WOW air Versus Icelandair

A few days ago, I saw a friend get really excited on Facebook about WOW air offering cheap flights to Iceland. Apparently, WOW air had advertised $99 fares to Keflavik, the nearest international airport to Reykjavik.

Immediately, I knew there had to be a catch of some sort. So I wanted to crunch the numbers and on a WOW air Versus Icelandair showdown.

I whipped up itineraries to get me from Phoenix to Keflavík International Airport during the summer months when I could go do cool things like hike, camp and experience the Inside the Volcano tour. I made sure the itineraries on both airlines matched. Here’s what I found comparing WOW air to Icelandair.

Now boarding in Bergen - the daily flight to Keflavik, Iceland.
Now boarding in Bergen – the daily flight to Keflavik, Iceland.

WOW air

WOW air’s site didn’t allow me to book directly from Phoenix, my home city. So I have to break this out separately, starting with the WOW air fare from Boston.

Roundtrip: $461.39 with tax. This includes one carry-on item. I can purchase extra weight allowances, but I can still take only one carry-on item and can’t exceed 26 pounds – and even that weight gets you a nominal penalty; I usually check my backpack and carry a small day pack and a camera bag aboard. There are also fees for sports equipment, picking seats and cancellation protection.

Fees Lurk Everywhere

What other fees and charges might lurk? I checked the Fees & Charges page on the WOW air website, and found it -- blank. Same with the FAQ page. If you’re checking luggage, you’ll pay an extra $48 per bag, per leg – if you check in online (it goes up if you check bags at check-in and even more if you check at the gate – $67 or $95). That brings the price to $557.39. But hang on a second – I always have to carry-on bags and my one checked bag. That means I have to check a second bag -- so now my round-trip online price is $196 added to the original fare. For those counting at home, we’re at $657.39.

English: A pair of Douglas DC-8 of Icelandair ...
Icelandair has been at this air travel thing for awhile. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the way, WOW air flies the Airbus A320 series of aircraft. The airline configures them with 30-31 inches between each seat (airplane nerds call this "pitch"). What about onboard entertainment? Here’s what WOW air says: "There is no organized entertainment on board, except for the thrill of sitting high up in the sky enjoying the flight with us." I’m not sure if WOW air provides blankets and pillows.

Bottom Line for a “Cheap Flight”

Before I can take advantage of this cheap flight to Iceland, though, I need to get to Boston; I’m looking at about $335 on US Airways. I’ll need to add $50 to check your first bag for a round trip. Call it $385. I’m now at $1042.39.

Wow air versus Iceland Air

The Icelandair Difference

Icelandair scores big for allowing me to book from Phoenix. My cheapest option is $1260.43 with connecting flights on JetBlue. I could also pick different options to fly Alaska Airlines.

Better Planes by a long shot

Icelandair flies some pretty shiny Boeing 757s with on-demand entertainment at each seat. Meals aren’t free, but the non-alcoholic beverages are. Pillows and blankets are available, but I’d have to ask for them on non-trans-Atlantic flights.There are 32 inches separating the seats.

Flights to and from North America also get two free checked bags weighing up to 49 pounds. By the way, every time I’ve booked an international flight on a foreign airline that included connections on domestic airlines, I have not been charged for baggage on the domestic airlines. So that’s further good news for the big guy in the WOW air Versus Icelandair comparison.

Wrapping up WOW air versus Icelandair

Who wins the WOW air Versus Icelandair showdown for cheap flights to Iceland? WOW air is still $200 cheaper. But I can’t speak to its service, and the SKYTRAX website has customer reviews ranging from one star up to nine.

Wow Air versus Icelandair
IcelandAir’s “Surtsey” pulls into Gate 2 at JFK’s Terminal 7, ready to take another load to Iceland.

The same is true for Icelandair – but I can tell you that anyone who rates Icelandair below 7 stars is likely to be a whiny, high-maintenance, impossible-to-please complainer; this is a classy airline with some of the most-immaculate aircraft I’ve flown in. Here’s a review of my flights with Icelandair.

And honestly, if a leg of your flight gets delayed, would you rather deal with the airline that booked you for all flights, or multiple airlines? It’s easier to set things right if you book every leg with one airline.

What can a low-cost airline offer?

I’d still be very interested in trying WOW air just out of sheer curiosity. And sometimes, ultra-low-cost carriers rise above that label – just look at Norwegian Air Shuttle, which blows many legacy airlines out of the water.

Still, I can see where the extra $200 goes on Icelandair. Take the WOW air deal if you’re really desperate to get to Iceland and don’t have a lot in the piggy bank, I guess. Or take Icelandair and just drink fewer overpriced beers and liquors while you’re there.

 

Icelandair Expands Routes – Plus Sky Harbor Versus Gateway

What U.S. cities are trying to lure service from Norwegian Air Shuttle and its coming fleet of 787 Dreamliners? (Image from Boeing)

Icelandair is set to fly to yet another U.S. destination starting May 15, 2013. It’ll start serving Anchorage, Alaska with two flights a week. It’s only seasonal service, so it will only last through mid-September, according to the Alaska Dispatch.

This news made a few things pop into my head.

First, no news outlet has asked Icelandair the interesting question: What’s the purpose of this intercontinental flight? Who’s it going to serve? Tourists? Business travelers? If the latter, what sort of business connections are Alaska and Iceland forging? What’s the bigger, more-interesting story behind this route? How did Anchorage land it? The Denver Post did a decent job when Icelandair announced seasonal service to Denver International Airport … so why is even the Washington Post satisfied to ralph up the Icelandair press release close to verbatim?

Second, I see this as yet another sign that foreign airlines are eager to push into the United States. I recently wrote that Norwegian Air Shuttle will soon have the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in its fleet … and it hasn’t announced all of its destinations. Who are the players, as far as U.S. airports? Who is jockeying to connect to Norway? As for the why – it has a sound economy, and it’s a spectacular destination for travelers. The former is important because it represents a chance for American cities to connect with a solid eonomic power. And let’s not forget that Air New Zealand is also looking to shack up with more U.S. airports.

Air New Zealand could serve Sky Harbor – if airport officials work up the nerve to ask for a dance. (Follash, via Wikimedia Commons)

My final thought brings me back to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, as so many things do … or rather, to its lack of intercontinental flights. I’ve watched other airports announce new intercontinental flights while Sky Harbor acts like a wallflower at the high-school dance. It makes me wonder if Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport isn’t Arizona’s future for intercontinental travel. It has the runway space, that’s for sure. How long will Phoenix-Mesa Gateway stay content with Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit? A long shot, I know, since so much traffic connects at Sky Harbor. But a few more domestic airlines could position Phoenix-Mesa Gateway to oust Sky Harbor. And it’s really not addressed in its master plan. But who knows? Master plans can change when opportunities arise.

IcelandAir – Random Travel Photo

Now boarding in Bergen – the daily flight to Keflavik, Iceland.

IcelandAir has a cool practice: It names its aircraft after Icelandic volcanoes. I took two flights on Hekla, to and from JFK airport in New York. While I was waiting for a Norwegian Air Shuttle flight in Bergen, Norway, guess who showed up?

Well, it was the IcelandAir 757 Grimsvötn. I always thought the 757 is a particularly good-looking airplane. Something about the IcelandAir colors – and naming them after volcanoes – makes them even more sleek and slick. So I snapped a photo … and got jealous that I wasn’t going to Reykjavik anytime soon. Still, I guess a flight to Helsinki isn’t such a bad thing.

You can check out a complete list of the names of IcelandAir planes. Just be sure to scroll down to Fleet List.

Sky Harbor Responds to “International Flight” Criticism

Welcome to Sky Harbor – small planes, small goals.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport isn’t happy with a WanderingJustin.com post that hints that its staff lags in securing intercontinental routes and airlines.The recent “addition” of another British Airways flight didn’t impress me. More accurately, this will bring Phoenix back to seven flights a week from the current six; (seven years ago, the British Airways flight went from daily to six days a week, a fact The Arizona Republic skipped in its rush to cheerfully ralph up the city press release).

So, there’s little net gain. Sky Harbor is just back where it was seven years ago. Contrast that to Denver International Airport, which just made hay by snagging seasonal direct service to Iceland. Nice score for an outdoorsy metro area! It puts this snippy, defensive reply to my post from unnamed Sky Harbor personnel into perspective:

We have seen your blog in response to the added British Airways flight. Your disappointment in the number of international flights is concerning. Please be advised that airports compete heavily for air service and airlines make business decisions about where to fly based on the estimated profitability of the flight. This begins with the number of passengers that will fly daily in full-fare first and business class seats, followed by the number of additional passengers in full-fare and discount economy seats. Under the direction of the Mayor, Council and City Manager, the Aviation Department actively evaluates this local market and presents competitive information to airlines to encourage them to consider Phoenix. If you have research about the areas you mention in your blog such as Asia and Europe and evidence of 150-200+ people per day in the Valley who would buy seats on these flights, please share it with us. We would appreciate any such information that would assist the airlines in making what amounts to a multi-million dollar investment in our market and more international flights for the Valley. 
Thank you in advance for any information you can provide.
 

Customer Service
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

So, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport wants me to do its job. It wants me to do what its staff can’t –  compete with competition like Denver International Airport. Sounds to me like Denver and its staff researched areas where 150-200+ people might make it worthwhile for an airline to make a multi-million-dollar investment in their market for international flights. Denver displayed the initiative, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport crew lacks. The score? Denver International Airport – 4 new Icelandair flights, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport – 1 “sort-of-new” British Airways flight.

My response:

Dear Customer Service,

Thanks for your response. I would be happy to help Sky Harbor in its mission to add intercontinental routes and carriers. We can approach it two ways: A per-hour consulting fee of $150, or a retainer for up to 20 hours of research per month. You could also arrange a panel of local travelers representing leisure and business segments to determine what routes are worth your thought. Finally, you could poll Sky Harbor travelers with questions related to their thoughts on intercontinental routes – a sample of about 3,000 is enough to be statistically relevant. 
 
Or, and I’m just spitballing here, you can encourage the people already on the city’s payroll to display initiative, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.
 
Here’s a bit of free advice: Study the number of Phoenix travelers who have to fly to Los Angeles International, Chicago O’Hare, San Francisco International, Newark, John F. Kennedy and Houston Intercontinental to transfer to flights abroad. Determine the top destinations. Court those airlines and routes heavily. Just off the top of my head, I know that United Airlines – possibly as a punitive punishment over a squabble for international flights – cancelled the soon-to-be-implemented 787 service from Houston to Auckland (word is it was an excuse to put the 787 on a route to Japan instead, while also sticking it to the Houston City Council). Now, if I were a Sky Harbor employee tasked with attracting new routes, I’d look into pitching 787 service from Phoenix to Auckland starting at four flights a week. Such a flight would pull passengers from the Qantas and Air New Zealand flights from LAX and possibly SFO. Name a passenger who loves flying from LAX … oh, that’s right: Nobody likes flying from LAX. Other aspects to consider: New Zealand is an English-speaking country that makes a convenient travel experience for American travelers. And the U.S. dollar is strong next to the Kiwi dollar. Plus filling up a 787 on this route wouldn’t be as difficult as a 777 or 747, which is the 787’s mission – long, thin routes. 
 
Here’s something else I’d add – consider what Phoenix Sky Harbor could offer travelers seeking intercontinental routes. Phoenix Sky Harbor has a compact footprint, and it will be even easier to navigate with the opening of the rail system that will connect each terminal. That will make a connecting experience far better than the mad scrambles of airports like LAX. That means quicker, easier connections and less stress. Sell that hard.
 
I will be out of the country starting next week until mid July. Feel free to contact me to further discuss a consulting arrangement. 

I’m curious: Why does Sky Harbor care what one blogger thinks about international flights? Why acknowledge me at all instead of crowing about the “new” British Airways flight?

I know attracting new routes and airlines isn’t easy. They don’t appear overnight with the wave of a magic travel wand. But … nothing new in seven years? Is this really the best Phoenix can do?

Iceland Travel Tip – Is the Winter Fare Sale Worth It?

Check out a chunk of Iceland this winter with IcelandAir's special fares.

November 4 is the last day to book an IcelandAir flight from the United States to Keflavik for as little as $379 for a round trip (check out the complete list of deals). Here’s the deal: The price is for flights from Jan. 10 – March 31, depending on your point of origin.

That means you’re flying straight into Iceland when it is – how should I put this? – really freakin’ cold.

That means you can’t stay outdoors as much. Glacier Guides, one of the better-known tour companies, doesn’t run tours to the glaciers near Skaftafell National Park during that time. You certainly can’t get to Landmannalaugar for a few days of backpacking among some of the most mind-boggling terrain on the planet. So should you bother?

Heck, yes.

There’s still plenty to do in Iceland. Reykjavik is extremely lively. There’s a thriving cafe scene. If you’re a fashionista, you’ll have no problem finding some shopping. And let’s not forget – hotels in Iceland can be expensive … especially in Reykjavik. So there’s no better time to score a deal than late winter.

If you have an adventurous streak and don’t want to be confined to knocking back espresso in the morning and brennivin (the infamous Icelandic schnapps) at night, there’s still hope. Arctic Adventures runs some winter tours to Sólheimajökull, a glacier near the small town of Vik. You can also dig into some ice climbing.

IcelandAir is a pleasant surprise for fliers use to the brutal grind of domestic air travel.Â

Oh, and remember that it’s a good time to catch the Northern Lights. If you can schedule a few nights somewhere remote like Vik, you’ll have no light pollution and some really awesome skies.

So for a $379 flight on an excellent airline, I say check it out. Then come back in the summer to hike Landmannalaugar, hike the glaciers near Skaftafell and explore the crazy terrain of Myvtan.

Why I Went to Iceland

IcelandAir’s “Surtsey” pulls into Gate 2 at JFK’s Terminal 7, ready to take another load to Iceland.

People often ask me why I went to Iceland. Ever since my wife, Sarah, and I have traveled together, every international destination (sorry, Canada, but you don’t count) has taken us south. New Zealand took us to 45 degrees south.

This time, we’ll go north. To spitting distance from the Arctic Circle.

Iceland.

We tell people our destination. They ask "why? What are Iceland’s attractions?”

Honestly, if I have to tell you, you probably won’t get it. But I’ll try, anyway:

Scenery. The place has volcanoes, glaciers, massive slabs of hardened lava – some of which are younger than I am. Explosion craters. Post-apocalyptic remainders of geological wrath. We love these things. No, Iceland is not a lush tropical paradise of cocktails sipped from coconut husks. Only 1 measly percent of the island is arable. It’s stark. Parts of it are are visually indistinguishable from Mars. Others look like Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back. [Edit: Since I went to Iceland, the country has provided many scenes for Castle Black and areas north of The Wall in A Game of Thrones.]

Solitude. You can hike four hours without seeing another living creature. And that’s on the country’s premiere hiking route, the Laugavegur. I drove from Lake Myvatn to Húsavík in the north part of the country – and saw a mere handful of vehicles. Most of the route was unpaved. Outside the capital, the main highway aka The Ring Road, is often just one lane.

Novelty. Yes, most people speak English in Iceland. They have a high standard of living, and you’ll find all the modern conveniences. But you’ll see the interesting little differences. Like the language. Iceland’s language has been largely untouched since Vikings landed on its shores 1,000 years ago. They work to preserve it via the Iceland Language Council, which scrupulously adds words as-needed rather than letting foreign words invade willy-nilly. Iceland is modern, but it’s thoughtfully developed.

This adventure starts with a trip to New York’s JFK airport.

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Update on Flying with MREs

Before leaving for Iceland, I was a bit worried about flying the military-issue Meals, Ready to Eat packs.

The answers I got from the Delta Airlines and the TSA were less than definitive – Icelandair was crystal-clear: They’re okay in checked luggage.

The good news is that I had no problems flying with my MRE packs. I went through security screening at three different airports (Phoenix Sky Harbor, JFK/New York and Keflavik International) and customs at two of them, and had nary an MRE-related problem (the monosyllabic and surly “instructions” of the wonderful Customs staff at JFK, however, was another story. Only one of that lot was even remotely pleasant.).

Based on my experience, you should have no problems if you put your MREs in your checked luggage and keep the packages sealed. Still, always check with your airline. Policies and regulations are always a moving target, and a terrorism-related panic du jour always seems to be around the corner waiting to monkeywrench travelers’ plans.

Flying With MREs – Banned or Not?

When it comes to flying, you can’t be too careful these days when it comes to packing. Since my upcoming trip is going to involve backpacking in Iceland, I decided to take some military Meals, Ready To Eat packages.

Then I paused. The MREs all come with this little self-heating thing. I decided to check with the authorities to check on whether flying with MREs is allowed. I wrote to Delta Airlines, which we’re flying from Phoenix to JFK, and Icelandair, which will take us the rest of the way. I explained my plan, and specific that I’d have the MREs in checked baggage. Here are their answers.

flying with MREs
MRE 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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5 Places to See the Northern Lights

aurora
The Northern Lights. Photo courtesy of the US DoD.

I’ve just made a decision: I need to see the Northern Lights. You know … the aurora borealis. Can you imagine how cool it must be to see that dark sky above you light up with multicolored swirls of electrons? The jury is still out and whether you can actually hear the aurora; it occurs about 60 miles into the sky, where the air is very thin for the passage of sound waves. But scientists still don’t discount the possibility that there might be some aural aspect to the aurora.

So here’s the downside: It’s best to see them in winter at high altitudes. And it’s gotta be dark out. That means that, if I want to see it, I’ll have to be fully prepared to freeze my goolies off. So, then, where I should I go to get a glimpse of the lights?

Here are some good candidates:

Jukkasjarvi, Sweden – It’s far north. It’s so secluded that you have to take a dogsled to reach it from Kiruna, the nearest city. It’s also home to the ICEHOTEL. That adds up to a safe bet to check out some serious aurora viewing. And maybe I could schedule a visit when Hammerfall is in action.

Oulu, Finland – The Northern Lights are such an attraction in Oulu that many hotels offer wake-up calls when they’re active. It’s not quite as secluded as some places, offering a lively night scene and lots of museums. Apparently, the light pollution isn’t enough to put a damper on the displays. And there are lots of Finns online boasting about how much Oulu rocks.

Iceland – This island nation is right in the circular path that defines the aurora’s favorite stomping grounds. Combine that with a sparse population, and you have good odds of seeing an unforgettable light show. When you’re not tripping out to the lights, the daytime offers geysers and volcanoes. It’s also easy to get to from the west, with Icelandair offering flights from Seattle.

Tromso, NorwayUS Airways is running some really good specials for flights to Norway. From Phoenix, the base price is something like $760. That’s a good incentive. Tromso also has a good reputation as a place with clear skies and minimal light pollution (only 50,000 people live there). Apparently, there are mountaintop viewing areas near the city, too. Oh, and there’s cross-country and alpine skiing!

Fairbanks, Alaska – Sure, you can see ’em in Juneau or Anchorage. But why not go a little further for what’s considered among the state’s better displays? The local hotels also offer packages for travelers who want to boost the odds of getting an awesome lightshow.