What It's Like to Fly from the U.S. to Europe on Play, Iceland's New Budget Airline

Play, a low-cost airline flying to Europe through Iceland, just had its first flight out of the US.

play's first us flight
Courtesy of Play
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Everyone loitering at Gate D1 of Baltimore/Washington International had ignored the small, boxy firetrucks parked outside until the lights flickered to life. A few dozen people lined up, faces plastered to the expansive windows. Something was happening.

Water erupted from both trucks in a powerful arc, streams crashing into each other at the apex. The Ghostbusters would not have approved. Through that misty arch, a crimson plane idled toward the gate, now glistening and dewy in the evening sunlight. "That, like, a new plane or something?" a man next to me asked.

The plane's arrival and the ribbon-cutting ceremony that preceded boarding drew a light, polite crowd—a rager compared to the generally subdued atmosphere of an airport terminal. But, as the interloper's question suggests, Play has not yet made itself a familiar name on US tarmacs. Play is a new low-cost airline based in Iceland, and it invited Thrillist along for this flight, its inaugural trip out of the United States on April 20.

The gate party was attended by airport staff, Play executives, and a handful of people who just wanted a cheap flight to Iceland. There were also confused passersby winding their way from nearby security toward other destinations, drawn in by flight attendants in bright red uniforms and a long table topped with red macaroons and a volcano cake trailing the mist of dry ice.

The airline is in the mold of the now-defunct WOW Air, touting impressively low-price tickets to Europe by way of Reykjavik. Play will fly out of three US hubs—Baltimore's BWI, Boston's Logan International, and New York Stewart—this summer, with the addition of Orlando planned for October. Play CEO Birgir Jónsson tells Thrillist that more airports will add service shortly. He did not specify what those cities would be. Though, the airline isn't looking to push expansion as WOW did to its own detriment. He says the Transatlantic budget flights are a proven business model if the airline isn't too aggressive.

what's it like on a budget airline iceland
Courtesy of Play

The Promise

The promise of $129 flights to Europe always seems too good to be true, even if those tickets demonstrably, if only occasionally, exist. It's partly possible because of what Play calls a la carte pricing. That is, a seat is just about the only thing included in your ticket. If you want to select your seat, you have to pay for that. If you want a meal, that'll run you $9.50 for a sandwich (€9) or $12.50 to throw a soda and chocolate bar on there. It's another $9.50 for a beer or $3 for a coffee. You can bring a purse or backpack, but if you want to bring a larger carry-on? Say, a rollaboard or duffel bag? You guessed it. That'll cost. How about a checked bag? You already know the answer.

Play is catering to a traveler willing to skimp a little on the flight to leave a little extra money to play at their destination. (Oh, I get the name now!) The flight itself is pleasant enough. Aboard my connecting flight to Baltimore with Delta, there was far less legroom than there was on the Play flight. That's not to say that it's luxury seating, but there was more space on this flight. Though, Play has announced that it will unsurprisingly shrink the amount of legroom available in the not-too-distant future.

Since you're traveling to Iceland or beyond, the flight isn't short. (Though Baltimore to Reykjavik takes about the same amount of time it takes to fly from Baltimore to Los Angeles.) You might expect a movie or two to ease your way through the Transatlantic journey. If you think this is where I'm going to say you have to pay for that, well, you're wrong. It's just not available. There are no screens or Wi-Fi on Play flights. The low-cost tickets are genuinely no frills.

Like with Icelandair, one of the perks of flying to Europe with an Icelandic airline is access to Iceland. Iceland remains a hot destination, and Play offers free layovers, a representative tells Thrillist. That had to be confirmed because it's a little complicated. You can only get that by speaking directly with a representative right now. However, the airline's website will include the ability to book a free layover at some point this year. So, on your way to Paris, you can spend a day or two in Iceland without purchasing additional airfare.

play airline
Courtesy of Play

The Reality

Play's ability to be a satisfactory option relies on what kind of traveler you are, particularly at a time when airlines cater to, as New York Times reporter Nelson Schwartz has put it, the "velvet rope economy" with levels of access doled out by who can afford to pay for it.

Like other budget airlines, Play does not cater to those looking to grease the path ahead by paying for first-class services to have lines and inconveniences erased from existence. Here, everything is for sale. Choices must be made every step of the way.

Play caters to those looking to save. And you absolutely can save if you're willing to have your seat selected for you, get everything into a single carry-on, make prior meal arrangements, etc. If you're planning on taking advantage of every a la carte amenity along the way, the actual cost of that ticket can rise steeply. (Even if the option to pay for something like Wi-Fi doesn't exist.)

That's the reality of saving on flights right now. Both "right now" in the expansive present, with airlines adding tiers to get a bit more out of those willing to pay for small luxuries, and
"right now" with a greater sense of immediacy, as the pandemic and gas prices cause air travel costs to rise. It's the opposite of convenience.

Still, the low prices are real, and that can be alluring and even put European destinations within reach for travelers who might otherwise look to domestic destinations. It's the opposite of the old travel adage. It's not the journey; it's the destination that matters.

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow Dustin Nelson on Twitter.