Play and Norse Atlantic: A head-to-head review of trans-Atlantic low-cost carriers
- Play and Norse Atlantic both provide low-cost flights between the U.S. and Europe.
- Play funnels all passengers through its hub in Reykjavik, Iceland.
- Norse serves fewer destinations, but its flights are all nonstop.
It may seem like a weird time for new airlines to pop up, and to that I say: we live in a weird world, and traveler numbers have been soaring this year. Europe, especially, has been a popular place to visit over the last few months, which has pushed up the price of tickets across the Atlantic. But, there are still deals to be had for cost-conscious travelers who can be a little flexible.
Play, an Icelandic low-cost carrier, and Norse Atlantic, with its headquarters in Norway, are the two latest entrants into the transatlantic market. They both focus on relatively frills-free service to help people travel between North America and Europe economically. USA TODAY decided to see how the two airlines compare.
On Aug. 2, I booked a flight to London via Reykjavik, Iceland, on Play for Oct. 10 (arriving Oct. 11), and a nonstop return trip on Norse Atlantic for Oct. 17 – with thanks to my cousins who let me crash for a week.
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Because I booked the flights separately, I paid $577.54 total for the most bare-bones tickets: $300.08 for the flights on Play, including $46 for a carry-on bag, and $277.46, including a $25 carry-on bag fee for my Norse Atlantic flight.
For comparison, the round-trip costs, including carry-on baggage, would have been $497.09 on Play, $496.26 on Norse and $599.27 on British Airways, American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, or Delta Air Lines. A $656.07 ticket on Icelandair via Reykjavik was also for sale but was available for $407 on third-party sites.
Play to London
Play started flying in June 2021, and its business model focuses on connecting North America to Europe via Iceland. There's daily service to Reykjavik from four U.S. cities: Boston, New York, Baltimore and Washington. The airline's most popular destinations in Europe, like London and Paris, also have daily connections to its Reykjavik hub, but in order to serve more places with a small fleet, many of Play's cities in Europe have a thinner schedule. The airline's destinations on the continent include Barcelona, Spain; Berlin, Dublin and Prague among others.
I was able to check in for my flights online, and although I couldn't load my boarding passes directly to my iPhone Wallet as I usually can with other airlines, I was able to scan the emailed PDFs without having to print them out.
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Like a lot of low-cost carriers, Play operates out of secondary airports in many cities. Leaving from New York City means first making the trek to Stewart International Airport near Newburgh, New York – about an hour and a half north of the city. A daily shuttle designed to meet Play's 6:45 p.m. departure leaves from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown at 2:45 p.m., and tickets are available for as little as $1 plus fees (for a total of $4.99) for an advanced booking.
Because Stewart is a fairly small airport, the facilities are limited, but the security lines were also extremely short. Arriving passengers seemed to need to walk across the tarmac to get to passport control.
Play's Airbus A320neo parked in the worst possible spot for pictures, but I promise you there's a full airplane hiding in this photo.
Passengers who paid for carry-on luggage got priority boarding, and I had no trouble getting my bag in the bin. The airline did seem fairly strict about making people keep smaller bags under their seats, and since my flight wasn't full, there didn't seem to be any issues with overhead bin space.
On the plane, Play uses a pretty typical low-cost carrier layout, with the seats fairly close together. Extra legroom seats are available for a fee, between $30 and $45 per seat per flight on my trip. Seat selection, in general, ranges from $6 to $110 per passenger between the U.S. and Europe on Play, but only those who pay for extra cabin baggage receive boarding priority, according to the airline's website.
Other amenities, too, are available for a price. Unlike full-service airlines to Europe, meals and beverages are not included in the price of a ticket, but snacks, sandwiches and drinks are available for purchase. Water, for example, is 1 euro (99 cents) to buy on board.
The 6:45 p.m. departure afforded us beautiful views of the sunset over the Hudson Valley as we climbed out.
Because my Monday night flight was fairly empty, the other passengers who had been assigned to my row were able to move, leaving me with a section of three seats to myself.
The flight was scheduled to take just under six hours but landed in cold, rainy Iceland ahead of schedule. That left me with about two hours in Keflavik Airport before boarding my connection to London. Since I arrived in Iceland before 4 a.m. local time, nothing in the airport seemed to be open. It wasn't even clear if the heat in the terminal was on.
Passengers connecting to other countries in the Schengen Area go through customs in Reykjavik before boarding their connecting flights, but the U.K. is not part of the document-free European travel agreement (and wasn't even before Brexit).
My layover passed fairly quickly, and I was soon on the 2 ½ flight to London. This flight, too, was scheduled to take longer but landed early.
The plane on this second leg clearly started its life at another airline. Stickers on the tray tables instructed passengers to keep their seatbelts fastened in both English and Russian.
After disembarking at London's Stansted Airport, I finally got a decent view of one of my planes and was pleased to see there was no real line to clear passport control. It did take a bit to get to the customs e-gate, but that was mostly because the serpentine crowd control line was still in place.
Before long, I was in my cousin's car on the way to take a nap.
Play got me to London in one piece and with little hassle, but a middle-of-the-night connection was a slightly unnecessary inconvenience on a route with so many direct flight options. That said, using secondary airports minimized the amount of queueing I had to do throughout my journey.
Norse Atlantic to New York
On the way home, I had a nonstop flight from London Gatwick to New York JFK on Norse Atlantic, which started operating in June of this year. Using more central airports on both ends of the trip meant long lines for security and customs than I experienced a week prior on Play, but the process was still pretty smooth. Although I was able to check in and get a seat assignment for my flight online, Norse requires all passengers to receive a paper ticket at Gatwick. The line for check-in there was the longest one of the trips by far.
On this flight, I paid $25 for my carry-on bag at booking. That doesn't come with priority boarding on Norse, but I still had no trouble snagging a space in the overhead bin. I also opted for a randomly assigned seat to avoid the selection fee, which can range from $5 for some standard middle seats to as much as $120 for seats with extra legroom, according to the airline's website.
The U.K. still requires passengers to separate their liquids for security, and that led to a bit of a bottleneck leading to the bag scanners, but beyond that, the process was pretty seamless. At least His Majesty's government doesn't make you take your shoes off.
Norse Atlantic has two classes of service on its Boeing 787s, but I wasn't able to see the premium cabin because we boarded through the door behind it. The flight seemed fairly crowded, but the seats were packed a little less tightly than they were on Play, so I felt like I had more knee and elbow room.
Passengers had the option to pay for meals in advance – $30 per person for the first meal and $20 for the second service. Travelers could also pay for more inclusive packages that bundle bag and seat fees and meal charges. Snacks, drinks and cold meals were also available for purchase on board.
On Norse, every seat has a screen with movies and TV shows available to watch for free, so long as you brought your own headset or were willing to purchase one from the airline. Because my cousins took me to lunch one day in Notting Hill, I watched the 1999 Julia Roberts movie, "Notting Hill."
The flight was scheduled to take just under eight hours and arrived early. But, because we landed ahead of schedule during the evening international departures rush, it took a while for a gate to become available.
When we did finally park, it also took a while for the plane to unload (and for my phone to reconnect to the cell network for some reason), but once in the terminal, I was able to get through customs pretty quickly thanks to Global Entry, despite the extremely long lines for U.S. citizens and foreign visitors in the rest of the passport control area.
How Play and Norse compare
Both airlines had their pros and cons and offered affordable flights from the U.S. to Europe.
Norse Atlantic currently serves fewer destinations: Just New York, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Los Angeles in the U.S., and London, Oslo, Norway, and Berlin in Europe.
Play can connect U.S. travelers to more destinations, but those wishing to travel beyond Iceland will always have to connect in Reykjavik.
In terms of service, Play and Norse have similar low-cost models where just about everything from carry-on bags and seat assignments to meals and beverages cost extra, but Norse's layout is slightly less cramped, and its screens mean entertainment on board is free.