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Update: Primera Air declared bankruptcy on October 2, 2018, and discontinued all flight operations as of that date. This review of Primera Air was originally published in April 2018.
Turns out when you book a flight across the Atlantic for a rock-bottom price, you get exactly what you pay for. And, depending on your perspective, that’s either a good thing or a bad thing. Regardless, if you know what you’re getting yourself into and can make the necessary preparations to compensate for what’s not included in the cheap ticket, transatlantic newcomer Primera Air can actually be a great option for your hop over the pond.
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of Primera Air.
In short: the price. Primera Air’s airfares start at $99 one-way from the US to London or Paris. That’s pretty much unbeatable. Plus, if you can find ways to cut down on the other costs associated with traveling — such as relying on public transit and low-cost lodging — these kinds of airfare prices can open up European travel for those that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it as often — or even at all.
In my row, there was a mother with her three young children, with their grandfather sitting directly in front of us. While other passengers were buying food and drinks onboard, the oh-so-prepared mother whipped out her bag of snacks and distributed them to her kids. The family didn’t pay for a single item during the flight, which surely helped in keeping the total cost for their flights low. For a family of five, traveling internationally is a huge expense — without airfares as low as these, there’s a chance that these kinds of trips would be impossible.
Next to the grandfather was a gentleman who’s a few months away from becoming a grandfather himself. Not a stereotypical low-cost carrier passenger, he’d just returned from a luxury anniversary trip to Thailand with his wife. But, when he came across the £240 ($337) fare for a round-trip ticket from London to NYC, he couldn’t pass it up, and planned a quick four-day trip to see his pregnant daughter who lives in New Jersey. He was happy to splurge on the £29 ($41) upsell to reserve an extra-legroom seat in the front of the aircraft.
With fares this low, the airline predictably attracted a lot of young travelers. In the row in front of me were duo of guys in their early 20s, and further back in the cabin, another group of young guys celebrated the start of their trip to the US with purchased sodas — which were heavily mixed with vodka they’d smuggled on-board.
While low-cost carriers like Norwegian and Icelandair have opened opportunities for some low-cost travelers, Primera Air takes it a step further with even cheaper fares on top of further stripped-down service. Personally, I’m a fan of giving travelers more options — especially when the passengers do their homework and know fully what they’re getting themselves into.
It’s best if you go into the Primera Air experience assuming nothing is provided and preparing accordingly. There’s no free checked baggage allowance and strict carry-on bag regulations. So, make sure to pack light. For this inaugural flight, check-in agents required passengers to place their carry-on bags in the sizer before issuing a boarding pass. Yes, even my backpack.
There’s no power on-board the wet-leased National Airlines 757 being used on routes due to delays of the airline’s Airbus A321neo. But even the A321neo is only going to offer USB power plugs. So, whether its a 757 or the new A321neo that you end up flying, you’re going to want to make sure your devices are charged before boarding. There’s no in-flight entertainment either, so make sure to bring your own.
There’s no free food and there’s a charge for most drinks (coffee and tea were served to all passengers for no charge on this flight). That said, the buy-on-board pricing could be worse — a sandwich and drink combo went for £7 ($9.84) and a beer and a pack of chips cost £5.50 ($7.73). It’s going to be cheapest for you to bring your own snacks, but it won’t be necessary — with these onboard rates — to stock up on food at the airport before the flight.
A note about the food/beverage pricing: Although prices are listed both in Euros and Pounds, all items were charged using Pounds as the currency for this first flight. However, the wet-leased National Airlines flight attendants seemed to be confused about how to operate the buy-on-board system, so that might be different on future flights.
Frankly, the worst part of my Primera Air experience was Stansted Airport. As one of London’s further-away airports, Stansted doesn’t attract a lot of seasoned travelers, but rather gets a lot of business from low-cost passengers and flights. And, the airport doesn’t do a great job of providing the resources necessary for a smooth operation.
At security, after being assured that I didn’t need to remove electronics besides my laptop from my backpack, my carry-on bag was pulled for additional screening for being “too stuffed” with electronics. The screener flagged so many bags for additional screening that the screening checkpoint had to be shut down for a few minutes to allow the manual bag checkers time to clear out the backlog. I ended up having to wait 25 minutes before security personnel even began inspecting my bag.
From the crowded security checkpoint, I headed to the sole Priority Pass lounge at Stansted to find a sign saying the lounge was “at capacity.” Thankfully I was able to work my way into the lounge, maybe only because I knew a fellow passenger on the flight and he had saved me a seat in the lounge.
Getting from the lounge to the gate required taking a tram. Impatient passengers pushed and shoved their way in, which gave me flashbacks to riding the Tokyo subway. Some of these impatient passengers ended up being that group of guys that were having a party on the plane. They were having fun, no doubt, but it wasn’t as much fun for the passengers sitting around them that had to deal with the commotion they caused.
I try to go into each flight I review without prejudice, letting the flight experience stand on its own merits. However, after the aircraft change and seating downgrade, it was hard to go in with an open mind. I figured that the airline’s base fares were essentially a ploy used to trick passengers into having to pay for extras, while the airline gets away with providing the absolute minimum (no power/IFE/Wi-Fi).
However, I was happy to find that the buy-on-board menu was decently priced and other add-ons like extra-legroom seating were offered for reasonable prices at check-in. There was no check-in fee, boarding pass printing fee or any other “gotchas fees.” And, unlike Ryanair, the flight attendants don’t try to sell you lotto tickets or duty-free items.
All that being said, passengers still need to go into Primera Air flights with realistic expectations. But, overall, my flight experience demonstrated perfectly the power of the ultra-low-cost experience. Whether its travel for those that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it or travel for those that are traveling light and can’t pass up the opportunity to hop continents for around $100, Primera Air fits the bill of what it means to be an ultra-low-cost carrier in the very competitive transatlantic market.
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