We have flown to Scotland several times with our kids over the past couple of years. Normally we fly United from Newark, New Jersey since they offer a direct flight to Edinburgh. This time we flew Norwegian from Hartford, Connecticut. This cost us about $1600 for a family of 4 and that could have been cheaper if we had planned earlier or if we hadn’t included all of the optional purchases. For comparison, the flight we have previously taken from Newark was over $3000 for the same dates. Norwegian is a low-cost carrier that has recently started flying between the United States and Europe. Iceland based WOW air has also been serving this market. I have not flown WOW but I suspect that Norwegian is superior for 2 reasons. Firstly, WOW’s flights all stop in Iceland. Reports on SKYTRAX indicate that the airport in Iceland is overwhelmed handling all of the increased traffic and that changing planes there is not the most pleasant experience. Also, in general when I am traveling with my kids I really try to avoid changing planes if at all possible. It just adds more hassle. The second thing that Norwegian has going for it, that WOW doesn’t, is that it has targeted smaller airports. While you can fly Norwegian from Boston or New York, you can also fly it from Hartford, Providence and Newburgh. So, if Norwegian is the better choice for a low-cost airline how does it compare to flying with a mainstream company? Here is what we found
- It is much nicer to fly out of a small airport. We have a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old. The relatively compact size of Bradley Airport in Hartford meant that we didn’t have to walk so far from check in to security and then to the gate. Also, lines for security were shorter and seemed to move more quickly. In addition, for us, it was much less driving than going to Newark.
- Parking is cheaper at a small airport. We parked in Lot B at Bradley which was a short walk to the terminal and it cost us $48 for a week. Parking in the Economy Lot at Newark is $126 for a week and it is impossible to find because it is hidden down by the docks on the opposites side of the runways from the terminal. Then you have to wait for a shuttle bus to come pick you up. Getting, the kids and the luggage and the car seats off and on the shuttle bus always gave me a huge headache!
- Check-in was slow but bearable. Check-in for Norwegian is done in person and they only had a handful of gate agents. They were also really strict about the baggage. All of the baggage both checked and carry on had to be weighed and approved. I played with the kids by the window while my husband waited in line, so the wait wasn’t too bad. Our experience with United in the past really hasn’t been much better. They have a kiosk system for you to print out boarding passes but then you still have to wait in line to drop your bag, so it was never a whole lot quicker.
- You can probably skip the food, at least on the way there. We bought meals, but that was most likely a mistake. The United flight we usually take leaves around 7:30 pm so they serve dinner around 9:00 pm. The kids have always been awake and even if they weren’t particularly hungry were excited to eat on the plane. The Norwegian flight didn’t leave until 9:30. By the time food was served my kids were fast asleep and my husband and I weren’t really hungry either. It was getting close to midnight by that time and we had eaten dinner at the airport. Also, the food was pretty horrible. By the time they got to us (we were only in the middle of the plane) they had run out of chicken, so fish was the only option. It was smelly and pasty looking and accompanied by some soggy potato nuggets. In contrast, the food on the return from Europe was much tastier and served at a time when we actually wanted to eat something.
- You can buy snacks and drinks on the plane. If you don’t preorder the whole meal and you don’t want to carry snacks with you, you can buy snacks and drinks on the plane. Just remember, you don’t get anything without buying it, even water, and they only take credit cards. Don’t be like the people in front of us who didn’t bring anything to eat and didn’t have a credit card.
- There is no entertainment. My older son remembered the TVs in the seats from last time, so when we booked this flight the first thing he did was to start telling his little brother all about it but Norwegian doesn’t have them! Both of our kids have kindle tablets, so we just loaded them up with stuff before we left home and it worked out fine. As it turns out the lack of seat entertainment meant that there was more leg room under the seats whereas on United there is often a big box that has something to do with powering the entertainment system. They did have screens that came out of the ceiling and they played old sitcoms for a majority of the trip, but you had to read the subtitles if you wanted to know what was going on.
- You have to bring your own pillow and blanket. Normally, I just wouldn’t bring these things but for an overnight flight with kids, it seemed like I needed them. I was surprised what a hassle I found this to be. 2 toddler sized neck pillows and 2 baby blankets took up most of the space in my backpack. I am not sure what the solution might be but I just kept thinking of all the money we were saving and was able to overcome the worst of my irritation.
- They turn the seatbelt sign off! Our last few flights I have felt like the seatbelt sign was on almost the entire time. This is especially bad when you are traveling with a 2-year-old who is barely potty trained. Turns out this was more than just a feeling I had. Pilot Patrick Smith in his book Cockpit Confidential says that American airlines are more likely to turn the sign on to minimize the risk of anyone getting hurt and suing the airline. He says carriers based in other countries are more lenient. Now, I normally keep my seatbelt on anyway, but it was nice to be able to take it off when needed and stand up for a bit or go to the bathroom.
- Immigration is slightly better at smaller airports. I flew to London myself a few months ago and the passport control line at Heathrow was never-ending. I was sooo happy that the kids weren’t with me. Immigration wasn’t flawless in Edinburgh or Hartford, we still had to wait because even though there were fewer passengers there were also fewer agents. Still, it wasn’t the super long wait that bigger airports often have.
- Norwegian’s return flights give you an extra day in Europe. Most flights from Europe to the U.S. tend to leave fairly early in the morning. Many of Norwegian’s flights don’t leave until around 5:00 pm. This was a benefit for us since we are actually at quite a distance from the airport in Scotland so we didn’t have to pay for a dingy airport hotel the night before our flight like we have in the past when the flight was at 8:00 am. It also meant that the kids slept quite a lot on the return flight too which was nice. The down side was that it was pretty exhausting for mommy and daddy whose body clocks were telling us it was 3:00 am in the morning by the time we actually got home and got into bed.
I would fly Norwegian again in a heartbeat. We purchased LowFare+ tickets that for $70 more each way include a seat assignment, a meal, and a checked bag. Even if you think you might not need all of those things the a-la-carte pricing is $45 for a meal, $45 for a seat and around $100 to check a bag (depending on your destination) so the Low Fare+ tickets are a reasonable bargain. Even with the higher priced tickets, we saved over $1400 from what flying United would have cost and we avoided Newark Airport which can only be a win. Also, we got to fly in a brand new Boing 737 Max8 which if you are into planes like my husband is, was kind of exciting. Even if you don’t care about planes you at least feel safe in a fresh and sparklingly new one. A few years back I went to Ireland and when I was returning home, my U.S. Airways plane’s roof had no paint on it. It had all peeled off like the paint did on my 1991 Plymouth Sundance. Now I know that doesn’t impact the plane’s ability to fly, but it just doesn’t make you feel confident either! Anyhow, I give Norwegian my total endorsement. You should definitely fly them if you have the chance.