Welcome to the Flying Youth Hostel: A WOW Air ‘Biz’ Experience From Europe to the US
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.
WOW Air is growing fast by offering spectacularly low fares from the US to its home base in Iceland and on to Europe. If you’re willing to go absolutely bare-bones, you can fly WOW one-way to Iceland and Europe for under three figures. Granted, those insane deals come with some strings attached, as do WOW’s slightly higher normal fares: you’ll pay extra for absolutely everything, from seat assignments to food. When he flew WOW Air from San Francisco to Reykjavik, TPG Assistant Editor Brendan Dorsey found all those fees “ridiculous” and the seat “uncomfortable.” [Update, 3/28/2019: WOW Air has ceased operations. Find our ongoing coverage of WOW Air's collapse, and what affected passengers can do about it, here.]
But WOW Air does offer a bit more comfort if you pay a “WOW Biz” fare that offers more legroom (known as "XXL"), free cancellation, checked baggage, food and priority boarding. It’s not a separate cabin, though, just a fare that gets you more perks.
I tested WOW’s top offering between Brussels and Newark via Reykjavik in late 2017, and found it a somewhat weird experience, nothing like what you’d find on a full-service airline.
My one-way WOW Biz fare from Brussels (BRU) to Newark (EWR) via Reykjavik’s Keflavik airport (KEF) came to $480.92, a full $200 more than the admittedly very cheap WOW Basic. Adding individually to the Basic fare all the perks included in the Biz package would have brought it to $494.93. That was still just one-fourth of the fares that Delta and United were offering that day on their Brussels - New York nonstops!
WOW doesn't partner with any other airlines and, true to its ultra-low-fare mission, has no loyalty program, so you must pay for its flights with some form of cash. The WOW Air site did not accept American Express, so I used my new Citi Prestige card to help meet the $7,500 spend in the first three months from account opening that would get me 75,000 ThankYou bonus points. (I then spent 73,935 ThankYou points on a winter vacation with my wife at a five-star hotel in London using the Prestige’s 4th Night Free perk — which applies to points redemptions too, not just paid stays.)
The BRU - KEF flight would be in an Airbus A320, while the second leg to EWR would be in a larger A321. WOW also flies bigger, twin-aisle A330s, but most of its Europe and US East Coast flights are with the Airbus single-aisles.
The only "XXL legroom" seat available for the first flight was a middle seat, so I chose an XL with less legroom in order to have a window. On the KEF - EWR leg, I got my choice of XXL.
Brussels to Reykjavik: Check-in
I didn’t find the online check-in process easy at all. I ended up checking in at the WOW Air desks, which two and half hours before the 11:35am departure were thankfully uncrowded.
The very courteous agent explained what my Biz fare entitled me to, but insisted that I had to check my rollaboard and only take my backpack in the cabin with me. I reluctantly did, although my rollaboard met WOW’s size and weight restrictions for cabin luggage. The boarding passes she printed showed me, bizarrely, as a female passenger, with an MS after my name.
Gate agents didn’t seem to mind. I didn’t realize the mistake until after landing in New York, and when I tweeted at WOW Air about my on-the-spot gender change, the airline replied promptly and apologetically.
The WOW Biz fare didn’t give me a priority lane at security, but the airy, open design of the terminal and quiet efficiency of the personnel — as well as being able to keep shoes on — made the experience far less unpleasant than your average interaction with the TSA in the US as a non-PreCheck passenger.
Wait, a lounge before a low-fare flight? You’re right to wonder: WOW Air has no lounges. But I had access to one, the Diamond Lounge, thanks to my Priority Pass membership, which I get through both the Citi Prestige and Chase Sapphire Reserve credit cards.
The Diamond was not exceptional by any stretch, but a huge improvement over a standard WOW experience. A friendly attendant let me in after I showed my Priority Pass card, and inside I found tired upholstery on the chairs and a scuffed, stained hardwood floor. But there was ample room to sit, a decent buffet and big windows overlooking the tarmac.
As I worked on my laptop, I watched my airplane come in: WOW jets are unmistakable in their purple livery.
My ride to Reykjavik bore the Icelandic identifier TF-SIS. Much like Virgin Atlantic, WOW uses tail codes as a branding tool. After the TF country code, it chooses three letters that spell something fun in English — hence Airbuses with registrations like KID, DAD, GAY and of course WOW.
Boarding, Cabin and Seat
After an uneventful boarding through a priority lane, I was greeted at the door of the plane by flight attendants wearing purple uniforms. They sternly forbade me from taking pictures of the cabin, which is a stupid, pointless restriction, but well within an airline's rights. It’s also wise to comply with crew instructions, so I obeyed — but still managed to sneak a few shots, mostly with my phone.
Seat 1F was at the front of the plane, which featured a single-class, 3-3 layout with most seats having 30 to 31 inches of legroom. It’s not great, but it’s more or less the same as most mainstream carriers on the A320.
Watching from the first row as the other 173 passengers came in — the flight was chock full — I heard languages from all over Europe, plus American English. Both my WOW flights turned out to be brimming with young Europeans and a smattering of Americans, with a visibly lower average passenger age than any other flight I’ve been on.
As the Icelandic flight attendants made announcements welcoming their “dear guests” in Icelandic first and English later, I settled into my window seat, with plenty of legroom for my 6’2’’ frame. There were no pillows or blankets — this was an issue by the exit, which tends to be drafty.
There also was no entertainment system whatsoever, but seats did have power ports for personal devices. With no Wi-Fi, though, you’d better pre-load them with content. I brought books instead.
With no separate galley in this high-density A320, one could also watch the flight attendants at work, in full view of the entire cabin. This included whatever little service for the passengers who had prepaid for food, like me, or wanted to pay on board.
In my case, this consisted of a ham and cheese baguette, served in its wrapper directly on my tray table. Filled with a lot of air, it was searing hot from the microwave, but at least handed to me with a smile. I could also choose between a bottle of water or a Pepsi for my beverage.
With lots of young people in groups talking in an open 174-seat cabin, this was one loud flight. And as I laboriously tried to extract my laptop from an overhead bin crammed full by passengers who wanted to avoid the extra fees for checked luggage, I began to understand the concept behind WOW Air and its ilk: They’re a flying youth hostel.
The highlight of this uneventful hop to KEF turned out to be the WOW inflight magazine — a funny, smart read, with a light tone very much in keeping with a Euro-cool, if no-frills, brand. It even featured a pretty opinionated news item on the upcoming Icelandic election. What US or European airline would dare touch politics so openly in its inflight mag?
Taxiing to our gate at KEF, we got another reminder that WOW Air likes to play with language in ways that more mainstream companies would not.
Reykjavik’s Keflavik airport is modern and efficient, with a clean design that feels very Scandinavian. I had time to enjoy it, since my connecting flight to EWR was delayed by two hours. WOW promptly informed me of the delay with a text message, which I got while buying a sandwich that, despite all I had heard about Iceland being crazy expensive, didn’t cost more than one in a fancy New York sandwich shop.
At the gate, an announcement said that the airline was seeking two volunteers to take a flight the next day in exchange for a roundtrip on WOW valid for two months. I didn’t see anybody take the offer.
The public Wi-Fi was free and fast, but I did wonder what they were thinking when they listed “Africa” as a nationality on the initial screen.
Reykjavik to Newark: Boarding, Cabin and Seat
When it came time to board, my Biz priority meant absolutely nothing since we all got on a bus to a windswept remote stand. I can’t imagine this would be a lot of fun when the Icelandic weather turns nasty. Waiting for us was TF-JOY, an A321 that looked new and clean on the outside and in.
Once again, the crew forbade taking pictures and even told me to put away my camera. And again, I resorted to sneaking photos on my phone. The 220-seat A321 must have set a world record for density on this plane, but thanks to the exit beside it, my row had only four seats and space to stretch. I was in seat 11E.
The labels on the doors were in Spanish first, a weird detail that made sense when I looked up the aircraft’s history and saw it had been built in 2016 for Chile’s LATAM but not delivered, and taken up by WOW instead.
The captain apologized for the delay, explaining that we had to wait for connecting passengers from Frankfurt, and described the route we would take, overflying Greenland. “We are going to see the glaciers!” said excitedly my seatmate in 11D, an American who told me she had been stranded for days in the Netherlands after WOW canceled her flight from Amsterdam. (The airline paid for her hotel.)
The scenery a couple hours after takeoff turned out to be amazing indeed. I refused the offer of an iPad to rent, as there was plenty outside to gaze at — everybody was glued to the windows, awed by the beauty of southern Greenland under a low winter sun. The crew didn’t have a problem with photos outside the cabin, and the atmosphere on board turned to camaraderie as people shared their windows and the amazement.
We were at 31,000 feet when the spectacle unfolded below us, but without a display featuring map and flight data, the only way I could figure out our altitude was by tracking flight WW103 on FlightAware later.
Most seats were occupied, but the cabin did not feel especially cramped. It did look incredibly long; the A321 fuselage measures 146 feet (44 m), and without dividers it's a long, narrow tube.
Food and Beverage
Without an actual meal service, you could order your food when you wanted, and I decided to have mine about three hours after takeoff. When I pressed the call button, a flight attendant showed up immediately and told me my food “might take 10 to 15 minutes.” 25 minutes later, something that might charitably be described as burnt imitation mini-pizza was brought to my seat on a paper plate, with a bottle of water. I don't think I've ever had anything worse on a plane before.
But after finishing it out of sheer hunger and with zero enjoyment, I stretched easily in my seat with room to spare, and reasoned that to get this kind of legroom in long-haul coach on a full-service airline, you'd need elite status or serious luck.
So if you're a budget traveler with little luggage, low expectations and time to spare, then WOW Air has a good value proposition for you. Otherwise, unless you live in one of the American cities where WOW is the only trans-Atlantic game in town, you might as well fork out a bit more for a legacy carrier, and get something you can’t have on WOW: miles.
Operationally, I have no complaints — WOW got me where I needed to go, when it said it would, with a slight delay that was dealt with smoothly and professionally. But, aside from those views of Greenland's glaciers, I don't see a compelling reason to ditch my SkyTeam loyalty for this plucky Northern upstart.
All photos by the author.