It’s tough to click on anything other than the $300 option when you are booking a round-trip flight to Paris, especially when there are $900 options down the page.
But it’s also tough to see a tweet that says “AIRLINE CEASES OPERATIONS,” and realize that you now have a one-way ticket instead of a round-trip.
This is the downside of low-cost airlines, which have flooded the market with prices that seem too good to be true. But does that potential downside — that your airline will literally not exist anymore — outweigh the hundreds or thousands of dollars you can save by using them? It’s a tricky calculation for anyone to make.
You may not have heard of Primera Air. Until it announced this week without warning that it was bankrupt and finished, it was a small Danish 15-plane airline based in Copenhagen and Riga, Latvia that launched in 2003 under the name JetX.
On Oct. 1 Primera’s website announced that operations have been “suspended as of today,” and “on this sad day we are saying Goodbye to all of you” (sic). “Kindly understand that the usual options for contacts (via email or phone) can not be offered any longer,” they add.
The immediate termination of services has stranded passengers all over the world.
“@primeraair just cancelled all operations without telling us (we have a flight home to Boston in 2 days), and without apparently making any arrangements for stranded passengers to get home. Bravo, Primera,” tweeted one unfortunate traveler. When a media outlet replied asking for an interview, the man tweeted: “Thank you for the offer, but I’m going to try to enjoy the rest of my honeymoon.”
So it looks like Primera Air has gone bankrupt, which means my eldest daughter and her new husband are stuck in Paris trying to get home to Toronto from their honeymoon. Anyone know if @AirCanada or anyone else is doing anything to help stranded passengers?
— Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) October 1, 2018
One Primera flight attendant begged British Airways in a tweet for help, after she was left “stranded in Toronto” by the airline. Scores of other stories from unfortunate travelers have emerged as they look at other flight options, some of which cost thousands.
Behind Primera’s troubles, according to the BBC, was the failure to secure long-term financing, which followed issues with delayed orders for Airbus aircraft. The airline was attempting to scale and compete with other low-cost airlines Wow and Norwegian Air.
Adventures in the low-cost lifestyle
Ticket prices for low-cost airlines can be a third of what mainstream airlines charge, but the experience can make even the biggest bargain not worth the hassle.
I bought a Primera Air round-trip flight from New York-Newark to Paris-Charles de Gaulle for $348 when it popped up on Google Flights just before Labor Day. I had never heard of them, but their bare-bones service had a not-great-but-it-works review with The Points Guy.
At the typical price, which is often around $600 (at off-peak times) to more than $1,000 during the summer and holidays, an international trip like this is essentially restricted to a formal undertaking that requires planning and a duration long enough to justify the cost. But with a $348 flight, the prospect of a long weekend was on the table. Worth a try, right?
Two weeks after I booked, I received an email from “firstname.lastname@example.org” informing me that due to “operational reasons” my flights were canceled. I was given options to get a refund or rebook on a different flight with them or another carrier. I asked for and was given a refund a few days later, but was left with no flights.
I went back to Google Flights and found good news. Flights could be found for as low as $292! I booked it, using separate one-way trips with Primera and Level, Iberia’s low-cost brand.
Two weeks later, I saw on Twitter — not from the airline — that the company is kaput.
Some travelers in this position have recourse more than others. Consumers who bought their flights with a credit card can dispute charges and attempt to get the money back that way, which is what I did, successfully. Travel insurance that comes with many credit cards — check your terms and conditions — may cover you as well. Some debit card providers may also protect users.
For travelers that don’t carry any insurance through their cards, they may be stuck with little recourse beyond the IATA’s rescue fares, a program set up in 2014 in which solvent airlines offer affordable rides home to travelers left stranded by financially ruined airlines.
But even if you get the refund, you’ll be stuck without a flight. I closed the loop by buying a ticket for $245 on Norwegian, bringing my total cost to $378 (including the 115 euro Level flight).
As I should have expected, my low-cost adventure was not finished. The following day, I got an email saying my Level flight was also “annulé” for “raisons opérationnelles.” That’s French for “you are not going to Paris.”
I never got any more information about the “operational reasons,” but if Primera’s struggles are any indication, low-cost airlines with small fleets may have difficulty finding replacement planes if deliveries are delayed or if repairs hold up operations.
I got a refund and tried to book another flight over, but couldn’t find one in my price range so I was stuck with the one-way trip back from Paris the day before. However, U.S. law provides that even flights with no cancellations allowed can in fact be canceled within 24 hours of buying. It was 1:50 p.m., and I had bought my ticket at 2:10 p.m. the day before. I had 20 minutes.
Unfortunately, part of what makes a low-cost airline low-cost is that they don’t have hundreds of customer service reps answering calls, so a 50-minute hold time is nothing unusual. When I finally got a human, he told me they would honor the time the call was initiated. I had my refund.
After three airlines, two flights canceled by the carrier for “operational reasons,” a disputed charge, and a bankruptcy, I was back where I started. No trip to Paris.
This is bad, but it’s not the norm
This is not a typical experience, of course, and my experiences on Iceland Air, Wow, and Norwegian have generally been fine, though I have had multiple instances of getting emails notifying me that my flights have changed in some material way.
For flights that you simply must make, like business travel or inflexible vacation plans, it may make sense to spend a little more for the big airline with solid financials and a long track record.
But if you have flexibility or wouldn’t otherwise fly somewhere without a deal, low-cost airlines can save you a significant amount of money. For all the irritation over cancellations and delays, it’s hard to avoid the allure of transatlantic flights in the $300 range for most of the year, and in the $500 range in the summer, a time when flights routinely top $1,000.
Since you’ll almost certainly arrive at your destination without a problem, have a normal seat size on the way, and a generally unremarkable experience, I am one of the many travelers who thinks it’s worth it.
So I logged back onto Google Flights and searched my Paris dates: $380 with Norwegian, direct, round-trip, on a Boeing 777. I bought it.
Of course, it’s being operated by EuroAtlantic airlines, a Portuguese-based airline with a fleet of nine planes. So perhaps the adventure is to be continued.