Domini Clark is The Globe’s Travel Editor.
We come here today to celebrate WOW Air, the Icelandic discount airline that abruptly ceased operations on March 28, 2019. Its time with world travellers was short – a little less than seven years. Canadians knew it for not even three.
WOW Air launched with the promise of making international travel more affordable. If you were a no-frills traveller it was a dream. Everything cost extra – a decent-sized carry-on bag, on-board food, seat selection, even water – but that meant the base ticket price stayed low. And if you were a dedicated cheapskate, you could keep it that way.
I was on one of the first WOW Air flights out of Toronto. I remember watching the garishly bright purple plane on the tarmac, not quite sure what to expect. In her welcoming speech the flight attendant assured us all that WOW was “just like all other airlines.” But this wasn’t true.
WOW made spontaneous trips possible. The low airfares allowed me to make a new long-distance friendship stronger; they led me to discover Wales, a country that ended up changing my life; they turned me into an expert packer.
I once booked a flight from Toronto to London simply because it was $400 – round trip! Yes, it did mean a quick stopover in Reykjavik (all WOW Air flights connected in the Icelandic capital). Like a true budget-minded traveller, I made sure WOW didn’t get another penny out of me that trip. (In retrospect I feel a bit guilty about this. Sorry, WOW.) I found a bag that fit the measurements for the one allowed free carry-on: 42 x 32 x 25 cm, with a weight of less than 10 kg. I managed to pack nine days worth of clothes for a spring trip in March. I used compression bags to maximize space and I even fit hiking poles in there. I carried toiletries in my coat pockets and wore layers onto the plane. I’ve been a devout carry-on-only traveller ever since, and for that I will be forever grateful.
The in-flight staff were some of the nicest I’ve ever encountered. Once, on one of WOW’s early flights, the credit-card machine didn’t work and so, cashless, I faced the prospect of going hungry for hours. A flight attendant took pity on me and snuck me a staff meal: a single slice of processed cheese in the middle of a doughy bun. It wasn’t much, she acknowledged, but it was all they had.
WOW Air allowed for my preferred form of travel: budget luxury. On my last outbound flight with them, I found myself seated in economy, surrounded on all sides by a loud, large family with children of all ages. I began to regret my decision. But then, right before takeoff, a flight attendant uttered these magic words: “Ladies and gentlemen, we still have some upgrade seats available for $100. Let me know if you are interested.” My hand immediately shot up. Moments later I was at the front of the plane in a plush “Big Seat,” being served (now) free food and alcohol in peace and quiet. It was the equivalent of premium economy on a regular carrier, but still for half the price. Since my early WOW Air flights, I’ve learned sometimes it is worth paying a wee bit extra.
And, of course, WOW Air was a huge boon for Iceland’s economy, offering free layovers en route to Europe. Some will say the program was too successful – the country is grappling with over-tourism – but no doubt the loss of jobs and inbound traffic will have a negative impact on local workers.
Make no mistake, WOW wasn’t perfect. I would recommend it to friends but with caveats, namely: never book if your plans aren’t flexible, and know that if something goes wrong, customer service is terrible and you could be stranded somewhere for days (as evidenced by myriad online posts by irate customers).
A less-than-stellar reputation and ridiculously cheap flights and upgrades: I suppose we all should have seen this day coming. I have yet to book my Europe flight for this summer. While I’m glad now that I didn’t go with WOW Air, I worry that the relatively low transatlantic prices all airlines have offered lately will begin to creep up, now that one piece of the competition is gone.
Above all else, I offer my condolences to those who lost their jobs. And I mourn an airline that brought me incredible memories. Farewell, WOW Air. Your purple seats will always have a place in my heart.