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Play vs Icelandair: Comparing Iceland’s newest and oldest airlines

Aug. 07, 2021
9 min read
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Europe has a brand new low-cost airline.

Rising from the ashes of the failed WOW Air experiment, Play has commenced operations between Iceland's main Keflavik Airport (KEF) and Europe, with plans to eventually connect North America and Europe via Iceland just as WOW Air attempted to do before the pandemic.

I recently flew Play on its very first route from London's Stansted Airport (STN) to Iceland and was very pleasantly surprised by the experience — for a low-cost carrier, it was excellent.

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Related: 7 reasons flying Iceland’s newest airline was a great experience

For my return flight home from Iceland, I decided to choose flag carrier Icelandair, founded 84 years ago, to see how Iceland's newest and oldest airlines compared between the two cities.

Fares

Here's how the two airlines structured their economy fares for my one-way flights between London and Iceland:

Play Standard fareIcelandair Economy Light fare
Fare including taxes£62 ($86)£112 ($155)
Carry-on baggage£20 extra ($28)Included
Checked baggage£25 extra ($35)£29 extra ($40)
Seat selection£3 – £19 extra ($4-26)£6.80 – £21.40 extra ($9-30)

The beauty of the low-cost model is that you only pay for what you actually use. As I was not checking in a bag I saved money on both airlines this way.

Play charges different amounts for different seats depending on where you wish to sit — even in the same row of the aircraft. If you want a window seat, you'll need to pay slightly more than a middle seat.

As you'll see below, Icelandair sits somewhere between a low-cost and full-service airline. It charges extra for lots of things while some things are provided complimentary.

Play only accepts payment by Visa or Mastercard to pay for fares and onboard purchases, while Icelandair accepts all major credit cards including American Express.

Related: 9 reasons you should visit Iceland this summer

Airport experience

Both airlines use the same terminal at Keflavik Airport in Iceland (KEF). They fly to different London airports: Play operates to the low-cost Stansted Airport (STN), and Icelandair flies to the more premium Heathrow (LHR) and Gatwick (LGW) airports.

Landing at Heathrow on Icelandair definitely felt more premium than departing from Stansted Airport.

While I was able to check-in online for both flights, I was required to undergo manual document checks at either check-in or the boarding gates for COVID-19-related health declarations and vaccination certificates/test results on both airlines.

Being an outstation on a fairly quiet flight, there were hardly any queues at check-in for my Play flight at Stansted.

Play Iceland (Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

I was greeted with an enormous line for Icelandair at its Keflavik hub, though these passengers were checking-in for a bank of flights all departing for the United States, and I was directed to a separate European flights queue and helped immediately.

Icelandair. (Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

aircraft

Both airlines operate several different aircraft types and I lucked out on both.

I flew Play's Airbus A321neo, which as I would consider being its best aircraft as you'll see in the seat description below.

Play Iceland (Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

This aircraft has a giant single cabin of 192 economy seats, with 34 rows of economy seats laid out in a 3-3 configuration.

Play Iceland (Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

On my Icelandair flight, I flew one of its newest aircraft — a Boeing 737 MAX 8.

Related: The Boeing 737 MAX returns to commercial service today

Icelandair (Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

This bird is fitted in a two-class configuration, with 16 business class seats in a 2-2 configuration and 144 economy seats in a 3-3 configuration.

Icelandair (Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

Seat

This was one of the biggest surprises between the two airlines. While both economy class seats are laid out in a 3-3 configuration, meaning they are a similar width, the Play A321neo seats have a staggering 34 inches of legroom for all standard seats.

Play Iceland (Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

I would be very pleased with this sort of legroom in economy on the likes of premium airlines such as Qatar Airways or Singapore Airlines, but remember I was flying a low-cost carrier on a short-haul flight.

Icelandair's 737 MAX 8 seat had a much tighter — and more industry-standard — 31 inches of pitch, as you would expect to find on other full-service European airlines.

Icelandair (Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

If legroom is important to you, the Play A321neo aircraft has possibly the most generous legroom of any European low-cost carrier.

Play's seats were fairly comfortable for a relatively short flight.

Play Iceland (Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

What Icelandair's seats lacked in legroom they made up for in padding — they were noticeably cushier and plusher than Play's.

Icelandair (Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

Both seats reclined and had similar adjustable headrests, tray tables and seatback pockets.

I was pleased to see individual air nozzles on both airlines.

Wifi and IFE

Play did not offer Wi-Fi on my flight, nor did it have any inflight entertainment whatsoever.

Play Iceland (Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

It was a very different experience flying on Icelandair. The new aircraft had large crisp seatback screens with plenty of entertainment options at every seat.

Wi-Fi was also offered free of charge to all passengers on Icelandair and I registered a respectable 13.16 Mbps download during an onboard speed test.

Related: Why does inflight Wi-Fi cut out or slow down?

Food and Beverage

As expected, Play's low-cost model meant all food and beverages needed to be paid for, including water. I was really quite impressed with the quality of the food on offer and loved the Icelandic touches.

Over on Icelandair, tea, coffee, water and soft drinks were complimentary, but unfortunately, all other food and drinks must be purchased.

The quality of the food I purchased was noticeably lower on Icelandair than Play. The doughy, carb-filled pizza filled me up but that was about it.

Prices for onboard food and drink on both airlines were similar.

Service

Both airlines had friendly and professional crew on the ground and in the air. As you might expect from a brand-new low-cost airline, the Play staff were dressed more casually, were all quite young and less formal.

Play Iceland. (Photo courtesy of the airline)

Icelandair staff are dressed in more corporate-like attire and provide the sort of service you would find on an older, experienced airline.

Both flights departed and arrived on time.

Points and Miles

You cannot earn any points and miles flying Play, while Icelandair has its own loyalty program called Saga Club. You can alternatively choose to credit the flights to its partner airlines Alaska Airlines or JetBlue.

Related: Iceland trip-planning from A to Z: Glaciers, geothermal spas and lava caves

Bottom line

I enjoyed my two flights on two very different airlines between London and Iceland.

If you can score Play's Airbus A321neo, the legroom is outstanding, and I would choose this plane over anything Icelandair operates for an economy flight. You are unlikely to ever see legroom like this at every seat in a standard economy cabin on any airline, much less a low-cost carrier.

Icelandair's plus seats on its new 737 MAX were comfortable in terms of padding but legroom was a tight fit and reminded me this was very much economy. It was nice to have a seatback screen and Wi-Fi, though this isn't solely enough to sway me to choose an airline with so many portable personal entertainment options I can take on board with me.

It is disappointing to see Icelandair charge for all food and many beverages, especially when the quality was fairly poor. I ended up paying almost twice as much for my Icelandair flight as the Play flight and did not feel it was twice as good — they were fairly even overall.

I was spoilt flying the best aircraft from both airlines, and I'd be happy to fly either again to or from the spectacular destination of Iceland.

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • Annual Fee

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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

Pros

  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases