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State of Play: Cheap Flights from North America to Europe for a Price

In the wake of the global travel shutdown, new airlines huddled, pooled, and launched against the odds—and seem to thrive in the energy of post-pandemic travel exuberance

by Lark Gould

March 13, 2023

Photo: Courtesy of PLAY

The pandemic took its toll on airlines worldwide, and some, such as low-cost carriers Norwegian and Wow, did not fare well. But Play, an airline based in Reykjavik, Iceland, that has taken over where beleaguered Wow Air left off.

The new airline, recognized by its apple red livery and uniforms to match, may be the least expensive way to get from the U.S. to Iceland if you play the system right. But there is a catch: nearly every convenience, save the use of the onboard lavatories, will cost extra, and those amenities you have come to expect, such as Wi-Fi and in-seat power outlets, will be markedly absent.

The airline started its path to launch in 2019 as Wow Air made its final flights. Two years later, Play offered its first flights to Europe with a route to Stansted Airport in London. Soon after, the airline started flights from Boston Logan International Airport (BOS) and the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) to Reykjavik’s Keflavik International Airport (KEF), where passengers could catch onward flights to Europe or stick around to see the wondrous landscapes of Iceland.

Reykjavik Iceland / Photo: Boyloso/iStock/Getty Images

One-way fares as low as $105 have made weekend excursions to the land of Elves possible, carrying only a backpack to evade the check-in and carry-on baggage charges.

For those who may be old enough to remember the “hippie” shuttles of yore, which helped launch Icelandic Air into prominence in the 1960s with its low-cost flights to Iceland and Europe, Play is following a well-established approach that has worked for more than a half-century for various transatlantic airlines and now adds balance and competition to Iceland’s flag carrier. More recently, a similar system worked for Norwegian Air—an Oslo-based no-frills airline that ceased operations during the pandemic after seven years, including flights from Los Angeles, New York, and Ft. Lauderdale.

Currently, Norse Atlantic Airways, headquartered in Arendal, Norway, in 2021, and Bellevigny, France-based French Bee, which launched bargain flights from the U.S. to Paris in 2021, add to Play’s competition in the field of no-frills flights between the U.S. and Europe.

Pay for Play

Play Airlines is just the ticket for those willing to do away with the bare minimum comforts of flying and prefer to spend their savings at the destination. The airline flies not out of New York JFK, but rather New York Steward International Airport (SWF)—about an hour away by train from New York City. However, those living in the Washington D.C. metro area can fly out of Baltimore-Washington or, starting in late April, Dulles International Airport (IAD). Travelers can also catch a flight from Boston Logan and Toronto’s Toronto–Hamilton Airport (YHM), about an hour outside the city.

Accept for “personal items” all bags are charged for either checked or carry-on at rates reportedly running anywhere from $27 to $72, by some accounts (information is not forth-coming as the airline does not have a customer service phone number and the website was not working properly at the time of this article).

Photo: Courtesy of PLAY

Similarly, you will pay at least $19 to choose a seat and various charges for onboard snacks and libations, including water. All these considerations can add up so that a one-way base fare of $105 from Boston to Reykjavik could cost double that amount.

Further, Play operates airport desks starting three hours before flight time. If you have a problem with your ticket, you can hope to get it cheerfully handled at that time. Online check-in is 24 hours ahead of time but maybe “iffy,” and there are no kiosks to speed the process. The airline does not have a relationship with TSA, which means removing clothing items and liquids at the security checkpoint.

Photo: PLAY Airbus A321neo. Courtesy of PLAY.

Still, for all that trouble, the airline offers transparency in pricing, choice in services and amenities, and pays for only what one needs. And that may include extra legroom. While the airline has launched its one-class fleets in the U.S. using new Airbus A321s fitted with seats offering a generous 34-inch pitch, those inches may now be six inches less – 28 inches – and more comparable to what one would find on a domestic Spirit Airlines flight rather than an international flight. Should a 34-inch pitch seat be available, it will be reservable for a price.

Fares come in three sizes: Play basic, Play value, and Play flex which bundles in more privileges. Basic one-way fares between BWI and KEV in March ran from $184 to $869.

From the Icelandic capital, connecting flights can take you to popular European cities, including Paris, Berlin, Prague, Porto, Madrid, and Barcelona.