U.S. travelers dreaming of a summer vacation sipping wine in Tuscany or driving Iceland’s Diamond Circle now have easier access to cheap flights to Europe, thanks to a new low-cost Icelandic airline. Budget carrier Play is set to launch service this year out of four U.S. airports to Reykjavik and on to 22 European destinations. The new airline will start its first U.S. routes out of Baltimore-Washington airport in April, followed by Boston Logan in May, Stewart International in New York’s Hudson Valley in June, and Orlando in October.
Among Play’s European flights, all of which will connect through its base in Reykjavik, are destinations like Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Dublin, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Gothenburg (Sweden), Bologna (Italy), and Tenerife (Canary Islands).
Promotional fares celebrating the airline’s launch have been as low as $109 and $129 for one-way flights; beyond the promotional deals, June flights from New York-Stewart to Reykjavik are priced as low as $133 one way, while routes from New York-Stewart to London Stansted are currently priced at less than $450 round-trip.
Play is able to offer such competitive fares partly because of its hub-and-spoke model, which allows the airline to keep its costs low, says CEO Birgir Jónsson. “Because this is not a direct flight, we are basically making sure that we are always one of the most current, cheapest options available,” Jónsson says.
The new airline’s primary competitor, Icelandair, is already responding to the shift in its home market by announcing its own fare sale, with summer flights from the U.S. to Europe starting at $399.
What to expect on board
Play flies single-aisle Airbus A320neos with all-economy-class cabins. The airline’s seats are a bit more spacious than other low-cost carriers’—with 34 inches of seat pitch and fewer than 200 seats per plane, according to industry site Simply Flying.
“We just try to make people comfortable for the time that they are there, at the same time recognizing that no one actually wants to be on an aircraft,” Jónsson says. “I mean, I always laugh a little bit when people begin to talk about these transformative customer experiences on an aircraft, which is fine if you’re, you know, Emirates or something. [But] we’re getting people from A to B in a safe manner, at a good price, at the right time.”
The airline plans to grow its fleet from three to six aircraft as it starts operations in U.S. markets this spring. By 2025, it plans to have a total of 15 Airbus A320neos and A321neos featuring a bold, cherry-red exterior—all brand-new jets fresh off the assembly line.
Similar to other budget airlines, Play’s affordable fares are accompanied by pay-as-you-go extra fees, like bags (starting at $44 for a checked bag and $34 for a carry-on for U.S. flights) and seat assignments (between $6 and $48 for U.S. flights). Flights can also be tailored to include a stopover in Iceland at no additional cost—a bonus for travelers with the Land of Fire and Ice on their travel wish list.
A flexible business model
Play’s inaugural flight was from Reykjavik to London Stansted in June 2021. It wasn’t the only low-cost airline to launch during the pandemic—seemingly counterintuitive timing that also provided some silver-lining benefits. Play’s passenger load factor (a key industry metric that measures how much of an airline’s passenger carrying capacity is being used) was 53 percent during 2021; not bad considering its startup status and the overall industry average of 58 percent. In addition, Jónsson says the favorable deals the carrier secured for its fleet of narrow-body Airbus jets offer a significant competitive edge.