Monday 16 September 2019

Battle of the Budget Airlines: Our experts rate Ryanair, Aer Lingus, WOW and Norwegian

Low-cost transatlantic travel takes-off...

Our experts rank the new budget airline arrivals
Our experts rank the new budget airline arrivals
Aer Lingus
Norwegian Airlines

Pól Ó Conghaile & Thomas Breathnach

Low-cost transatlantic travel is taking off in Ireland, but how do the new arrivals rank next to Ryanair and Aer Lingus?

1. Norwegian

What's the story? Takk, Norge! The very suggestion of Scandinavia makes budget travellers shudder, so who'd have thought we'd be thanking Norwegian for a low-fares war? Europe's third-largest low-cost carrier (after Ryanair and EasyJet) has triumphed over legal turbulence to bring its much-trumpeted transatlantic flights to Ireland. They take off from Dublin and Shannon (to Rhode Island and New York's Stewart International Airport) and Cork (Rhode Island) on July 1. Best of all? They're direct.

Norwegian Airlines

Planes: Fresh out of the hangar, Norwegian's Boeing 737 MAX planes certainly rock the runway. The striking red-nosed fleet features Jonathan Swift and explorer Tom Crean as Irish "tail-fin heroes", but these are narrow-body aircraft with a single aisle, so don't expect much freedom of movement in the cabin.

Seats: The 189 seats have a pitch of 30" and width of 17.2". As they are single-class economy cabins, you don't have the option to upgrade, but reserving an exit seat should add legroom… for a hefty €35 fee, of course.

Basic fares: Going to press, the lowest fare for all routes sits at €129 each-way. Norwegian holds regular sales, with one-way fares from €99, so sign up to its newsletter to get first dibs on the alerts. Remember, these fares don't include checked bags or food!

Bags: Basic fares include a free 10kg (50 x 40 x 23cm) carry-on and "one small personal item", but the return rate for a 20kg checked bag is €70. Checked luggage can also be bought as a bundle including seat selection and an inflight meal for €65 each way.

Food: Meals don't come as standard and pre-booking one will cost you €35. That's pretty much theatre menu prices for a tasty-but-standard three-course meal, with tea or coffee and a tipple of choice. The inflight menu also includes light bites like a salmon and potato salad (a reasonable €7). You'll pay €2.50 for a coffee.

Norwegian's 787-MAX featuring Jonathan Swift as a 'tail fin hero'

Entertainment: Norwegian only offers pop-down TVs on their Irish/US routes. A free inflight Wi-Fi service is set to roll out this year.

Service: Between its smart, plaid-blazered cabin crew, leather seating and ambient Scandi-beats, Norwegian feels like a quality rather than a budget carrier. On recent flights, however, we've found the crew a little amateur - giggling on the intercom, or replying, "Too many people are talking to me right now!", when we asked about overhead baggage. This shouldn't happen at any fare, but anyone can have a bad day.

Pre-clearance: Yes from Dublin and Shannon; no from Cork and Belfast.

Travel Tips: Norwegian's "Boston" flights land near Providence, Rhode Island, a 70-minute Amtrak train ride from South Station ($23 return), while New York flights land in Orange County, a 90-minute bus ride from Manhattan (add $40 round trip). It initially sounds like a schlep, but even Aer Lingus' JFK flights demand a one-hour subway ride.

Final Word: Direct flights, consistently low fares and fewer add-ons than WOW air herald a transatlantic disruptor that could be here for the long haul. Plus... Cork! By linking the Rebel County with Rhode Island, the airline offers its first ever transatlantic connection.

Best for: Fliers with flexible dates, Munster addresses and a preference for direct flights.

2. Aer Lingus

Aer Lingus

What's the story? Aer Lingus isn't competing directly with Norwegian or WOW in the transatlantic space… expect it is, really. Direct routes, wide-body aircraft and the bundling of checked bags, food and entertainment within fares present a traditional (and pricier) counterpoint to the disruptors, and its US network is growing (Miami launches this September). It's confident in its offering, but will watch developments like a hawk - parent company IAG has already launched Level, a low-cost airline in Spain.

Planes: For long-haul flights, Aer Lingus uses Airbus A330s and Boeing 757s, while short-haul routes are dominated by narrow-body A320s and A321s. Though it gets two new A330s this year, and recently revamped its long-haul business class, don't expect as young and perky a fleet as Norwegian's or Ryanair's.

Seats: Economy seat pitch on Aer Lingus flights averages around 31", which is slightly larger than Norwegian. Business class is another matter (airport lounges and 6' 6" lie-flat seating beds, anyone?).

Basic fares: Aer Lingus rarely goes rock bottom on price. Sale fares to the US typically start at €199 each way, while you might catch a European fare from around €34.99. Extra charges abound on short-haul routes but we think its pricing reinforces a premium feel.

Bags: North American flights include a free 23kg bag. Short-haul fliers can take a 10kg bag (55 x 40 x 24cm) plus another small item for free. Checked 15kg bags cost from €15-€50 depending on the destination (taking a family to the Canaries? Ouch!), though you can book 'Plus' or 'Advantage' fares with 20kg bags included.

Aer Lingus 15.jpg
Aer Lingus Cabin Crew - Lorna Kavanagh and Laura McCabe and Karen Saunders celebrating the airline's new route to Miami from September 2017. Picture: Jason Clarke

Food: Aer Lingus' long-haul economy class includes a meal and drinks, reflected in higher prices. On short-haul, its Bia menu bundles a sandwich and tea/coffee from €7.50; a coffee or 500ml bottle of water will set you back €3. Bonus points for Tayto and craft beer, though.

Entertainment: On long-haul flights, every economy passenger gets a personal seatback screen, but Wi-Fi costs from €6.95-€29.95 (it's free in business class). Download those Netflix shows before you board.

Service: You voted Aer Lingus Ireland's Favourite Airline in our Reader Travel Awards 2017. It scrimps with the best of budget carriers on short haul, but crew rarely let this cheapen the service. Of course, attitudes to the airline are tinged with nostalgia, and it's not immune to customer relations cock-ups - as the recent AerClub rollout demonstrated - but even frequent fliers still get that fuzzy feeling when they board.

Pre-clearance: Yes (Dublin and Shannon).

Travel TIPS: JFK is closer to Manhattan than Norwegian's regional airport, but a taxi will still take an hour or so and cost over $50 (tolls are extra). Shuttles and trains are an option, but these can take time too. Consider Newark as an alternative - the AirTrain ($5.50) takes 30 minutes to NYC Penn Station... where you can catch a local cab to your end destination.

Promoted: See the latest  Aer Lingus offers and deals on Independent Discounts

FINAL WORD: Direct flights and inclusive pricing offer old-school convenience (Aer Lingus is the only Skytrax four-star-rated airline connecting Ireland to the US), but you'll pay a premium for the pleasure - often twice Norwegian and WOW's basic fares.

Best for: Travellers who like creature comforts, traditional airports and a shamrock on the tail fin.

3. WOW air


What's the story? Just five years young, WOW has made flying fun again - Snapchatting, installing funky signs ('Honk if you're hungry!') and more; in fact, 3pc of all Icelanders have actually applied for a job with the airline. WOW has blown Iceland wide open as a destination, flying 10 times a week from Dublin and Cork, with one-stop connections to North American destinations ranging from Miami to Montreal and super-handy Newark. If you're driven by price (and pack light), it's a terrific transatlantic option.

Planes: WOW's East Coast flights are operated with single-aisle, stretched-fuselage 200-seater Airbus A321s (a larger A330 serves California). The fleet is young and registered with fun, familial titles such as TF-MOM, TF-BRO, TF-JOY and TF-GAY. (Yes, this is an airline that likes to spread the TF-LUV.)

Seats: Standard economy seats have a pitch of 29" to 31", with upgrades from XL (33") to BigSeat (37"+) available from €102 round trip. It all feels pretty cushy, but 29" can pinch on longer legs.

Basic fares: WOW's transatlantic fares currently start from €149.99 each way (around €300 return), with Iceland routes from a tempting €59.99. FYI, the airline's Facebook page ( is a great tip for flash sale updates.

wowair crew.jpg
WOW air crew

Bags: WOW's fares include one free 10kg personal item, but it's by far the smallest size allowance (42 x 32 x 25cm) of the airlines reviewed here. Adding a 12kg carry-on will cost €16.99 to Reykjavík or €41.99 on one-stop North American routes, with 20kg check-in bags charged at €57.99 for transatlantic flights each way.

Food: You can pre-book single dishes (like a chicken Caesar salad for €11.99) 48 hours before departure. If you're peckish on board, a traditional smoked lamb flatbread cost €5.69, while a sublime pot of protein-packed Skyr yoghurt costs €2.69 (as does a coffee).

Entertainment: WOW doesn't offer inflight entertainment but does provide power outlets for devices. On a side note, it also has one of the wittier inflight magazines available.

Service: Dressed in retro, golden-era garb, WOW's cabin crew, with their lilting Icelandic accents, are super friendly, helpful and astoundingly sincere. A highlight for us on recent flights was the pilot's thoughtfulness in announcing that the Northern Lights were in full dance outside. Now, that's wow factor!

Pre-clearance: No (US flights are via Keflavík).

Travel Tips: Stock up on snacks before you leave Ireland or North America to avoid sky-high stopover prices at Keflavík Airport. Baggage rules are enforced more strictly than by any airline on these pages, in our experience, so consider upgrading to WOW Plus or WOW Biz for fares including bags. Fancy two getaways for one? Passengers can extend their layover in Iceland at no extra flight cost with a 'WOW Stopover'.

Final word: WOW really has painted the skies purple. It ain't a subtle airline, but it is one of our favourite new flying experiences. On the downside, those add-ons really do add up, so do your research and travel light to make sure the savings stick.

Best for: Price-sensitive passengers who pack smart and don't mind taking the scenic route.

4. Ryanair


What's the story? Ryanair has changed, but by how much is open to debate. Toned-down interiors, free second carry-on bags and a much improved app are all very welcome, but it's still best in class for annoying extras - in recent weeks, dozens of readers have complained to us about the airline deliberately splitting up passengers who don't pay to reserve seats (Ryanair denies this). Still, its massive route network has broadened our travel horizons, and basic fares continue to fall. Will it ever do transatlantic?

Planes: Ryanair only uses Boeing 737-800 aircraft, with some 400 planes averaging just 5.5 years in age. By 2024, it hopes to grow that fleet to carry a jaw-dropping 200 million passengers a year. Boeing 'Sky' interiors add slimline seats, and less yellow means the inflight environment is easier on the eye, too.

Seats: Standard economy seats have a pitch of 30", though you can upgrade to extra legroom from €11. If travelling companions want to be guaranteed seats together, they must fork out from €2 for the privilege. New Boeing 'Sky' interiors offer a 31" pitch.

Basic fares: Ryanair's sales are the best in the business, hands down. Along with regular flash sales (sign up to MyRyanair for early alerts), UK flights start from €9.99, with European destinations like Amsterdam and Copenhagen from €24.99, as we publish.

Bags: All passengers are permitted a free 10kg cabin bag (55 x 40 x 20cm) and small extra bag on Regular fares (Leisure Plus and Business Plus fares include checked luggage allowances); 15kg checked-bag fees range from €15-€50 depending on routes and dates. It's a changeable and frustrating system, but at least families get half price on kids' 15kg bags.

Ryanir uniform .jpg
Ryanair cabin crew model the airline's new uniforms. Photo: Taine King

Food: Ryanair's beloved fresh-brew Lavazza coffee exceeds expectations but costs €3… as do 500ml bottles of water. A Meal Deal offers a drink, snack and main (small lasagne or panini, for example) for €10.

Entertainment: With no plans for Wi-Fi, Ryan- air's passengers need to make their own entertainment. This isn't an issue on shorter flights, but options would be nice on four-plus-hour Canary Island or Greek routes.

Service: In our experience, Ryanair's cabin crew can be less assured than their competitors, and the inflight atmosphere still feels a bit cheap and chaotic. But we find them humane and professional when it counts. We love the Irish-designed uniforms, too.

Preclearance: Not applicable.

Travel Tips: Frustrating though it may be, passengers get the best out of Ryanair when they do as Michael O'Leary says. Buying priority boarding means you board first and ensure your cabin bag doesn't get stowed in the hold, for example. It doesn't fly transatlantic (yet) but is upfront about plans to feed airlines like Norwegian and Aer Lingus, and you can now book long-haul Air Europa flights (from Madrid) on its website.

Final Word: Ryanair's massive route network puts other airlines in the ha'penny place - really, where would we be without it? Love it or hate it, airlines like Norwegian and WOW simply wouldn't exist without this trailblazer. Provided you book early and off-peak, Ryanair is rarely beaten on price, either.

Best for: Unfussy, short-haul fliers.

NB: All prices & fees subject to change.

Weekend Magazine

Editors Choice

Also in Life