North American travelers looking for bargain transatlantic fares will have lots more options this summer, as European-based low-fare lines expand their reach. Three lines have announced aggressive moves:
Norwegian will add flights to Boston from London/Gatwick, Copenhagen, and Oslo, along with flights to Ft. Lauderdale, Los Angeles, and New York/JFK from a new base at Paris/Orly. These flights will use Norwegian’s new 787s with conventional economy and better-than-average premium economy service. Sample round-trip fares for mid-August from Boston to London range from $726 for a nonrefundable economy ticket to $1,301 in premium economy. For comparison, British Airways posts $1,271 for Boston-London economy round-trips and $2,005 for premium economy at the same time. Although Norwegians’ base fare looks low, fees are high: $65 each way for one checked bag, $12 to $16 each way for advance seat assignment, $40 for meals, and comparably stiff prices for beverages would bring the total to somewhere near $1,000 for most travelers. Its premium economy deal, however, includes checked bags and meals and is therefore a considerably better deal than BA’s premium economy.
Norwegian’s other proposal is more of a puzzlement: Nonstops from Cork, Ireland, to Boston, using narrow-body 737s, pending U.S. government approval. Certainly, that’s technically feasible, but Cork seems an odd choice, at least for now: Currently, Norwegian does not fly to Cork at all, so no onward connections would be available. Meanwhile, Norwegian will continue its established services from various U.S. points to Scandinavia, including Bergen.
WOW Air, the new Icelandic low-fare line, will fly this summer from Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, Montreal, San Francisco, and Toronto to Reykjavik, where you can catch a connecting flight to any of 17 important European cities. Wow’s apparent plan, to make Reykjavik become something of the Atlantic equivalent of Dubai, seems feasible. Outside of the New York area, other big U.S. cities generally enjoy nonstop flights just to London, and maybe Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Paris. But if you want to fly from, say, Los Angeles to Berlin, you have to change to a connecting flight somewhere, and Reykjavik is probably a lot more user-friendly than JFK, Heathrow, Frankfurt, or De Gaulle.
Wow’s plan will probably work out well from its East Coast points. It flies A321s and can adjust capacity to demand quickly, but the West Coast is something of a gamble. Wow bought three 340-seat A330s for those trips, and filling up all those seats, even if only twice a week, may be tough.
Wow consistently draws a lot of press with its occasional $99 fare sales. Right now it’s featuring Boston-Reykjavik and Baltimore-Reykjavik flights at $99 one-way very early or very late in the summer. Those ultra-low fares are something of a come-on: Typically they apply only to one-way to Iceland; ongoing connecting and return fares are a lot higher. Currently, for example, Wow quotes $744 round-trip from Boston to London during the same mid-August period when Norwegian posts $726 for nonstops. And like Norwegian, Wow adds stiff fees on its lowest fares: $67 for a checked bag, for example. Seat selection ranges from $8 for an ordinary seat with 30-inch pitch, $19 for an ordinary seat with 32-inch pitch (most of the plane), up to $57 for an exit-row seat. And you have to pay separately for a seat each flight on a connection. Like its long-established rival Icelandair, Wow features free Iceland stopovers.
XL Airways France expands it U.S. footprint by adding nonstops from Los Angeles to Paris, in addition to last year’s trips from Miami, New York/JFK, and San Francisco. Round-trip fares from Los Angeles to Paris/De Gaulle for mid-August range from $1,099 for a nonrefundable economy seat, including a checked bag and a meal; to $2,482 for premium economy. For comparison, Air France posts $1,310 for a round trip in economy and $2,024 in premium economy at the same time.
Given that XL’s base economy fare covers a bag and meals, its fare looks good compared to Air France. But Beware: XL’s A330s have nine really, really narrow seats in each row rather than the standard eight.
WestJet flies its new 767s year-found from Calgary and Toronto to London/Gatwick, and adds seasonal nonstops from Edmonton, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. It also flies seasonally from St. John’s to Dublin—by far the shortest transatlantic flight—as its narrow-body 737s have ample range.
Air Canada’s in-house low-fare division, Rouge, will fly from Toronto to Athens, Barcelona, Budapest, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lisbon, London/Gatwick, Manchester, Prague, Venice, and Warsaw; from Montreal to some of those cities plus Casablanca and Nice; and from Vancouver to Dublin. Air Transat, too, will continue to offer a smorgasbord of seasonal nonstops from major Canadian cities to dozens of European cities.
U.S. Airlines No-Show
With all that competition from European and Canadian lines, you may be surprised that no U.S. low-fare line seems to have any interest in ultra-cheap transatlantic flights. Apparently, the big three legacy lines (American, Delta, United) have concluded that they can offer enough economy seats on their regular flights at prices low enough to compete, and neither quality niche-players Alaska and JetBlue nor ultra-low-cost Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit have any interest, at least so far. Maybe next year…
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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.