Flying (Almost) Private (Almost) to Telluride and Back: A Review of Boutique Air
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While chatting with a local on the chairlift heading up Telluride's ski mountain, I mentioned I was flying out of Telluride's airport the next day.
The Telluride local's response? "Well, then you've made it. If you can fly directly into Telluride, Colorado, you've made it, end of story."
I don't know that I agree that I've "made it," but flying directly into Telluride Regional Airport (TEX), thanks to United Airlines' partnership with Boutique Air, is indeed special and still pretty unusual. That's not exactly what we ended up doing, thanks to last-minute rerouting that landed us not in Telluride but Montrose, Colorado (MTJ). (We flew the scheduled route on the return flight.)
In case you aren't familiar, Telluride, Colorado, is in a box canyon in southwest Colorado and isn't just a great ski town but a five-star destination in the warmer months, too.
There's hiking, film festivals, music festivals, fishing and views for days. Telluride's biggest drawback, though, is its location. The remoteness adds to the allure, but the six-hour drive from Denver International Airport (DEN) likely knocks Telluride off the consideration list for some, especially those with only a few days to work with. This is why when Boutique Air announced in 2018 that they would begin flying the Denver-to-Telluride route as a United Airlines partner, I was intrigued. Very intrigued.
Cutting a six-hour drive from Denver down to just a one-hour connection in the air is huge, especially if you could earn and use United miles along the way, as the original press release trumpeted. United Express already services Montrose Regional Airport, about a 90-minute drive from Telluride, but flying directly into the country's highest commercial airport (9,078 feet) and landing just minutes away from the slopes is next-level cool.
To sneak in one final day of skiing this season, we decided to test out Boutique Air's service from Denver to Telluride. We knew that service into Telluride Regional Airport would be very tenuous, thanks to fickle weather conditions, especially in the winter months (um, look at that runway), so we packed a good attitude and patience to go along with our ski gear -- all of which proved to be most necessary.
In theory you can use United miles to fly on Boutique Air when booked via United. And on some routes, that's true (Dodge City, Kansas, anyone?). However, despite an infinite number of online award searches and a phone call or two to United, I've yet to see award availability on this particular route to Telluride (though fingers crossed that changes).
So we spent some cold, hard cash. Round-trip prices from Denver to Telluride started at $385 when booked through United, which sometimes offers a cheaper price than when you book directly with Boutique. Since we were starting in Houston (IAH), we booked Houston to Denver to Telluride and back again all on one ticket directly with United.
The price came to $642 per person round-trip, and I earned 3 points per dollar by charging the flight to my Chase Sapphire Reserve. For the two tickets I needed, that came to 3,852 points, worth about $77 by TPG's valuations. If I had a Citi Prestige, I could have done even better and earned 5 points per dollar on the airfare.
I also earned a total of 6,848 redeemable miles on United as a Gold elite (worth $95), though note that the Boutique Air segments only awarded redeemable miles and not Elite Qualifying Miles or Elite Qualifying Segments. However, those flights did award Premier Qualifying Dollars. I'm also not 100% sure why I earned that many redeemable miles, as a United Gold elite should earn 8 miles per dollar spent, which would be a bit less than 6,848, but I'm not complaining.
Boutique Air's operations are, well, boutique. My husband and I landed after a mainline United flight from Houston to Denver at Denver's Terminal B and took the airport train to catch our Boutique flight out of Terminal A. More specifically, the bowels of Terminal A. We went all the way to the end of the terminal, down an escalator, through some somewhat unmarked doors and then down a long, empty hallway. There we found Boutique Air's gate, essentially a desk and a door out to the tarmac. There were no concessions all the way down there, but there was a large and almost always empty restroom, so no wait for bathroom breaks.
We had our pick of one of many rows of mostly empty chairs -- and some even had outlets! I assume this area gets slightly busier at times when Denver Air is also boarding a flight at the neighboring gate, but given the small planes from both airlines, I imagine this area is usually pretty calm.
The situation in Telluride's airport was similar but different. The airport itself in Telluride was very small, with just two regularly scheduled daily Boutique Air flights operating at the moment (in addition to private and chartered air service). However, construction was under way for Denver Air to also operate flights to Telluride beginning in May 2019. We arrived 90 minutes before departure, and that was about 70 minutes too early.
Unlike the staffed gate in Denver, no one from Boutique even arrived at Telluride Airport until 20 minutes before the scheduled departure. The first to arrive and try and check us in was actually the pilot, who had just flown the plane in from Denver. The sign said the check-in desk should have been manned starting at 11:30am for our 1pm departure, but on this particular day, that didn't happen.
Roughly 10 minutes before the scheduled departure, a woman who worked for Boutique Air arrived (without a uniform or name tag) to check us in. This was important, as we couldn't clear TSA security until that task, along with weighing of our bags, was complete.
Don't come to Telluride's airport too early or too hungry, as there weren't any concessions beyond a drink and snack machine, and once we cleared TSA, there wasn't even a bathroom. However, there was free bottled water.
Both in Denver and Telluride, the Boutique Air staff was nice and chatty, but also seemingly a bit disorganized. For example, schedule changes and even a change of final destination (we ended up flying to Montrose, Colorado, not Telluride, because of weather) weren't formally announced in Denver by Boutique's staff. We knew what was happening, as we literally stood next to the check-in desk to eavesdrop for over an hour, but if we hadn't done that, we might have been like the other passenger on our flight, who thought she was boarding a plane for Telluride but in fact had been diverted to Montrose. She thought we were joking when we told her once we were already on the plane.
Boutique Air didn't charge for bags, and would check your bags through onto your United flight if you wished. Carry-on bags were gate-checked and brought to you within minutes of the plane landing. However, there was a weird bag quirk on this Boutique Air flight to Telluride: No skis or snowboards were allowed. Yes, you read that correctly. This was a flight that went directly into a major ski town that couldn't hold skis or boards. (They simply don't fit.)
I did not notice this mentioned anywhere at booking on United's site, but did get a text from Boutique about 10 days before departure that informed me of this rule and provided a 10% discount code to send skis or other luggage via TripHero. Sending a bag of skis via this method from my house to Telluride would have cost $72 in each direction, with the discount code. If you normally travel with ski equipment, factor those added costs into your decision-making process, as that could be a big number if your whole family travels with ski equipment and is used to checking it all for free.
Cabin and Seat
The eight-seat Pilatus PC-12 operated by Boutique Air was a single-engine turboprop plane. It was small, but the cabin was pressurized.
Of course, since it looked like a small private plane, in a sense it felt pretty high-end. But, as is the case even in some small private planes, the seats themselves didn't actually provide much in the way of legroom, especially if you weren't in the first row.
On a brighter note, the seats were relatively well padded and could swivel.
On the outbound flight from Denver, there were just three of us on board, so Josh and I lucked into the first two forward-facing seats with no one in the adjacent rear-facing seats. Legroom was not an issue for us on that flight.
However, things were a bit tighter on our return flight to Denver, when we were in the second row of forward-facing seats on an almost full flight of seven passengers. On that leg of the journey, a family of four occupied the four seats that faced each other, and that seating arrangement worked out well for that group. Seating was first come, first served on our Boutique Air flights, so try and be at the front of the pack when boarding if you have a seating preference.
Not only was the cabin on the smaller side on Boutique Air's flights, but the lavatory was on the extreme small end of things. In fact, as we were told by the first officer on one of our flights, you didn't want to use the lav as it was just a bucket. He went on to say, "Whatever you are dealing with in there, we will all be going through it with you."
Speaking of bucket, we felt bumps in the air much more than on a larger aircraft. We had relatively smooth flights, but I still felt queasy at times. The captain was sure to point out the location of the air-sickness bags on both flights before takeoff.
The overall condition of the two cabins we flew in wasn't terrible or offensive, but neither was great. Our aircraft were from 2006-2007, so had been flying for over a decade, and there were a fair number of scuffs and stains throughout both cabins.
Amenities and IFE
You aren't going to find Wi-Fi, seatback entertainment or amenity kits on a one-hour Boutique Air flight from Denver to Telluride. I'd argue that the view of the mountains from the window is all the entertainment you need, but the peek into the open cockpit served as the extra cherry on top for us.
This was especially true as you could watch the landing from the cockpit window if you tried hard enough. If you want more to occupy your time, though, you'd better pack your own entertainment and keep it on you, as no additional inflight entertainment or power was available.
Food and Beverage
There was a small stash of soft drinks, water and peanuts available at no additional charge in the drawers just behind the lavatory.
This was a self-service situation. (Just don't drink so much that you need to use the bucket.)
While the ground service at Boutique Air was a bit chaotic on both segments, the pilots came across as organized and efficient. There were two pilots on each flight, and they served as not only captain and first officer but cabin crew (and occasionally check-in agent).
Because of snow and low visibility in Telluride, our outbound flight from Denver to Telluride was diverted before it even got off the ground. As is somewhat common when there's weather or low visibility at Telluride, Montrose became the alternate destination. Our flight wasn't technically canceled, it just got a new landing spot, followed by an included van service the rest of the way to Telluride.
What was especially interesting about this was that we didn't utilize the commercial portion of the Montrose Airport but instead landed at the private air terminal (which meant free snacks and drinks). A few minutes later, a large passenger van showed up, and away we went to Telluride via 90 more minutes of driving. We really never had any clue what was going on, but since all of this seemed normal, we just acted normally and followed instructions.
After spending a few hours with Boutique Air this week, I felt like I was (temporary) friends with all the staff we encountered, but there was a relatively constant feeling that no one knew exactly what was going to happen next a large portion of the time. I don't put the blame on the staff, but it was an interesting way to fly.
On our way home, when we actually were able to fly out of Telluride, we went from having our feet on the ground in Telluride to having our feet on the ground in Houston in less than five hours, and that's with a connection in Denver. Short of chartering our own plane (I wish!), that efficiency can't be beat. However, it doesn't always work that way on this route.
The Telluride Airport is simply very unreliable due to weather, especially in the winter. Taking a nonstop flight to Montrose, if one is available to you, may be a better call if you aren't willing to roll the dice on the delays and diversions that are common with Telluride's unique location. Flying to Montrose on a larger aircraft would also enable you to bring your ski equipment along for the ride. (Montrose is serviced by United, American, Allegiant and American.)
As for Boutique Air specifically, it was a fun way to fly. With the small cabin, open cockpit and casual ground experience, it feels nothing like routine commercial aviation. You may or may not get where you hope to be when you hope to be there, but when it works, it's not a bad ride at all.
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