Ever since Icelandair first burst on the scene with cheap transatlantic flights in the 1960s—earning it the nickname of “hippie express”—Iceland has been a waystation for budget travelers hopping the pond. While the deals are often irresistible, doubts crept in about the risks of flying to Iceland on the cheap when in 2019, another Icelandic low-cost carrier, Wow, went bust in spite of (or perhaps because of) stunts like $49 fares from the United States to Europe. Thousands of travelers were stranded and, as the saying goes, the optics were not good. Some even pegged a subsequent downturn in tourism to the country to the collapse of Wow. A few half-hearted attempts to revive the remains of that company, including a bid from Icelandair, failed.
But that’s not the end of the story. Enter Play Airlines, the latest startup from the island nation to revive the notion that yes, you can cross the Atlantic for less than you’d pay for your first hotel night (currently fares start at $160 one way from the U.S. to Europe for summer and fall flights).
So it should come as no surprise that Play, like Wow, is using narrowbody Airbus planes (painted in a bright red livery), many Wow crew, and the expertise of some executives from its predecessor, who are probably wiser after the demise of Wow. The new airline scooped up those assets and launched last year with flights to London Stansted.
Starting with flights from Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in April, Play now has a trio of East Coast gateways with daily transatlantic flights to Reykjavík, including Boston and, as of early June, New York (via Stewart Airport, in Newburgh). From the Icelandic capital, there are connecting flights to more than 20 cities throughout Europe, including Paris, Berlin, Prague, and Barcelona. Those shorter hops around Europe operate with a fleet of smaller Airbus A320 jets; the newer transatlantic flights are via the longer 192-passenger A321 version.
Having had plenty of experience flying no-frills airlines abroad, I was eager to see what this latest incarnation had to offer. So, in mid-May, I traveled on Play Flight 112 from Boston Logan to Keflavík Airport, Iceland’s main international hub. Here’s what it was really like.
Checking in at Boston
At Boston Logan Airport, Play flies out of Terminal E, where most international flights operate. Unfortunately, Play doesn’t participate in the TSA PreCheck program so travelers should be prepared to spend a little extra time in security. Thankfully in my case, the regular security lines moved swiftly and having cushioned my arrival time, I had plenty of opportunity to graze the duty-free stores and food and beverage options in Terminal E before the 6:30 p.m. boarding call. There’s no dedicated lounge for Play passengers, but if you’ve got a Priority Pass membership (which I do), you can head up to the Air France lounge, where you can grab a bite and a glass of wine before takeoff.
At the Play boarding gate, a gaggle of cheerful crew members in scarlet uniforms ushered us onto the plane; because this was a brand-new route, the plane wasn’t full and boarding was a snap. A flight attendant spotted me struggling with my wheelie and helped me hoist it into the overhead bin. The door closed right on time for the 7 p.m. departure, although there was a brief delay pushing back from the gate. The pilot came on frequently with updates, noting that our flight time would be a swift five hours, reassuring those traveling beyond Iceland that they would not miss their connection. Later I learned that a good number of people aboard were heading straight for other destinations, such as Paris, London, and Berlin.
Economy seating for all
Seats are configured in rows of six, three on each side of the aisle, in an open layout—it’s all one class. The seats have gray synthetic leather upholstery and adjustable padded headrests, and the chairs felt comfier than the average ultra-low-cost carrier seating. On my flight, all the rows on the plane had a generous seat pitch of 33 to 34 inches, in contrast to 28 inches in the typical cattle class. (Not all of Play’s planes have the same legroom, however, and by next winter, the airline plans to add 22 seats to the jet type I flew, with three different seat-pitch sizes—that extra legroom I enjoyed will cost you extra.) The rest of my space was basic: There was no power outlet, Wi-Fi service, or in-flight entertainment, and the compact tray table can make it hard to use your laptop if the person in front fully reclines.
The flight attendants were friendly and attentive, and soon after takeoff they came through with a cart hawking drinks and snacks. Hewing to the à la carte pricing model, everything was for sale, with prices quoted in euros. Beverages ranged from about a buck for a bottle of spring water, to around $3 for sodas, coffee, and juices, and $9 to $10 for beer and wine. There was also a range of sandwiches for about $9 to $10 and snacks. I ordered a cup of chicken-flavored ramen noodles for $5 and some Pringles for $3. (On the daytime return flight I chose a falafel wrap, while a fellow passenger highly recommended the filling hot ham and cheese baguette.) One flight attendant urged me to try its “famous” Icelandic candies, so I gladly gave in and bought a $3 licorice and chocolate bar. After these caloric infusions, I had no trouble dozing off for the few hours that remained before we landed.
Arriving at Keflavík Airport and getting to Reykjavík
We arrived right on schedule just before 5 a.m., and the sun was already up (this was, after all, about a month from summer solstice). As some passengers headed off to make their tight connections, those of us staying in Iceland went to a practically deserted immigration and customs hall, where I quickly dispensed with the formalities. In a few minutes, I was in the airport lobby, where I could get a coffee and check out the small postarrival duty-free as I awaited a bus transfer to the city. Reykjavík is about 30 miles from the airport, and even with no traffic it takes about 45 minutes to get to the main bus depot downtown.
Returning from Keflavík a few days later, I again built in some added time and am glad I did—the vast duty-free emporium is a perfect place to pick up an Icelandic wool hat or scarf, or other local specialties like vodka and smoked fish. With a variety of restaurants and bars, you almost won’t notice that there are no airline lounges that economy passengers can pay to use. It’s worth noting that airport security was pretty on-point and pulled me aside because I hadn’t put all my toiletries in a Ziploc bag, nor had I removed them from my carry-on for inspection. My return flight mirrored my experience on the way to Iceland.
The bottom line: Is Play worth it for the low cost?
My flight was $345 roundtrip plus one-way fees, such as those for carry-on and priority boarding ($27); checked bag ($35), and assigned seat ($22), but prices rise with demand and during the busier seasons. Round-trip flights to Europe with Play, depending on your ultimate destination and which ancillary services you choose, range from just under $400 round trip to more than $800. There will likely be good deals during the shoulder and slower travel periods in the fall, winter, and spring.
There are, of course, some downsides. There is no customer service line to call; instead, you can message the airline via Facebook, Whatsapp, or email, which can be frustrating when there’s a problem. There is a wide range of fees depending on the type of service and extras, such as inflight food and drinks.
But if all you want is a more affordable flight to Europe, Play will deliver on that front. Given the exorbitant prices you’ll be charged for flying across the Atlantic this year, this upstart offers an attractive alternative and, as a bonus, an opportunity to explore Iceland or spend a few days there on the way to points beyond.
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Barbara Peterson Barbara Peterson is AFAR’s special correspondent for air, covering breaking airline news and major trends in air travel. She is author of Blue Streak: Inside JetBlue, the Upstart That Rocked an Industry and is a winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Investigative Reporting.