Editor’s Note: This June 2018 trip report was first published in the August 2018 issue of Airways Magazine. With WOW’s future unclear even with the just reported investment by LCC private equity firm Indigo Partners, we look back at a cheap and cheerful flight.
For an island first settled 1,200 years ago, Iceland is certainly having its moment as a tourist destination.
This one strange rock is populated by only a shade more than 300,000 people, but its tourism sector is exploding—increasing 20% each year since 2010. In 2017, the number of visitors surpassed 2 million for the first time.
Iceland’s dramatic landscape of glaciers, icebergs, volcanoes, and geothermal steam belching from the earth’s crust appears otherworldly—like another planet that has been colonized by humans.
My wife and I decided to colonize Iceland for ourselves this summer—at least for a few days’ holidays.
Iceland’s 50°F (10°C) and drizzly weather would provide a refreshing contrast from our home’s humid inferno June temperatures.
If there is one complaint about Iceland, it is the cost of living. A single beer can easily set you back US$10, and a few days of a car rental can equal a month’s car down payment. With prices this daunting, we needed to find an economical way to travel that would not cost us the moon, without sacrificing too much of our comfort.
We were on a mission to save every dollar because we would need every krónato spend on the rock. As we went fare shopping, the chances of achieving a balance of comfort and cost seemed as remote as the island itself—this was high summer season, after all.
The best round-trip Premium cabin fares we could find from New York (JFK) to Reykjavík (RKV) were US$3,500 on Icelandair’s Saga Classand US$2,000 on Delta Premium Select, before taxes and fees.
These weren’t too exorbitant but, as South Florida no longer operates nonstop flights to Iceland, we would have to connect somewhere and incur the additional cost of those flights.
ENTER THE WOW FACTOR
WOW (WW) is a disruptive, young Icelandic LCC. Launched in 2012 after acquiring Iceland Express (HC), WOW inaugurated its first routes to North America in 2015 and now flies to 15 destinations in the USA and Canada.
Keflavik Airport’s (KEF) is strategically located midway between North America and Europe in the North Atlantic. The hub is a convenient and efficient connecting point for flights from and to Europe and far destinations like Israel, Tenerife, and—soon—India.
WOW’s proposition is popular with passengers. According to an airline spokesperson, “WOW Air’s overall load factor was 88% in 2017. We transported 2.8 million passengers in 2017, an increase of 69% on the previous year.”
WOW’s concept is not new. It is a no-frills LCC along the lines of Spirit, Frontier, Ryanair, Wizz, or easyJet. WOW is most like Norwegian in offering a short and medium to long-haul low-cost product.
Like most of those LCCs, WOW offers a basic ‘bare bones’ fare that includes a tightly pitched, unassigned seat and one personal item that fits under it. Every ‘frill’ on top of that—food, carry-on or checked luggage, seat assignments, etc.—comes at an extra charge. The lavatories, whatever the pundits may snicker, are free.
Like those successful LCCs, WOW operates newer, fuel-efficient aircraft. The airline has a modest all-Airbus fleet of 20: a mix of A320s, A320neos, A321s, and A321neos, plus three A330-300s used on the distant West Coast US destinations. WOW has five A330-900s on order, a sign of even more global ambitions.
What truly differentiates WOW are its low fares between North America and Europe via Iceland. Local full-service competitor Icelandair is known for high-quality service and lower prices than many other competitors, but WOW’s prices are much lower still.
The carrier’s rigorous cost controls are key to its business model; a crucial factor, considering the high costs of doing business in Iceland.
WOW is built for price-sensitive, leisure customers. The airline’s basic one-way fares between North America and Iceland are astonishingly cheap. As an example, I looked up JFK to KEF on July 16. WOW Basic was $129. The same flight connecting on to London-Gatwick (LGW) is only $70 more: $199.
BUT IT ALL ADDS UP
The airline offers an array of bundled packages: WOW Basic, WOW Plus, WOW Comfy, and WOW Premium.
Seats, bags, fast-track security, catering, and cancellation protection are the main differences between packages. As you can see in a sample booking between JFK and KEF, the price can quickly double from WOW Basic to WOW Premium, and keep rising—but it’s all still tremendous value. Travelers also have the option to purchase individual items à la carte.
For a single-class airline, WOW offers a dizzying selection of seating options, though availability does vary from aircraft to aircraft. All seats are 3-3 narrow-body configuration slim-line, with limited to no recline and small trays.
The Standard seats are in the back or in the middle rows. They feature a tight 29” to 30” pitch and 18” width.
Available at extra cost, Standard+ offers window, aisle, or front seats. XL seats add additional legroom at 32” to 33”, while the XXL seats tend to be on the emergency exits with a 35” pitch.
These limited-padded seats are designed more for cost control than for the comfort of passengers, but even full-service airlines are now using them.
No streaming or embedded inflight entertainment or Wi-Fi are available, but there is AC/USB power at every row, and each seat has a personal device holder. WOW does offer small iPads preloaded with movies, but the screens are small and the content quite limited. At US$25, it is not good value.
At the top tier are WOW’s BigSeats, in a 2-2 narrow-body configuration with 37” pitch and 20” width. These are similar to North American domestic narrow-body First Class lounge seats.
The BigSeats are included in the WOW Premium package, but are also available for purchase à la carte. At as little as US$125 per segment, these are a bargain, especially for sleeping on an overnight flight.
There is no loyalty program on WOW and, hence, no free upgrades cabin-wide. Unlike Norwegian, the BigSeats are not considered a separate cabin class, they are just bigger seats and, like their Coach counterparts, they are not plush; but, if you are trying to stretch out or catch a nap, they do the trick.
WOW’s entire cabin is appointed in a cheerful but stylish millennial sort of way. Unlike most LCCs, WOW’s aircraft feature LED mood cabin lighting. These are in on-brand purple tones and soothing greens reminiscent of Iceland’s commonly seen Aurora borealis.
The seats are leather-upholstered in the same purple hue as the aircraft exterior. The galley areas and lavatory floors have a clean wood finish, which belies any sort of budget approach. Just in case you forget which airline you are flying, the purple carpets are checker-boarded with the WOW logo.
Low-cost carriers have derisively been called ‘Flying Hostels’. Sure, they attract an often-young, price-sensitive, leisure-based crowd, but LCCs really bring flying into reach for everyone. Increasingly, brand matters. And WOW is no exception.
WOW’s planes are distinctively painted in a simple purple ‘billboard’ livery, much like Spirit’s yellow planes. Perhaps not coincidentally, Ben Baldanza, who is on WOW’s airline’s board, was formerly Spirit’s CEO.
The attractive, young native Icelandic cabin crews are smartly attired in purple uniforms that cut quite an image at the airport.
It is WOW’s cheeky brand of humor that really gives the airline its personality. The catering trolleys, bulkheads, ground equipment, and even the airsickness bags are festooned with funny phrases. What other airline’s rear cabin bulkhead proclaims, “Only the cool kids sit in back”?
Up at the pointy end of the plane, the bulkhead congratulates its lucky passengers: “The front row… sweet!” An onboard catering trolley boasts, “They love it when I roll.” The overhead passenger service units ask you to “Ring my bell” or “Honk if you’re hungry.”
Cheeky stuff, to be sure.
WOW, WHOOPS, OR #WTF?
Though we fly very frequently, when it comes to our own leisure flying on any flight over five hours, it is really all about the seat. WOW Premium enabled us to stretch out without having to cash out.
The top-of-the-range offering included the BigSeat, unlimited beverages, a pre-ordered meal and unlimited food, reserved overhead bags, two checked-bags, trip cancellation protection, and fast-track security at KEF.
Our round-trip fare was a basement-priced $1,180 per ticket, including taxes and airport fees. This was less than half the nearest competing premium seat.
The website was very user-friendly, intuitive, and actually fun for booking, but it became absolutely infuriating when it was time to check-in.
A few days before departure, I decided to double-check our reservation, I noticed that our seat assignments had disappeared. When I tried to re-assign our BigSeats, the system tried to sell us the BigSeat option, which was already included with our WOW Premium fare. This IT snafu was cleared up by contacting the airline, but it was really disconcerting.
We arrived at KEF 90 minutes before our scheduled 21:10 local-time departure. We had checked in effortlessly online using the WOW mobile site for the return flight. Though we were running behind, KEF offers self-tagging bags and fast-track security screening. So we weren’t feeling overly concerned. That’s when things went from WOW to WHOOPS!
The self-bag-tagging kiosk refused to accept our passports and directed us to the counter. When we asked for assistance from a WOW emblazoned agent, he brusquely told us, “Get in the line and ask the counter agents.” He was the first unpleasant person we met in this wonderful country.
The desk was mobbed with passengers checking in for six flights; with only three overwhelmed customer service agents working for them, we queued for an hour.
Even though we were now racing the clock to make our flight, the friendly agent assured us that we would be fine by using fast-track security.
I asked whether I would need a special placard as I didn’t see it indicated on my boarding pass. She responded that the security personnel would see the WOW Premium codes on our boarding passes and would wave us right through. I was skeptical, and for good reason.
Once we had made it to passport control, we were denied entry to fast track. The KEF personnel told us that we needed a WOW Premium purple card, regardless of what our boarding pass said. We didn’t have time to backtrack, so we went through the standard channels as the clock ticked down to departure. And then my wife was pulled aside for a random immigration check for another 15 minutes.
We were in jeopardy of missing our flight. Thankfully, it was delayed due to a late incoming arrival.
Although Keflavik is a compact hub, our D21 gate was one of the most distant, and it felt an eternity away as we darted for it. Once at the gate, the D concourse was a swarming sea of traveling humanity.
It’s good to know that Keflavik is about to undergo a significant expansion, as the airport is well over capacity.
Things began to turn around for the better as our WOW Premium priority boarding graduated us to the front of the line. A friendly WOW agent escorted us to a special seating area in the gate. She was sympathetic to our story, saying, “Sometimes things aren’t quite so perfect on the ground (at Keflavik).”
When we had arrived at KEF a few days before, we had disembarked on a hardstand. While this is an AvGeek treat, the rain, wind, and cold can make this less than enjoyable for the typical passenger.
Our departure was pretty atypical as well. KEF’s D concourse is located at ground level, so each gate has a dedicated escalator to take passengers up to the jet bridge. I have experienced this on A380s before, but never on a narrow-body.
Once we had taken our seats in 2D and 2F, a Flight Attendant handed each of us a pre-departure bottle of water. That was a nice surprise before the stampede of boarding began.
Multiple times during boarding, we heard a rather unusual boarding announcement: “Dear Guests (WOW’s passengers are alwaysreferred to as guests), please quickly take your seat, but as we are fueling the aircraft, please don’t fasten your seatbelt yet!”
The cabin was very chilly, even though we were still at the jet bridge, but this would soon be remedied—which was fortunate, because blankets and pillows are not part of the LCC amenity equation.
We pushed back about 20 minutes behind the scheduled departure time, but our Captain assured us we would make it up in the air.
Soon enough, we were battling the infamous winds of Iceland with a choppy takeoff roll as the low clouds swallowed our A321. With the drama behind us, we settled in for the five-hour, 55-minute flight that would take us over the North Atlantic, Southern Greenland, New Brunswick in Canada, and New England before landing in New York.
Within a half-hour, the ‘Trolly-Loo’ and the polite crew began to roll with the dinner service. We were each presented with our pre-ordered hot meals: spicy chicken with noodles and chili pepper chicken.
The cheeky packaging on the cardboard box urged us to “MMMMM… Dig In!” and, although the meals did not look appetizing, in fact, they were quite delicious, albeit small portioned.
WOW offers pre-selected hot meals only out of KEF. The choices include pizza Margherita, club sandwich, mustard chicken, California avocado and chicken sandwich, and even ‘super scrambled’ eggs and vegan falafel on some flights.
We were happy to take WOW up on the unlimited drink and catering offer with two mini-bottles of red wine and a ham and cheese baguette. The description of the baguette said, amusingly, “It might not take you places, but it will make you feel less hungry while going places.” This is the most popular item on the menu, and deservedly so. It was quite tasty.
On our overnight flight coming over, a small piece of chocolate had thoughtfully been left at our seat. It’s the details that matter.
The inflight service continued with the duty-free trolley, which had Icelandic souvenirs on display. In many cases, WOW’s duty-free prices were lower than those we had observed on terra firma at the airport.
The cabin crew receives a commission on all duty-free and catering items they sell inflight, so they could have been forgiven if they had hawked them throughout the flight. But they did the opposite. There was just a single trolley service for the entire flight.
Everything following that could be requested by ‘ringing my bell’. On a single-aisle aircraft where people are trying to sleep or access the lavatory, this is a smart approach.
The airline is hyper-focused on costs, and ancillary revenue-generating items must earn their keep! The crew told me that longer-haul flights such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Tenerife are more heavily provisioned, as they attract more sales. On our flight, many people opted to bring their own catering.
I can’t speak highly enough of the flight crew, who responded promptly and cheerfully to every request passengers made. They were truly delightful and proud of their coveted jobs. One of our four Flight Attendants told me, “Our airline is like a fun little family, and being able to escape our cold weather doesn’t hurt.”
During the summer at these high latitudes, flights are mostly operated at dusk and in daylight. The skies only became dark as we approached Halifax. The LED lighting bathed the cabin in soothing dark blue, magenta, and green nocturnal shades, if only for a short time. About half the passengers slept anyway.
One hour before landing, the crew handed out the customs forms. People were encouraged to “Gimme a ring” for any final service and to stretch their legs. At precisely 23:00 local time, we gently touched down at JFK, 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
WERE WE WOWed?
So, will we WOW again? When we return to Iceland (and we will, to see the Aurora borealis)—absolutely!
Considering the excellent value, coupled with the reliable and warm service, we were WOWed and would recommend it to the right kind of traveler.
Even if you are an LCC hater, you will find it hard to dislike this plucky and innovative airline.
Still, at the end of the day, it’s all about managing your expectations. This is a different product than those offered by full-service airlines, but is not as bare bones as you might have experienced on other low-cost carriers.
On WOW, you are definitely not flying First Class, but the airline does not make you feel like a second-class traveler.