was happy to email them to me again. I then had to fill in the voucher numbers when I made a reservation. So far so good.
But when I made the reservation, the voucher number I received worked for me but not my husband. After a few attempts, I realized my husband must have had his own voucher number, but I couldn’t find his voucher in my in-box anywhere. Turns out, it was sent to his email.
The fact that not everything regarding your ticket is linked is true for checked bags as well. Because my husband paid for his checked bag after I bought our tickets, he had to ask for a refund for the checked bag separately for our cancelled flight to Geneva. He called them but didn’t get through. He also emailed them and never heard back. Tired of trying to get a hold of someone, he gave up and never got a refund.
I lost a personal item during a flight from Dulles to Lisbon. I asked a TAP staffer at the Lisbon airport for help. She called a number but nobody answered, so she gave me a number and an email address to try when I got home. I called the number she gave me and no one answered. I called the customer service number on the website, someone answered and gave me a different number, and when I called, nobody answered. I emailed the address she gave me and the address listed on the website. I got a reply from the email the staffer gave me a few days later informing me that nobody returned my lost item, but I never heard back from the email listed on TAP’s website.
Will I fly TAP again?
I think TAP is a good airline if everything goes smoothly. But if you need help with something, pack your patience as there could be a long wait or you might not get the help you need at all. So adjust your expectations if you fly with them.
For me, I would use TAP again for flights to Portugal only. I like Lisbon, and TAP is the only airline that offers direct flights from my airport. When I fly, I prefer direct flights to avoid delays and missing connecting flights.
For other European destinations, I’d stick with other airlines as the price is comparable with all the things that I need, the process is less chaotic, and it’s easier to get assistance if I have problems.