Level is the newest long-haul low-cost carrier to offer flights between the U.S. and Europe.
You’re probably familiar with Allegiant, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, and Spirit airlines, but what about WOW Air, Level, AirAsia X, Eurowings, or Norwegian? If you’re looking to save money on international travel to Europe or Asia, then you should get to know these long haul, low-cost carriers (LCC).
For domestic U.S. travel, budget airlines are common and popular. These “no frills” carriers typically offer varied price tiers, advertise bargain basement fares, serve secondary airports, operate point-to-point (versus connecting through a hub), have one class of service with little legroom, and charge fees for almost everything, like seat assignment, early boarding, food and beverage, checked baggage, blanket, etc.
Take that concept, but add many more hours to the journey, and what you get is a long-haul LCC. Unlike legacy carriers, these international operators attract customers with low fares, and then upsell on extras.
Large carriers have traditionally dominated trans-oceanic flights, and tickets are generally more expensive, but there has been growth in long-haul LCCs thanks to less-stringent government regulations and more-efficient long-range aircraft, such as Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.
While the discount model is fine for short flights, it may be a different story for those that could be as long as nine hours (more or less, depending on the route). The schedules and destinations may not appeal to non-leisure travelers, who desire flexibility, convenience, and amenities. And, LCCs aren’t always the cheapest, so it’s a good idea to use Google Flights, Kayak, or Hopper to do some price comparison.
However, due to the popularity of LCCs stateside, as well as the many fees implemented by legacy carriers, budget travelers have grown accustomed to having fewer amenities. Paying to check a bag? What was considered heresy a decade ago is now accepted (with reluctance) by many travelers.
Thinking back to our most recent long-haul jaunt, it’s hard to imagine flying for half a day without a complimentary meal, inflight entertainment, and Wi-Fi. Which is why we think the legacy carriers still have a place when it comes to international travel, especially the destinations they serve. However, as consumer sentiment evolves and legacy carriers continue to mimic their LCC counterparts – as we’ve seen with the new restrictive “basic economy” fares introduced by American, Delta, and United – we wouldn’t be surprise if the LCC model becomes the new norm.
From a tech viewpoint, these budget carriers aren’t entirely no-frills. Some airlines offer inflight entertainment, power outlets, or even Wi-Fi. For the tech savvy, that may be enough to endure a long flight while sitting in a cramped seat.
Here are five international discount carriers that have been making news, and a look at onboard tech offered.
Onboard tech: Inflight entertainment (via mobile tablet, for a fee in coach; not available on all flights), in-seat power (business class only).
The long-haul division of AirAsia, AirAsia X announced in January that it has received clearance from the Federal Aviation Authority to operate flights from Asia to the U.S. – the first Asian LCC to do so, according to the company. AirAsia X plans to launch the four-times-a-week service on June 28, 2017, between Honolulu, Hawaii and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with a connection in Osaka, Japan. Introductory one-way fares were as low as $99. Although regular fares will be higher, a quick search found fares are still less expensive than competitors that fly the Honolulu-Osaka route.
The route will likely appeal to Japanese holidaymakers, as Hawaii is a popular leisure destination. However, AirAsia X has had its eyes on the U.S. mainland for some time. The carrier says it is considering other states as part of its expansion plans. The trans-Pacific routes are some of the most expensive to fly, and therefore are lucrative for airlines that operate them. If AirAsia X could bring the low fares stateside, it may force traditional long-haul carriers to match. (Whether AirAsia X could turn a profit is a different story.) For now, trans-Pacific flights will remain the stronghold of legacy carriers.
AirAsia X packs them in: its Airbus A330-300 planes seat 365 coach passengers. Every amenity comes with a fee: preferred seating (we recommend the twin seats toward the rear of the aircraft), meals, and checked baggage, Inflight entertainment is provided via a mobile tablet, however, AirAsia X hasn’t announced if it would be offered on the new route. Wi-Fi isn’t an option.
Splurge for one of 12 premium flatbed seats and everything is pretty much included, plus a few extras.
Onboard tech: USB power at every seat, AC power (premium cabin), seatback displays with inflight entertainment, Wi-Fi
The Eurowings name may not be as familiar to Americans as its parent company, Lufthansa. Once a regional carrier, Eurowings has transitioned into a LCC, with service to primarily leisure destinations in the U.S. from its base in Cologne, Germany. One-way prices to Miami, for example, start as low as 140 Euros.
Eurowings configures the main cabin (289 seats) in its Airbus A330-200 with a two-four-two layout across each row. There is a small business class cabin with 21 recliner seats. When it comes to tech amenities, passengers will find a USB port at each seat (premium seats also have standard AC power); seatback displays with inflight entertainment (for a fee in the main cabin, except children’s content); and Wi-Fi access (for a fee).
Bookings on the Eurowings website are only available to customers in Europe (its website does not offer departures from U.S. cities). However, Eurowings flights to Cologne from the U.S. can be search and booked via Lufthansa’s website.
Onboard tech: Nine-inch seatback displays, Wi-Fi, noise-canceling headphones (premium economy).
Level is a brand-new Spanish airline that’s entering the long-haul trans-Atlantic market. Part of the International Airlines Group (IAG) that owns British Airways, Iberia, and Aer Lingus, Level was created as a response to Norwegian Air Shuttle, another European LCC that’s expanding in the the U.S. At launch (June 1, 2017), Level will fly from its base in Barcelona to Los Angeles (twice a week) and Oakland (three times a week), California (two destinations Norwegian is launching around the same time), with base fares as low as $149. Depending on the date, fares could be higher or lower; we found a cheaper fare on Iberia, but it requires a stop in Madrid (interestingly, Level will initially be operated by an Iberia crew).
From Barcelona, travelers can connect to other European cities on another LCC, such as IAG’s Vueling, Ryanair, or EasyJet, although Level says it plans to expand its service to other European cities.
Although Level uses a similar plane as AirAsia X (an Airbus A300-200), it’s configured with fewer seats (293 in coach and 21 in premium economy), all with nine-inch seatback displays for inflight entertainment. The main cabin is also more comfortable, thanks a two-four-two layout versus AirAsia X’s three-three-three layout – in-line with Eurowings. As with any LCC, everything else is an add-on, including Wi-Fi. Level customers can also earn and redeem points in IAG’s Avios program, which can be used on other IAG airlines, and vice versa.
Onboard tech: USB and AC power in all seats, inflight entertainment (on Boeing 787).
Norwegian is one of the largest European LCCs, and its long-haul ambitions have brought discounted fares to the highly competitive trans-Atlantic market – much to the annoyance of legacy carriers that have traditionally dominated this sector. Unlike leisure-focused LCCs, Norwegian also services major U.S. cities and airports, like Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco, to European capitals like London, Paris, and Stockholm. The airline recently received approval to launch new service in Newark, New Jersey; Newburgh, New York; and Providence, Rhode Island.
Although Norwegian has made waves by advertising ridiculously cheap fares ($65 one-way, plus taxes and fees), prices generally start at $139, but could be as high as $800, depending on the time of travel. Based on our quick search, if you plan appropriately, a October round-trip flight between New York City and London could be as cheap as $410, versus approximately $475 to $510 on American, British Airways, Delta, and Virgin Atlantic.
Keep in mind, however, that the Norwegian price is in the carrier’s lowest fare category, which comes with restrictions. Once you start adding things like meals or checked luggage, the final price could be comparable or higher than legacy airlines.
Norwegian Air Shuttle
Norwegian flies its long-haul routes on Boeing 787-8 and 787-9 aircraft, which can seat 259 and 309 passengers in economy, respectively. All seats feature a seatback display with inflight entertainment, and both USB and AC power. There is also a premium cabin that includes all amenities, including lounge access and priority access. Unfortunately, Wi-Fi isn’t available. For the newly announced East Coast flights, Norwegian will start operating the new Boeing 737 MAX 8 on those routes.
DT’s former Mobile editor, Malarie Gokey, is a fan of Norwegian. Compared to a full-service carrier, she says the planes are newer, and she appreciates the inflight entertainment and friendly crew. “It doesn’t feel ‘budget,'” she says. However, she never opts for the lowest fare because she needs to check a bag and likes to have a meal. “It’s a better deal if you just buy the better ticket than adding stuff when you’re onboard,” she says.
Onboard tech: AC power between seats.
Based in Iceland, WOW Air is the latest European discount carrier to make some noise. Already serving several major U.S. cities, including Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco, WOW will soon start flying to Chicago, Miami, and Pittsburgh. Flights connect via Reykjavik, where passengers can connect to other European cities. The airline advertises fares as low as $100.
Like all LCCs mentioned, WOW’s base fares come with restrictions. Passengers can pay for amenities a la carte, or buy a ticket from a pricier category that may include things like baggage check, seat reservation, or meals.
WOW operates a single class of service (coach) on all planes. However, some seats are designated as XL, XXL, or BigSeat (on A330-300 aircraft), which are available to passengers who pay for a seat assignment or business fare (BigSeat). When it comes to tech, you’ll find AC power between every seat, but there’s no Wi-Fi or inflight entertainment.
Although they aren’t categorized as LCCs, leisure carriers are very similar. European long-haul airlines like Condor (Germany), Edelweiss (Switzerland), Thomas Cook (United Kingdom), and Thomson Airways (United Kingdom) focus primarily on flying to vacation destinations, like Las Vegas or Orlando, Florida, and they target price-conscious travelers. Like LCCs, these airlines’ base fares come with restriction, and most amenities include a fee, but some carriers, like Condor, offer a better experience, such as free meals, bag check, entertainment, and USB power – like a typical full-service airline. For an upgrade, Condor and Edelweiss offer business class cabins with lie-flat seats and other extras.
Will U.S. low-cost carriers cross the pond?
Last year, JetBlue placed an order for 60 A321 narrow-body aircraft from Airbus. As part of the deal, JetBlue has the option to convert 15 of those planes to the A321LR, the long-range version of the jet. While JetBlue already operates the A321 in its fleet, the A321LR would allow the airline to expand deep into Europe. (Norwegian has also ordered the A321LR for its fleet.)
JetBlue has not said that Europe is definitely in its future, but airline executives haven’t dismissed it, either. In an interview with Bloomberg, JetBlue’s executive vice president of planning, Marty St. George, said, “We certainly see Europe as a great opportunity.” The company doesn’t have to make a decision until the end of 2017.
Although it’s categorized as a low-cost carrier, JetBlue’s higher-quality service puts it above most LCCs and on par with legacy carriers. Besides budget travelers, it also targets business travelers as well as those willing to pay for a premium service, with its Mint business class product. Its approach, according to the airline, makes it ideal for European markets that command higher fares. Should the airline enter the European market, it could prove more disruptive to traditional carriers than other LCCs
JetBlue already operates international routes to Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean – as do Southwest, Frontier, and Spirit. If JetBlue’s international expansion is limited by existing aircraft, then the economics of a small, long-range plane like the A321LR could open new routes, without having to add larger, expensive planes that’s typically used for long-haul flights. Of course, there are other factors to consider, but it seems it isn’t a matter of “if,” but “when” the airline will cross the pond.
How to prepare for a long-haul flight on a budget airline
So you managed to score a super-cheap ticket to Europe on an LCC, but you already know there are restrictions. Right away, you can forget about seat assignment, food and drink, baggage allowance, and inflight entertainment, depending on the carrier. Adding amenities could end up costing you more in the end, wiping away the savings. But flying cheap doesn’t mean it has to be unpleasant.
Most international LCCs allow one carry-on bag, plus a small bag that fits under the seat. If you pack your bags properly, you may find it sufficient for a weeklong trip. For many travelers, we know this is easier said than done. Begin with the right bag – one that will fit in an overhead compartment and is weight complaint, and fill it with essentials: a pair of shoes versatile enough for day and night activities, clothing you could re-wear or mix up for different days, etc. You can find plenty of websites that show you how to pack, like this one from TripIt.
If you’ll be flying for more than five hours, we suggest not putting anything large underneath the seat in front of you. As legroom will be limited, you may want to give yourself as much space as possible to stretch out. With that said, pack a small bag with the essentials you’ll need during the flight. We have a few recommendations.
Need more room? If you’ve exhausted the space available in your bags, wear the Stuffa One onboard. The vest has plenty of room to hold everything from your passport to a tablet. The best part is that it won’t weigh you down, and it can be used as a pillow or blanket.
BYO entertainment and power
Inflight entertainment may be nonexistent on some discount carriers, but thanks to tablets and phones, your mobile device is your source of entertainment. Load them up with movies, music, podcasts, games, and books. If you subscribe to Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, you can even download content for offline viewing.
Unless the plane has USB or AC power ports, you should bring along a power bank. For long-haul travel, consider packing a portable battery with 10,00mAh – more if you are charging multiple devices.
And, don’t forget to bring a stand. For travel, we like the Kenu Stance Tripod, which also doubles as a bottle opener. We also like the Ventev ChargeStand 3000c, a portable stand that also includes a 3,000mAh battery. For tablets, get the Arkon Portable Fold-Up Stand or a case with a stand feature.
Pack some food
Depending who you ask, not having to eat airplane food could be a blessing. But on a long-haul flight, you probably should fill up the stomach. Instead of loading up before a flight or bringing onboard junk food, pack healthy, solid foods and avoid overeating (think nuts and fruit, but avoid high-sodium snacks). Drink plenty of water, but not alcohol. Gorge after you’ve landed at your destination.