The rise of the transatlantic budget airline – WOW, Norwegian & Level compared

The rise of the transatlantic budget airline – WOW, Norwegian & Level compared

The cost of travelling from Europe to the United States and Canada (or vice-versa) is going down. The suggestion that budget airlines could start operating transatlantic flights has been around for a while but it’s only in the past year or so that we’ve seen a real breakthrough. Crucially there are now several low-cost airlines operating similar routes which is helping drive prices down, even on the more established airlines and for budget-minded travellers at least, there has never been a better time to take a little trip across the Atlantic.

What are the flights like?

There are differences between the airlines featured below, which are explained in the article but essentially the on-board service they offer is quite similar. If you opt for cheapest ticket option, in terms of legroom, you’re likely to get a little more than you might on a typical budget flight in Europe but it can still feel a bit cramped given the length of the journey. Seats with extra-legroom, like almost everything else can be purchased for a fee and that essentially is where they differ from the more traditional long-haul airlines. Everything from food and drinks to wifi and checked luggage comes at a cost and often a great one!

Budget flights from Europe to the Americas – WOW, Norwegian & Level compared


Norwegian


Who are they?

The rapid recent growth of Norwegian is one of the best things to happen to the aviation industry this century. They’ve established themselves in Europe with low-cost fares and a large network whilst offering a much better all-round experience and more pleasant customer service than a certain Irish budget airline. In the past few years they’ve started adding more destinations further-afield and they are the market leader in terms of low-cost travel from Europe to the United States.

Where do they fly?

Norwegian currently flies from Europe to 12 different airports in the US. If you’re heading the other way, there are many direct options while Norwegian’s extensive European network allows for easy connections for just about anywhere you need to go and it shouldn’t add much to the base cost of your ticket.

The US airports currently served are Los Angeles, Oakland and Seattle out West, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando in Florida plus New York (JFK & Newark, Newburgh), Boston, Providence and Windsor Locks in the Northeast. The list is growing though with Las Vegas, Chicago and Austin soon to be added while they are also set to start operating direct flights from London to Buenos Aires in 2018.

Costs

At the time of research the cheapest one-way flights booked 1-2 months in advance from London Gatwick to Boston were £135, Fort Lauderdale £140 while somewhat curiously there were cheaper flights to Oakland (30 mins out of San Francisco) at £140 than New York £150.

Flights from Oslo to New York started at €133 while Copenhagen to JFK was €155. These are all just example fares and it’s not that hard to find this kind of value from any of the main Western or Northern European nations.

Fares the other way looked roughly similar with some cracking last-minute deals available such as New York to Belfast for £83, flying the following week. Overall though it’s still advisable to book at least a few weeks in advance.

Baggage & Additional charges

One piece of hand baggage and one personal item (combined weight 10kg) can be carried on-board for free. No checked baggage is included with their ‘LowFares’ and one piece of hold luggage costs £40 for direct flights and a hefty £80 if you are taking an international connecting flight (e.g. Hamburg-Oslo-Los Angeles).

Pre-ordered meals can be added for £25 per person one-way or you can just purchase snacks and meals onboard. Alcoholic drinks are available for £6-13. Even blankets and headsets come at a cost.

Full details of baggage fees and extra charges on Norwegian.

Pros & Cons

One major advantage on the other two is that they don’t just operate out of one base. Norway is their home and they have direct flights to both coasts of the US from Oslo while the East Coast can be reached from Bergen. However they actually have more direct transatlantic flights out of London (Gatwick) while you can also fly direct to the US from Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin, Cork, Shannon, Barcelona, Paris (CDG), Copenhagen and Stockholm. That helps cut down the connections and the amount of time spent travelling.

The additional fees are hefty though particularly the baggage which can add up-to £160 return for just one piece of checked luggage if you’re flying return and taking a connecting flight. Unless you’re literally going for months, try your utmost to squeeze everything into one backpack and take it on board with you for free.

Norwegian Air reviewed

Norwegian plane via Karendesuyo, CC BY 2.0


WOW air


Who are they?

WOW air are an Icelandic low-cost carrier founded in 2011 and they started flying to the United States in 2015. They now operate many budget flights to North America and Europe from their Reykjavík base. Iceland is just about the only place that is conveniently located as a transit stop between the two continents and they’ve taken advantage of that by offering a free stopover in Iceland, which is a fantastic place to visit in its own right. (Note you have to book a return trip from Europe to North America to be eligible for this, for one-way tickets you can only transfer in the airport).

Where do they fly?

WOW are very different from Norwegian in that all their flights are either to/from Reykjavík’s Keflavík International Airport so it’s impossible to fly direct from mainland Europe or the UK to North America with them. They do though have a more extensive choice of North American destinations. Unlike Norwegian, they fly to Canada, serving Montreal and Toronto. Their US destinations at the time of writing (October 2017) were Boston, New York, Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, Chicago, Dallas, St Louis, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Their European network isn’t quite as extensive though with flights to Reykjavik from 19 cities including Bristol, London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Berlin, Frankfurt, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Brussels, Barcelona, Paris, Milan and Warsaw. They also have a service from Iceland to Tel Aviv in Israel.

Costs

WOW it seems are more geared towards targeting Americans wanting to visit Europe than the other way around and they do have some great deals. At the time of research, you could fly the following month from Chicago to Amsterdam and even Tel Aviv for just $149.99 one-way with the WOW Basic fare (ticket + one personal item of hand luggage) although most flights were roughly $50 more. Similar fares were available at relatively short notice for many routes such as New York-Paris and LA-London while flights from Dallas to London, Paris, Amsterdam or Berlin started at $199.99. Some of the cheapest fares seemed to be from Miami (Dublin from $119 for example).

It is worth noting with WOW and other airlines for that matter, that while you can often bag one great deal such as that, finding a convenient return flight for the same price can be more challenging. With WOW, it should be doable for around $350-400 return from North America to Europe or vice-versa for many of their routes if you’re flexible on time but you may need to search around a bit.

Baggage & Additional charges

You can take one personal item on board for free (upto 10kg). This essentially matches what Norwegian offer although the terminology is different and it has to be in one bag. An additional bag can be taken on board at a cost.

Their additional costs vary depending on the route – Check yours here. As a rough guide checking in one 20kg bag costs $59.99 for London Gatwick to Toronto (do it at the time of booking to avoid an even steeper fee). Their food isn’t cheap either – scrambled eggs with tomato salad for $13 anyone? However given the stopover limits the length of each flight, you can probably just hold out and get something nicer and more filling at Keflavík Airport.

Pros & Cons

If it’s the very cheapest fares for flying from USA to Europe or vice-versa than WOW is tough to beat and if you’re not checking in baggage, you can find some incredible deals. The ability to stopover in Iceland is another major draw if time is no barrier to you. It would be pretty easy to spend several days or more there and then continue your journey, effectively getting two trips for the price of one. If you’re considering this, check out our article on the cost of travel in Iceland!

However if that doesn’t appeal or you’re travelling for a specific purpose, the lack of direct flights offered by WOW is a drawback. Timewise it shouldn’t add a great deal of time on as many airlines fly in that direction anyway when they cross the Atlantic but having to transfer is a bit of a hassle.

Using two shorter flights instead of one long one to cross the Atlantic also allows WOW to act more like a short-haul budget airline and thus cut-down on the leg-room and offer no in-flight entertainment (bring your own entertainment if you want to avoid hours of boredom – they do at least have a universal plug socket under each seat). In terms of the in-flight experience and comfort they are the worst of the three airlines featured in this article.

WOW, Norwegian & Level compared

Beautiful Iceland via Giuseppe Milo, CC BY 2.0


Level


Who are they?

Level are the new kids on the block with their first flights taking off only in June 2017. Right now they are very small-time compared to the other two and they only have two airplanes! However given they are owned by IAG, who own both British Airways and Iberia, there is big potential for expansion. The fact they have taken the trouble to start a low-cost transatlantic carrier suggests that this new age of cheap travel across the Atlantic is here to stay.

Where do they fly?

Right now they only fly four routes, all from Barcelona to Los Angeles, Oakland, Punta Cana (Dominican Republic) and most interestingly Buenos Aires.

Costs

Level made a splash by promising flights from Europe to the United States for under €100 when they first launched and now they are saying you can fly to LA & Oakland (for San Francisco) from €149, Buenos Aires from €269 and Punta Cana from €369.

At the time of research (mid-October 2017) it was pretty easy to find flights to Oakland in the region of €150-200 one-way for the following month but flying back there seemed to be considerably fewer cheap options. The LA flights appeared to be ceasing for the winter.

There was nothing under €500 to Buenos Aires though so the initial excitement about the possibility of finally getting cheap flights from Europe to South America looks a little short-lived although prices should fall when the competition increases and Norwegian starts flying direct to the Argentine capital on Valentine’s Day 2018.

Baggage & Additional charges

Like the other airlines, there are additional charges for just about everything, although the in-flight entertainment on the screen in front of you is free (as is the case with Norwegian). A checked bag when booked online is €40/$44, which although still a bit of a rip-off, compares favourably to the other two airlines. With their cheapest fare option, a hot meal costs a ridiculous €35 but snacks and sandwiches can be purchased on-board by pressing some buttons on your screen at any time for much less. WIFI is available for a fee but again doesn’t come cheap with both hourly and data limits.

Full list of Level Additional Charges

Pros & Cons

The free in-flight entertainment and general comfort level is certainly better than you get on WOW and rivals that of Norwegian. The airline has basically been set up to rival Norwegian who were taking customers of BA and Iberia so it offers a similar service.

However the lack of routes is a major drawback as is the fact you have to get to Barcelona first if you are heading Stateside. It would though be easy to use that as an excuse to have a short break in Barcelona (there are worse places to be stuck for a few days!).

For now at least, the flights to Buenos Aires and Punta Cana don’t really offer any great savings on other airlines so the LA and Oakland routes are the only ones that could seriously be considered budget and given the distance involved, the fares are very reasonable indeed.

cheap flights to San Francisco

San Francisco – A short train ride from Oakland Airport, served by Level.

Have you flown with any of these airlines? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below! 


This article was published in October 2017.


 

USA Backpacking Budget

USA backpacking budget

(Map of USA from wikitravel, can be re-used under CC BY-SA 3.0)


Daily Travel Costs in the USA on a Shoestring Budget

US$65

Much of the advice we gave in our Canada budget applies here too. Like Canada it is a very large country but with considerably more places of interest so your expenses really depend on how ambitious you want to be. Focusing on just one area of the country for example California or the North-East then our USA backpacking budget of $65/day is realistic enough. However if you want to visit several different parts of the country in say a month or less then you might want to check out the budget below and perhaps still add a bit more.

On an every day level, USA is perhaps slightly cheaper than most of Western Europe or countries like Japan and Australia. Food is pretty good value when you consider the enormous portions and one meal can leave you pretty full for the day while alcohol is also quite cheap compared to most of Europe.

However aside from the cost of covering large distances, which isn’t that great by bus, what makes USA a bit more expensive for the shoestring traveller is the relative lack of real budget accommodation. Whereas in other parts of the world you will find plenty of hostels with dorms in even the smallest towns, that isn’t really the case in the US. The biggest cities do of course have them but not that many and given the lack of competition they are not that cheap and therefore accommodation costs tend to take up quite a big chunk of your budget.

See where USA ranks on our World Budget Travel Table.


More Comfortable USA Backpacker Budget

US$85

You can easily end up spending $30 or more a night on accommodation in the United States, perhaps more than half our previous budget so it doesn’t leave you a lot left over for anything else. Therefore adding another $20 on is probably a good idea if your trip is a short one of say a few weeks and you want to see as much as you can. This will give you a bit of room to take a few domestic flights that will allow you to see more of the country.

It is also worth noting that travelling with a few friends will generally cut your costs somewhat. If you are a group of 4 or 5 then renting a car might prove more cost effective and will certainly give you more flexibility and that should be easy to fit into this budget, especially if you spend a few nights on the road and manage to save on accommodation that way.


Sample Prices in USA

Flight from New York to Miami (3 hours) – $80 (when booked in advance) + baggage

Bus from San Francisco to LA (8 hours) – around $35

Meal in an inexpensive restaurant – $12-15

Large local beer in a bar or restaurant – $4

Dorm Bed in Chicago – from $22/night

Dorm Bed in New York – from $35/night

Private Double or Twin room in New York – from $70/night

Private Double or Twin room in New Orleans – from $45/night


Money

Currency – US Dollars

£1 = $1.44

€1 = $1.14

(All exchange rates are correct as of June 2016)


MFT Recommends

Accommodation is the big budget killer in the United States so couchsurfing really is a very good option here and even if you’ve never done it before, there’s not a better place to try it for the first time.


street art in New York City

street art in New York, USA (via Rodrigo BernalCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Share your Travel Costs!

If you’ve travelled in the USA recently, please let everyone know your typical daily costs by commenting below 😉


This article was published in June 2016.