As of 3/28/19, it appears WOW Air has ceased operations. More info: https://wowair.com/travel-alert/
Budget Air Travel
I recently took an international trip to London through WOW Air and wanted to write about my experience with the budget airline since it seems that people either love or hate this low-cost service. In a simple sense, air travel started out as more of a service, getting you from point A to point B. However, when you consider all of the bits and pieces that come along with modern air travel, you really are getting a product that is the sum of all of those bits.
Things like seats, meals, snacks, entertainment and other parts of modern air travel definitely need to be considered if you want to be satisfied with (and not unpleasantly surprised by) the product the airline is trying to sell you. (And of course I booked my trip online, so it fits the theme of my blog right?)
WOW Air is headquartered in Reykjavik, Iceland and operates out of Keflavik International Airport (KEF). As a small budget airline, they provide low-cost routes to and from Iceland and Europe as well as the US. I could not find any transatlantic flights directly to Europe so it is safe to assume that if you want to fly with them to Europe, all flights have a stop at KEF.
The airline currently operates about a dozen Airbus A320/321 jets, having previously used A330’s on long-haul flights, presumably from the west coast to Iceland. The A320/21 seating arrangement is 3 x 3 with a center aisle with the exception being the exit rows and their premium “Big Seats” up front (of which there are 8 total).
Booking & Initial Cost
My initial booking, a round trip for two adults from the east coast of the US to London, with no add-ons was under $1000. This trip consisted of an overnight flight to London, with a stop at KEF at around 5 am local time and scheduled arrival at London Gatwick around 9:30 am (Iceland and London are both 5 hours ahead of EST).
My trip was booked in early January for the first week of February so costs will likely be different if you look it up at this point.
Booking was relatively straightforward but it is important to pay attention to the checkout process. Due to the fact that you are dealing with a bare-bones, budget airline, anything other than a seat on the plane and one personal (small) bag or purse, costs extra.
I paid $50 extra per carry-on for myself and my wife, and also paid about $7 per person, per leg of travel to choose a seat ahead of time. There were also extra charges for food and drinks, which we did not buy. My wife and I brought a back of snacks and purchased water inside the terminal (WOW also charges for water on the flight).
Also, one side note worth mentioning is when you are booking your flight, you get the option to pick a seat plus service package. Your choices range from a regular seat, all the way up to the most expensive “Big Seat” plus a bunch of extra add-ons like carry on, checked bag, food, early boarding, etc. These extras are all lumped together on this page, but you can just pick a regular seat and upgrade only things you want later in the booking process. (Early boarding is a joke by the way).
Seat Upgrade Bidding & Check-in
After booking and before check-in, WOW Air will send you offers to bid on seat upgrades for one or more of your flights. The basic idea here is to try to get you to spend more money on a nicer seat, under the illusion that you are spending less than you would have at the initial booking. Seat bidding may work for more expensive airlines since their upgrades can be much more expensive at initial booking. However, since WOW is so cheap from the start, it doesn’t make much sense to use the bidding option and here’s why.
Say I want to book a regular seat. I will likely have the option to upgrade to something with more legroom at a fixed cost (In my case it was $20 per person, per leg for an XL seat, and $40 for an XXL seat – more on those sizes later). So my potential total cost is the base fare + the seat upgrade. However, let’s say I decide I don’t want or need the upgrade at the time of booking.
Days later, the bid email comes along. I could have simply upgraded my seat from the start by paying that fixed price that was shown to me at the time of booking but I now have to bid, against other customers, for a seat upgrade. If my bid is good enough and the airline accepts it, I get the upgrade. Otherwise, I keep what I have.
By requiring that I bid against my fellow travelers, the airline is compelling me to spend even more than I would have initially, so I can be sure to “lock in” that upgrade. This means that if I want to have a chance at getting an upgrade, I now have to spend more for the same seat that I could have had at booking. So the $20 turns into $30 or 40 and so on.
You, of course, have the option to put a minimum bid in but this amount is often just a few dollars less than the cost to buy the upgrade at booking in the first place. Plus you likely won’t get it unless no one else bids more than you, or at all (not likely).
Again, this really only works in your favor on more expensive airlines because the margins are larger. When your initial ticket cost is $800 and a better seat is an additional $500, it can be worthwhile to bid a couple hundred on that upgrade.
So in other words, you’ll find more people willing to bid small amounts like $20, $50 or even $100 for an upgrade on a budget airline. This artificially inflates the cost of the upgrade and isn’t really worth if you want to stick to a budget.
Thankfully, when the time comes to check-in, you will again be offered seat upgrades at a fixed price, assuming there are any upgrades left.
Seats & Overall Comfort
Conveniently, I was able to try each type of seat at least once during my trip so I can give you an idea of what to expect if you choose to upgrade from the standard seat.
Standard Seat (29-30″)
The regular seat has a seat pitch of about 29-30″, which is slightly less than the measurement that Southwest has for their 737 jets at 31″. That said, I felt like the seats on WOW’s A321 were much more cramped than what I am used to seeing on the Southwest 737. I don’t know if this was due to a different seat back design or if that 29-30″ measurement is just an estimate. I am 5′ 8″ tall and although I had room to move my legs a bit, it was just barely enough space for me.
The recline of the seat was normal – about 2 inches but it did help to make my space less cramped. I was surprised that the seats were a bit more cushioned than I expected. I figured super-budget airline would have skimped on that. Overall, the standard seat experience was as I expected, kind of cramped and uncomfortable after the third hour of flight.
XL Seat With Center Tray (32-33″)
The next size up for seats is the XL size, with a bit more legroom at a 32-33″ seat pitch. These are available near the middle exit row and in the front of the plane, just behind the section of big seats. My wife and I were able to sit in the front section which actually had a tray table in the center seat. Leg room up here was much better and it was nice to have a tray table instead of a third person between us.
XXL Seat (35″+)
Just above the XL seat is the XXL with a seat pitch of 35″ or more. My wife and I were very lucky to get the coveted exit row so our seat pitch was more like 5 feet. The exit row on the A321 is seriously huge with plenty of legroom and room to stand up and not be in the aisle. The other XXL seats have a seat pitch of at least 35″ so just imagine a better XL sized seat.
The “Big Seat” (37″+)
The Big Seat on WOW is deserving of its name. These are at the front of the aircraft in a 2×2 configuration with a large middle armrest. The seats are much wider, more cushioned and have plenty of leg room and a footrest. They also recline much further (around 4″ or so). Definitely the most comfortable, and most expensive option.
For more information and a seat map, check out WOW’s website.
Overall Service and Satisfaction
All things considered, we were satisfied with our experience with WOW Air. There were no major issues or problems on any flight and the WOW staff were friendly. We did get rushed through our connection in Iceland, leaving only about 10 minutes to use the bathroom and stretch before the started boarding the connection. I guess they just boarded early for some reason, but I would have preferred not to deplane, then get right back on 10 minutes later.
There were also some delays when departing KEF in Iceland on our return flight and again delays in getting a checked bag once we landed back home. Again, these were not major issues, just inconvenient.
As a budget airline, WOW air is fine if you don’t mind the connection in Iceland and don’t mind the smaller standard seat. You get what you pay for so just keep that in mind and keep your expectations in check. Bring snacks, or a meal with you to avoid paying high prices on board (two cans of Pringles and a tiny ginger ale was $11) and be sure to buy water in the terminal.
If I had to fly further than the UK, I would probably give in and look for more direct flights that would certainly be a bit more expensive, but I would certainly appreciate the extra comfort for a longer flight.
Thanks for reading!
If you are looking for some decent noise canceling headphones for air travel that won’t break the bank, check out this post.