Last week, Norwegian Air Shuttle launched non-stop service between New York and London, as the first budget airline to fly the route since Laker Airways in 1977. And it's not a huge surprise -- the low-cost market is the fastest growing airline sector, with other budget carriers rumored to be keen on grabbing a piece of the transatlantic market, too. This is partly due to the emergence of more fuel efficient, economically viable, long-range aircrafts. Norwegian's new long-haul routes to the U.S., for example, will run on the airline’s new 787-8 Dreamliner.
But the all-important question remains: How competitive will travel costs on these budget carriers' transatlantic services be?
Norwegian's website is promoting fares that start at $256 one-way from New York JFK to London Gatwick. While we couldn't find a fare quite this low for the rest of the year, we did find a January 2015 one-way fare of $248.20 and round-trip fare returning the same month of $562. For the rest of this year, lowest priced round-trip fares we found are: $1,110 for August; $762 in September and October; $712 in November; and $662 in December.
To judge how Norwegian's fares stack up against other non-stop services, we checked British Airways' fares from August through January. We found one-way rates starting from $496. For a round trip, the total comes to $1,046 in August; $992 in September and October; $922 in November and December; and $1,022 in January. On Virgin Atlantic, the lowest one-way flight we found for this year is $359 in November. The airline's best round-trip fares are: $999.50 in August; $992.50 in September; $992 in October and November; $942 in December; and $1,022 in January.
So August aside, Norwegian's airfares are indeed significantly lower than those of the big carriers. But, as we've come to expect, a budget airline means budget-style service -- and that can have big implications for overall cost.
If you want to check a bag with Norwegian, it'll cost you an extra $43 each way. Reserving a seat will cost another $43 each way, and a pre-ordered menu of two meals and a beer or wine will cost another $48. Smaller snacks cost from $4 for a chocolate bar to $11 for a small sandwich. Finally, you'll also need to pay to use the airline’s headsets ($4) and blankets ($5).
All those extras potentially add up to another $277 on top of the advertised round-trip fare -- or a total of $1,039 in September compared to $992 with either British Airways or Virgin Atlantic (who offer one free checked bag; free seat selection within 24 hours of departure, two free meals, and unlimited beer, wine, or spirits). Assuming that you need the extras, it's only in January that Norwegian offers a significant saving on the entire flight experience.
So if you're happy to travel with only a carry-on and an empty stomach, you won't find a better deal than Norwegian. Otherwise, it might be better to stick with the "frills" airlines over the "no frills" option.
Update: As commenter, James points out, if, at time of booking, you choose the "Add Plus" option, you get two meals, one checked bag, and a seat reservation for a discounted rate of $59 each way ($118 round-trip).