Low fares, high fees – low-cost carriers between the US and Europe compared

Flying between the United States and Europe has become much cheaper over the last two years with low-cost carriers like Norwegian Air, WOW Air and recently launched Level. I have frequently reported on this blog on fares as low as $69 for a one-way flight across the Atlantic (read here and here). But while the legacy airlines typically include your seat assignment, luggage and food on long-haul flights, these low-cost carrier fares only take you from A to B, charging for extra for everything else. Check out my comparison of the long-haul low-cost carriers serving the US and Europe – who are these airlines, are they safe to fly,  what’s included, what experience can you expect and what options to you have?

Who are these airlines? With names like WOW and Level and new, unknown airlines entering the market, it’s good to know if these airlines are safe, reliable and will still be around when your vacation date is finally here. Oslo-based Norwegian Air Shuttle is the biggest, with more than 100 planes, flying to over 150 destinations in 40 countries. The two German-based airlines Eurowings, a subsidiary of Lufthansa, (60 planes, 140 destinations) and Condor (42p/80d) are mid-sized and fly a lot of seasonal tourist routes. Icelandic WOW Air is fairly new and has only 12 planes to connect North America and Europe through the well located hub in Reykjavik. And Level was just launched, with only 2 planes leased from Iberia serving just 5 destinations. Condor and Eurowings have 7-out-of-7 safety ratings – a perfect score the same as legacy carriers in the US or Europe. The other budget carriers have not completed that audit, giving them a 5-out-of-7 safety rating – it does not mean they are less safe, just that they (similar to Ryan Air and other LCC) haven’t done the voluntary audit. All of them (except old-timer Condor) have very young fleets, giving you the latest planes with new technology.
LCC Airline Comparison

Flight Experience: All of these airlines are rated by SkyTrax as 3-Star airlines, similar to United or Delta, but that doesn’t tell you too much. In Economy Class, they all pack seats in tightly, with a seat pitch (distance between two rows of seats, measured from back of seat to back of seat) of only 30-31 inches. Eurowings and Level give you slightly wider seats at 18 inches, compared to the less comfortable 17in on the other planes.
If you can’t sleep on that long flight in the tight coach seat, Norwegian, Level and Condor offer your free entertainment on personal video screens and Eurowings charges a fee. WOW Air only offers “the thrill of sitting up high in the sky” as onboard entertainment – so bring your own, if that thrill is not enough for you!

Level A330 Interior

Level A330 Interior

All of the airlines give you choices for more comfortable flights – for a fee: You can choose seats with extra legroom, like an exit or bulkhead room. WOW Air and Condor have an Economy Plus class that offers more legroom, as well as included luggage, food and priority service – but you still have the same seat width. Norwegian, Eurowings and Level offer a true Premium Economy with wider seats (fewer per row), giving you lots of more space than the other carriers. Condor is the only one in this group with a Business Class on their long-haul planes. They have angled-flat seats that should give you a much better chance of sleep on those long flights and they can be much cheaper than the legacy carriers.

Condor BusinessClass SeatFares – what’s included? At these super-low prices all you can be sure of is to fly from A to B. No longer are food & drinks, your luggage or even a seat assignment necessarily included, so you need to compare or your super low fare can turn into an expensive flight.
WOW Air is the most restrictive, only allowing for  a small personal item – even a carry-on luggage will cost you $50, a checked luggage $70 per flight. So, one carry on and one checked back for a round-trip flight with connection in Reykjavik will cost you an additional $240! If you want to avoid that, read my Top Tips to Pack Light and The Perfect Personal Item.
All the other carriers at least give you a carry-on and personal item, which should be enough for a shorter trip. Because of the weight limits, you probably want to use a light carry-on like the CabinMax Metz – by favorite backpack for low-cost carriers! Condor even gives you 1 piece of checked luggage for free, the others charge between $32-90! Condor also gives you free food and entertainment, while the others charge for that as well – see the table below for all the details.

LCC Experience ComparisonBottomline: With new planes and good operations, I consider these low-cost carriers safe to fly and good alternatives. Your seat is similar to legacy airlines and service might actually be friendlier! If you travel light and have flexible travel dates, these airlines can offer great value. But if you plan to travel with a lot of luggage and want to full range of services available, the fees can add up, so compare carefully!
Of these low-cost carriers, WOW Air is the sneakiest – few people will be able to travel internationally with only a personal item and the luggage charges per flight leg (with inevitable connections in Iceland) are outrageous. Condor offers the most included with every fare, so their advertised fare will have most of what you need. Norwegian, Eurowings and Level charge reasonable fees, but you can get away without them! In all cases, it pays to compare the fares with the fees from the table provided as a guideline. The actual fees very by flight/connection and you have to go through the airline website to see them! The prices might also vary by country – a flight booked through Norwegians Norwegian website might be cheaper than on their US website – check before you book & safe!
Upgrade yourself: In some cases, it might actually be better value to fly in Premium/Plus Economy – depending on how busy the flights are, the differences in fare vary and it can be a small price for a much better flight experience – and you can avoid the add-on fees, because luggage, seat assignment and food are already included!

Norwegian Premium Economy - courtesy of Norwegian website

Norwegian Premium Economy – courtesy of Norwegian website

And even if these fees are annoying, the low-cost carriers are having an impact in the market – the legacy airlines are responding and have lowered their fares between the US and Europe drastically. So, even if you don’t fly with the low-cost carriers, you might benefit from their fare competition!
I recommend you start your search with Kayak.com, using flexible dates, and then go to the airline site for full fares and fees and to avoid any booking fees!
    Norwegian Air Shuttle
    WOW Air

I do not receive any commission for booking through these links, just in case you are wondering!

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