The backdoor route to Europe that will save you some cash

Summer travel to Europe is expensive. There’s just no way around it. You can use miles, of course, and there are generally flights available for 60,000 miles round-trip, but if you’re flying a family of four, you may not have the 240,000 miles you’ll need. Fortunately, there’s a backdoor method to save a few hundred dollars if you are willing to take an unusual path: fly through Reykjavik (KEF).*

There are actually two scheduled carriers in Iceland: the flag carrier, Icelandair, and ultra low-cost competitor WOW Air. The former is a traditional network carrier and I have heard nothing but good things from people who have flown it. The latter is similar to Spirit Air, where you buy a very, very cheap seat and pay for everything else, including advance seat assigments, carry-on bags, etc. It only flies to two US cities, Boston and Baltimore, but I’m rooting for expansion. Icelandair’s frequent flyer program is not particularly helpful, unless you live in KEF. It does partner with several hotel companies, but getting the critical mass of miles that you’ll need could be difficult. Regardless, both airlines offered airfares to Europe that were consistently less than their competitors on dates that I tested. My example will be Boston to Paris in the summer, but most tests showed similar price differences. I moved dates around by a few days to minimize the price.
Icelandair is a traditional network carrier. It flies only narrowbody 757s, so your plane won’t be a giant, but your flight will only be five hours or so from the northeast to Reykjavik. Even coach isn’t bad, with 32″ of pitch, while fees are minimized, as you will get to pack two bags. My sample flight to Europe was August 21-September 4 and cost $1,070, at least $100 less than the next best carrier.** Here’s where your krona will really get you further: business class. Since these are 757s, you won’t get the lie-flat experience; there’s only 40″ pitch. But it’s still more comfortable than coach and business fares over the water are +/- $2,000, as opposed to the $5,000-$8,000 that the fancier flights will get you. And finally, if you want some time in Iceland, this is the airline for you. You can get a free stopover with your flight for up to seven days.Ultra low-cost carriers get a bad rep, due to their wide range of ancillary charges, but I tend to appreciate them. If you can travel light and don’t care where you sit, you’ll get some serious savings. My “best fare” cost from Boston to Paris was August 18-September 3, for $690. There are, of course. If you want to check a bag, for example, they’ll cost you $67 each, though you can cut that down to $38 if you can do with just a carry-on in the overhead bins. An assigned seat will cost you $9-$35 per person. Etc. But there’s no questioning the value proposition, and the seating isn’t bad: the 30-31″ pitch is only 1-2 inches smaller than Icelandair and approximately the same as an AA narrowbody. For a cheap trip to Europe, WOW Air can save you several hundred dollars.Bottom Line: There are alternatives to the traditional network carrier for a trip to Europe. And you may have some time to use the hot springs.



*I’d like it to be known that I was able to spell Reykjavik without looking it up.
**Oddly, in almost every case, the second-cheapest transit country could be found by changing the “c” in Iceland to an “r.” Don’t overlook Aer Lingus.

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  1. Thanks PME! Glad you had fun.

    • PME on July 6, 2015 at 7:07 pm
    • Reply

    Happy to add that IcelandAir loves kids: free headphones, activity packs, and not-so-much-to-my-kids’-liking-but-still-very-thoughtful snacks in both directions. And kids’ airfares are 25% cheaper (in lieu of eligibility for frequent flyer membership). We paid for “economy comfort” class, which has a nice cancellation policy, eliminating (in my mind) the need for travel insurance–a nice benefit for a family used to the reassurance of Southwest.

    We had a fantastic, wonderful vacation in Iceland and met lots of Americans visiting there en route to other European locations. In terms of the actual KEF airport, I have to say that in a country that has clearly thought long and hard about how to maximize the tourist experience, the airport itself did feel a bit less organized/relaxed than I was expecting based on everything else about Iceland. We used the Flybus service to get to and from the airport, and trusted the Flybus recommendation of what time to book the shuttle for our return trip–however, based on the hectic airport experience, I’d suggest that travelers request an earlier Flybus than whatever the service recommends. It looked like a great duty-free shop (advertised as 20% lower than city prices), but we didn’t get to browse because our return trip through the airport was so rushed.

    Airport pickiness aside–a definite recommended vacation spot!

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