A new low | Derek Guthrie flies budget between London and New York


London to New York for $139? What don’t you get for that? Derek Guthrie, who prefers to turn left when boarding an aircraft, reviews Wow and Norwegian airlines

A new low | Derek Guthrie flies budget between London and New York

The news that Ryanair are selling transatlantic tickets came as a shock. Mercifully these are, at present, only for seats on another airline (Air Europa out of Madrid) with whom they have created a partnership. The Irish airline that grew big by dragging the “no-frills” model down into the gutter across Europe’s most remote airfields contrasts sharply with those who’re doing it properly. Which now includes low-cost hops across the pond.

Yes, we’d all like to fly BA001 every time but – particularly if you’re buying your own ticket – what happens when you choose cheap? Really cheap.

I was going to NYC purely for a party, and was curious to see what would happen when my inner cheapskate won the day

Wow Air, an Icelandic outfit started five years ago by tech millionaire Skuli Mogensen, now flies whole aircraft of single-class, low fare-paying passengers. Their Scandi-rivals Norwegian have been doing similar for longer – but with the added bonus of a more spacious cabin up front. Both have one-way fares of $139 at various times through the year (last year they were even lower) with higher prices at peak and high season. Unlike other operators they have easy to read websites that show exactly when those fares are available.

I was going to NYC purely for a party, and was curious to see what would happen when my inner cheapskate won the day.


Wow’s online booking and check-in process is effortless and as long you travel light, which I do as a rule, one small case is allowed on board for no charge. Unlike the Ryanairs of the short-haul no-frills world, Londoners don’t have to turn up at some God-forsaken field of an airstrip (Stansted, or even worse, Luton) at 4am: it’s Gatwick, at a civilised 11am, with flights from Edinburgh and Manchester too. The principal downside is the retina-searing bright purple livery emblazoned “WOW” – thankfully invisible from the inside, unlike Ryanair’s vomit-yellow cabins which have passengers squinting.

With Wow, you have to travel via Reykjavik. That first leg, under three hours, attracts rosy-cheeked Icelanders in just-off-the-mountain attire, save for my chatty neighbour, a bright Boston teacher, who spilled her take-away coffee over me while squeezing into the middle seat. How we laughed.

In the air I bought a warmed-up baguette and more coffee (to drink), which was meh airline food, and when converted back into sterling appeared on my card statement as £10. Note to self: buy a packed lunch, even at the risk of spilling coffee everywhere.

At Keflavic Airport, the door in from London virtually faces the door out to New York. The short wait allows a quick perusal of the takeaway food on offer there: plastic boxes of supermarket style salads starting at £12 with bottles of beer at £10 (don’t even think about wine). Dried fish strips (hardfiskur fra hrisey) were attractive enough but require the addition of butter. Too fiddly.

To my disappointment, US Immigration is not in operation here, as it is at, say, Dublin and Shannon, so at the final destination (Newark) you’re still subject to immigration queues. I was lucky on this occasion, arriving in an all but empty immigration hall. I only waited an hour … in the single queue … being dealt with by one official … slowly.

Norwegian Air Premium class

This longer second leg, about five hours, touches down at 5.30pm. All things considered, that’s pretty darn good. After immigration, the NJ Transit train had me at Penn Station, Manhattan in less than an hour. I was at dinner in Hell’s Kitchen ten minutes later, none the worse for wear.

The return Newark to Gatwick evening flight requires hanging around Keflavic at dawn while jetlagged. However the wait is short and touchdown in Gatwick is soon after 10am. That said, of course you can stopover in Iceland in either direction and spend all that money you’ve saved on the tickets. Quickly.

Norwegian Air is ahead of the game: founded in the 1990s, they came to the low cost inferno a decade ago. They’re that red liveried airline you see at airports with the weird looking tailfins bearing photos of random “inspirers” (Henrik Ibsen, Bobby Moore).

Their fare of $139 is for non-stop and from August 2017 is available on a new, second transatlantic flight every day between Gatwick and JFK. There are more departures from regional airports and, uniquely, flights direct to the Hudson Valley in Upstate New York (Stewart International) from Edinburgh. It appears there is money to be made in this low cost flying malarkey.

The aspirationally named Stewart International (it has no international flights as of writing) is being sold as New York, with an 80-minute bus service connection into Manhattan. For art lovers and deep-pocketed gourmets it’s way more than that. Twenty minutes in one direction is Dia Beacon outpost, a converted biscuit factory stuffed with some of the best daylight-lit modern art you’ll see in the US (Walter de Maria, Serra, Flavin); an hour the other way is Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, arguably America’s best restaurant despite a $500 tasting menu. Result!

Norwegian has grown fast to a fleet of 130 aircraft, most under four years old and designed for energy efficiency. Their long-haul Dreamliners have seductive mood lighting, windows that darken by touch (instead of blinds), a full entertainment system, and decent food. That food is included in Norwegian’s ticket price (unlike with Wow) – but the principal difference between the two (as well as the thing sets Norwegian aside from other low-cost rivals) is that Premium cabin up front with extra leg-room, better food, drinks, and seats which recline low enough to fall asleep after watching Ben Affleck in The Accountant. Or possibly during. (Seat pitch is 46”/1.16m.)

A financier friend of mine, who has offices in London and New York and flies at the very least once a fortnight, said to me recently: “It’s easy. I get the same as every other airline but at half, yes, HALF, the price.”

That’s what I’d call a bottom-line no-brainer. C