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What you get for $111 airfare to Iceland

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By Leslie Josephs, CNBC
  • WOW Air has expanded with low fares and lots of fees.
  • Travelers have to pay up to select seats or to bring luggage.

Budget airline WOW made a name for itself by offering rock-bottom fares for seats aboard its purple jets across the Atlantic. The catch: fees for seat selection, food and luggage.

I was curious about the airline because I had heard some negative feedback from other travelers about rigid fees and a lack of information from the carrier when things go wrong. WOW also ranked last among 72 airlines worldwide in a recent study from AirHelp, a company that helps travelers get compensated by airlines when things go wrong with their flights.

So is it worth it to fly long-haul on an ultra-low cost airline? That depends on your expectations and how many wardrobe changes you require on your trip. I snagged a ticket in early June to Iceland from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, and I tried to keep costs low, starting with my subway and AirTrain ride to the airport.

The ticket was just about $300 — just about $111 for the first leg out — a great deal for a fare less than a week before traveling. I was headed to Iceland to meet with WOW's CEO, Skuli Mogensen. Mogensen at the last minute had to move our meeting to another date because he was going to be out of the country, a date change which cost $400 given the difference in airfare. At one point I accidentally choose the wrong date and was charged $51 and a customer service agent who picked up the call an hour later said it couldn't be refunded because it was my fault. (It was my error but since I had handed over an additional $400 I thought I'd have some chance of getting that waived.)

I took a gamble and did not select a seat for my outbound flight, which would have cost $7, and at least $40 for more legroom. I lucked out with a window seat: 30A. Because a carry-on bag costs at least $45, I used a tape measure to make sure my small backpack met the standards for a free, personal item: 17 inches, by 10 inches by 10 inches. For a longer trip, I would recommend packing as light as possible — doing laundry in Barcelona is cheaper than bringing a bigger bag with you for $45.

The flight was scheduled to take off at 12:40 a.m. WOW charges for food on board, and because the flight is so late the best bet is to eat a meal before the airport or take a gamble that there will be food on board. Bring your own water — WOW charges for bottled water on board. A late arriving aircraft pushed back the departure time, at first about 40 minutes. I received a text message from the airline at 3:30 p.m. about the delay. There wasn't any information about further delays until passengers arrived at the airport.

The plane was delayed about another hour after that. Takeoff was delayed about 30 minutes because of a "mess" on the plane, which one source said was because staff had to clean up after a dog that was on the arriving flight. Larger airlines often have better access to backup crew and aircraft when things go wrong, but such a delay is hardly uncommon on big carriers.

This reporter is 5' 4" and most of WOW's seats have between 29 and 30 inches of legroom. The flight to Iceland is about five hours and while I had some trouble crossing my legs, I didn't notice much of a difference between these seats and flying trans-continental on a U.S. carrier. Purple mood lighting on the brand-new plane was soothing, and because it was a red-eye flight, exhaustion took hold from any discomfort.

After making up some time in the air, the flight only landed at the Reykjavik airport about one hour late and a flight attendant announced that connecting flights would be held at the airport for the arriving passengers. (One passenger was fretting that he would miss his connection to Copenhagen, which was set to happen a day before so he decided to fly a day later.) Connecting traffic now surpasses traffic in and out of WOW's Iceland base, according to its CEO.

The Keflavik International Airport is a delight, bright with decent food, especially for passengers used to the worn, workhorse airports of the U.S.

The flight back, a day later, left right on time. I sprung for the $54 XXL seat (it's $5 cheaper if you opt for that larger seat at the time of booking) and it has at least 35 inches of legroom. It was a worthwhile expense, especially on a more than five-hour flight back to New York. I even tried the food: a $9.50 cheese pizza, which made me less hungry but I would opt for eating before the flight, if I had to do it all over again.

WOW does not offer Wi-Fi or seatback entertainment screens (which is also fine on an overnight flight for me). It does have USB outlets and plugs at each seat, but the one in our XXL row didn't work.

The low-end of WOW's airfares are true bargains, but those sub-$100 fares aren't always available and competitors like Delta Air Lines  sometimes offer fares similar to WOW's. Large airlines, however, aren't allowing travelers to check a bag for free anymore on trans-Atlantic flights if they're traveling on the cheapest, basic economy tickets.

To make it bearable and cheap, pack very light, eat ahead of time and if you need more space, the extra room is worth the expense. The ticket is still a bargain, even with the surcharge for 35 inches of legroom.

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