The October announcement arrived with a splashy pink logo and photos of smiling Nordic faces. WOW air , the low-cost Icelandic airline, reported it would begin flights out of Boston to Europe with some ridiculously low fares. The $99 price tag from Boston to Reykjavik was a phenomenally inexpensive way to get to Europe. Flights began in late March, and I couldn't wait to get on WOW's pink plane.
But as I stood zombie-like at a ticket counter in Keflavik International Airport at 4 o'clock in the morning, I began to wonder if this was really the best way to get to Europe. I watched a WOW representative open and slam the machine that was supposed to be printing a boarding pass for the second leg of my flight. I then looked longingly in the direction of the food court until another slam of the machine brought my attention back to what was happening in front of me. The wait continued.
I noticed a few peculiar things about WOW even before my departure from Boston. The airline has grown at an ambitious pace since its first flight in 2012. It now serves 21 airports with a fleet of just five planes (six by this summer). You can fly from Boston to Iceland, and then grab connecting flights to London and Copenhagen. Over the next month, WOW will add Amsterdam, Berlin, Dublin, and Paris to that list.
Before the details, here's the abridged version: My experiences with WOW on the ground ranged from inefficient to irritating. My experiences with WOW in the air ranged from pleasant to lovely.
I battled with a surly website trying to make a reservation for a flight to Copenhagen. My fiance, Alex, laughed at my struggle ("You call yourself a travel writer?") until he also ran into trouble making his reservation.
The day before my flight, I expected an e-mail allowing me to check-in electronically. It never came. Panicked, I triple-checked my itinerary, and forwarded it to myself to make sure I had the dates correct.
On the evening of my flight, I arrived at the terminal to check in at what I assumed would be an electronic ticketing machine. I thought I would enter my confirmation code, print my boarding passes, and be on my way. But there were no machines, and instead I stood in an interminable line as passengers shuffled items from their carry-on bags into their suitcases.
This was happening because WOW places weight restrictions on carry-on luggage. You're allowed one free carry-on of 11 pounds. After that, get your credit card ready. You can bring an additional 15 pounds (up to a maximum of 26) for $29 if you purchase the extra weight online. If you wait until you reach the airport to buy the additional 15 pounds, that fee is $48. The airline is upfront about these fees, but it seems that my fellow passengers skipped the fine print, and clothes were strewn on conveyor belts.
Checked luggage is another fee. A 44-pound checked bag is $48. Reserved seats with varying amounts of additional leg room introduced a new round of fees, ranging from $5 to $33. I didn't mind the extra fees because my round-trip flight to Copenhagen was still less expensive than any other flight I could find. My total fare was $491.47, taxes and fees were another $101.95. I paid $60 for a bit of legroom on all four flights, and my checked luggage was $134. The grand total was $787.42. The cheapest round-trip fare I could find elsewhere was $960 on Lufthansa.
What did confound me was WOW's lack of automation and organization on the ground. I stood in line in Boston to check in, and then learned that the agent could only print one boarding pass at a time. Which meant when I landed in Iceland at 4 a.m. for my layover to Copenhagen, I needed to stand in line for my next boarding pass while the ticket agent battled with technical difficulties. I wondered why both boarding passes couldn't be issued in Boston.
After my trip I reached out to WOW CEO Skúli Mogensen to ask about the lack of electronic check-in and the strange boarding pass system.
"Your observation is correct, and it is something that will be added. It frankly should have been added a long time ago. Hopefully by the summer, it should be in order," he said.
WOW's director of communications, Svanhvít Fridriksdóttir, told me the issue with boarding passes was resolved in late April.
I'm going to stop being a pessimistic Pete for a moment and talk about what I liked. On the top of the list was the sparkling new hot pink Airbus A321. She's called Freyja, named for the Norse goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. Freyja still had that new plane smell. I also liked the glamour of the flight attendants and the airline's cheeky attitude. The cups read "Sip it, sip it good" and the overhead call button encouraged "Honk if you're hungry."
But it was strange to be on a new plane with no entertainment system whatsoever. WOW is not JetBlue, so there are no screens in the headrests. There isn't satellite radio. If you want entertainment, pack your laptop — just don't go over 11 pounds. There's also no Wi-Fi, so make sure you don't have any pressing e-mails to answer en route.
I did buy a little extra leg room (it wasn't very expensive), and I was very comfortable. It also helped that many of my flights were half empty. I had an entire row to myself on the flight home.
When I tell you that nothing comes free on a WOW flight, I mean absolutely nothing. You'll pay for your soda ($2), your coffee ($2), chips ($3.25), and water ($2). You can also buy sandwiches, yogurt, and something called flatcake. Correction, you do receive one free item on your flight. It's a bite-sized Icelandic candy bar called Freyju Lakkris Draumur (Freyju Licorice Dream).
I enjoyed my flights because the attendants were polite and attentive. One of them recognized me on my return flight (I hoped for good reasons). I knew I would encounter fees, and I never naively thought that I would reach my destination for under $100. I had my laptop with me, weighed my luggage ahead of time, and ate before I boarded my flights. There were no surprises.
Again, the only unexpected snags came at airports. Our carry-on luggage was carefully weighed at Logan; in Denmark, it was not. On the return layover in Iceland, we had to wait for yet another boarding pass to get to Boston. I'm not being a princess when I say that the process was rough. Getting my boarding pass in Iceland required a gate agent 25 minutes of phone calls and more ticket machine problems. When I asked what was going on, I was told they were missing some of my passenger information.
I wondered how I could have gotten through three-fourths of my trip if there was missing information. I tried not to lose patience with the clerk, who was doing his best, but I have a hard time swallowing inefficiency, particularly at airports, where stress can already be enough to turn your eyebrows gray.
Mogensen told me he believes WOW is well positioned to make a dent in Icelandair's US monopoly. Given the proximity of Iceland to the East Coast, WOW can fly smaller planes, such as the Airbus A321, and charge lower fares. He also believes US residents are now well versed in flying budget airlines and understand the extra fees and lack of amenities.
I agree that there is an opportunity, especially given the ever-increasing interest in Icelandic tourism, but I'll need to work through the post-traumatic stress of my airport experiences before I'm ready to give it another try.