One recent search, from New York City to Paris, was for a departure on Oct. 6, returning on Oct. 15. A round-trip direct flight was about $561 with taxes and surcharges. That was cheaper than most flights on major carriers, including British Airways, Air France, Delta and United, which for those dates were offering economy tickets around $700 to $800. Great. Yet in this particular case, while the Norwegian fare was cheap, it wasn’t the absolute cheapest because of a promotion from yet another low-cost carrier.
XL Airways, a French low-cost carrier, had a nonstop round-trip fare from John F. Kennedy International Airport for $471.20 on Expedia including taxes and fees (it was slightly more, $486.20 with taxes and fees, on the XL website). But take note, Francophiles: On certain routes Norwegian is offering its own promotions — like round-trip, nonstop flights between New York and Paris in March 2018 for around $400.
The best way to find the rock-bottom fares on Norwegian is to click on the link for the low fare calendar on its website. By doing this I was able to see, for instance, that a flight to London from New York on Aug. 12 was $149.90 — cheaper than the fare the previous Saturday, which would have cost an additional $110. A return to New York from London on Aug. 18 was $509.90, $40 less than the previous Friday. That made the round-trip total for the nonstop flight $659.80 including taxes and surcharges — less than other round-trip nonstops from major carriers between New York and London, which were starting around $800.
When considering low-cost carriers, keep in mind that you’re generally not buying much more than a seat. The Norwegian fares mentioned above, for instance, do not include a meal, seat selection or a checked bag. Level’s fares have similar restrictions. XL’s fares, surprisingly, include a meal and a checked bag.
Level, another nascent player, announced in June that it would be offering low-cost long-haul flights. Level is owned by IAG, the parent of Aer Lingus, British Airways, Vueling and Iberia. The Iberia connection explains why, when trying to book through the Level website, I was redirected to Iberia’s site. Currently, Level is operated by Iberia and flies only between Barcelona and Los Angeles, Oakland, Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, and Buenos Aires. More cities may be added.
Level fares weren’t available on many of the days I wanted to book, and the website was a bit wonky during recent flight searches. But in one successful session, I chose a flight to Barcelona from Los Angeles on Sunday, Sept. 7, with a return on the 14th. The site redirected me to Iberia, where several one-way fares were displayed.
The cheapest fare in economy was a direct flight from Level: around $605. For a little more, $670, I could get a non-Level Iberia fare known as a Basic+ seat, which includes a checked bag and meals during the flight. (The fare was nonrefundable, but I could make changes for a fee.) And if I spent yet another $15, I could fly Optimal, which includes the Basic+ features as well as the ability to choose a particular seat. If you want to save, you’ll have to resist the upsell.
Now let’s look at the return: The Level flight was direct (nice) for about $426. (The Basic+ fare was $491. The Optimal fare was $506.) Choosing the Level fares in both directions, the ticket was $1,029.72.
I ran a search on Google Flights to compare that fare with some from other carriers. The Level price was the cheapest fare for a nonstop between Los Angeles and Barcelona. Actually, it was the only nonstop flight that turned up on those days. (Travelers willing to make a stop could have found round-trip fares for much less, like one on KLM for $723.)
In some searches, comparing the same trip on Norwegian and Level was instructive. Consider a round-trip from Los Angeles to Barcelona, departing Oct. 8 and returning Oct. 15. The departure on Norwegian included one stop for about $258. The return was direct, for about $312. The total was $570, including taxes and surcharges.
On Level, for the same trip, the departing flight was direct for about $295; however, there was no available Level return fare on that Sunday, Oct. 15. The return fare offered on the site was a Flexible fare for around $1,116 that included things such as a checked bag, meals, seat selection and ticket changes. That kicked the round-trip total up to $1,409.66.
This sort of thing stands as a reminder to bargain hunters: You’re not automatically getting a deal just because you’re booking through a low-cost website. Be sure to pay attention to the fares that turn up, and compare them with those from other airlines. A quick search using the Google Flights tool, or a booking site such as Expedia, will show you whether you’re scoring a deal. In fact, you may want to start your search using these tools as they often pull up the lowest fares, including those from Norwegian, and other low-fare airlines like the Icelandic carrier, WOW Air. (This month WOW introduced its first flight from the Midwest, with service between Chicago and Iceland.)
As with any low-cost option, there are trade-offs. You must weigh the ticket cost against other factors, like your physical comfort and peace of mind. Is a cheaper ticket worth not being able (or paying extra) to check a bag or have a meal during a flight? Is it worth being assigned a middle seat or one beside the bathroom? These are the sorts of questions to take into account when considering low-cost, long-haul carriers. At what price the far-flung vacation?
Only you can answer.