Business First Look

Can you really fly to Europe from the West Coast for $69?

Iceland's WOW airlines woos American travelers across the Atlantic with cheap air fares.

WOW air operates two Airbus A320 aircraft, seven Airbus A321 and three Airbus A330. Starting Jan. 15, flights from San Francisco or Los Angeles to Edinburgh, Scotland; Stockholm, Sweden; Bristol, England; and Copenhagen; Denmark can be had for $69 one-way.
WOW airlines
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What do a Kindle, a ticket to Disneyland, and an iPod touch have in common? They are three things that each now cost more than flying to Europe, thanks to Iceland.

Low-cost Icelandic airline WOW announced doorbuster one-way tickets from California to a handful of European cities on Tuesday. Starting Jan. 15, you’ll be able to fly from San Francisco or Los Angeles to Edinburgh, Scotland; Stockholm, Sweden; Bristol, England; and Copenhagen; Denmark; for $69, as long as you travel before April 5. It also launched $99 fares from East Coast destinations between Miami, Boston, and Washington, D.C. to Reykjavik, Iceland. 

These eye-catching deals are the latest in a decades-long race for market share that shows no signs of letting up in 2017 as airlines compete for consumer dollars.

Before you go booking a European weekend getaway though, make sure you have a way to get home. The $69 price applies only to outgoing travel, so unless you’re up for a long swim, a return flight on WOW will cost an additional $149.99 to $199.

And that’s not the only fine print. Like other Low Cost Carriers (LLCs) popular in Europe and Asia, WOW may charge for large carry-on bags, pre-booked seats, name changes on tickets, and checked bags – services most Americans are used to getting for free (unless they fly Spirit Airlines).

Even if you miss out on this deal, more like it may be on the way. Traveler Magazine predicts cheaper transatlantic flights in 2017 as more LLCs make their way from Europe to North America, putting pressure on established US airlines. “We are seeing some competition, and competition is always good for the consumer,” Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group told Traveler.

The LLC expansion continues a general decline in airfares that goes back for decades. The average price of a round-trip ticket within the US has fallen almost 40 percent since 1979, according to Reason magazine. International ticket prices are also down almost 6 percent in the past 15 years alone.

Price isn’t the only promising trend for travelers. Safety is better than ever. A 92-percent reduction in airline fatalities between 1970 and 2014 is even more impressive when factoring in how many more people are flying now than in the past, reports Reason. Cheaper flights attract more customers, and in 2014 the number of global passengers surpassed 3 billion, roughly 10 times the number that flew in the early '70’s.

How will legacy US commercial airlines react to the LLC invasion? Traveler predicts that the no-frills “Basic Economy” will be a buzzword this year.  

While the specifics vary by airlines, these “basic economy” rates offer a simple trade-off: cheaper airfare (priced to be competitive with low-cost carriers) in exchange for fewer amenities and more restrictions. Delta’s, for example, doesn’t allow for ticket changes, seats aren’t assigned until after check-in, and frequent-flier benefits are limited. On the plus side, however, basic-economy travelers still have access to Wi-Fi, onboard entertainment, and—yes—snacks.

For those who like their frills, airlines will also offer a new “premium economy” option. “Basically what we are seeing is a more transparent way: the you-get-what-you-pay-for experience,” said Mr. Harteveldt.

With all this good news for consumers, the only thing left is to decide where to go. Within Europe, options abound. Brexit continues to depress the British pound, sanctions are keeping the Russian ruble low, for now, and Denmark has weakened its currency in anticipation of the Brexit.