It was just after 5 a.m. and I was sleepily downing double espressos at Iceland’s Keflavik Airport café.

“Did you see the show?” asked a fellow passenger who spotted me.

I was confused; the budget airline we’d both flown from Baltimore didn’t offer any movies.

She pulled out her phone and swiped through a series of photos that showed an otherworldly neon green haze illuminating the night sky. The Northern Lights.

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It must have been during the 10-minute stretch of the flight I’d actually managed to sleep. I was crushed with FOMO. Fortunately, there would be other opportunities to catch the phenomenon: I was in Iceland in the winter, when the days are short and the nights are long.

We’d come to the country on Play, which began offering direct flights to Iceland from Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport last year. When I last checked, the cost of a one-way ticket was as low as $138 — or as high as $803, depending on the date. Starting in April, the airline will add a route from Dulles to Keflavik, too. (But I know how you feel about Dulles.)

Budget airlines, also known as low-cost carriers, have a dodgy reputation.

“They come and go,” said Captain Ross Aimer, CEO of Aero Consulting Experts. “One day they’re... the next day they’re gone. You’re left with a ticket in your hand.”

A predecessor to Play called Wow Airlines abruptly ended operations in 2019, stranding some passengers around the world. And Play was, in fact, founded by former Wow executives. The original name was supposed to be WAB for “We Are Back,” before it became Play. WAB is admittedly a terrible name for an airline. But “Play” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. I might have preferred an airline named “Focus” or “Safe.”

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But at the right price, I was willing to take my chances.

Back at BWI airport, I had met fellow passenger Nancy Myer of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who uses the airline quite frequently to visit her son, who lives in Iceland. She gave Play high marks for customer service, which she said is “better than you’d see on an average budget airline.”

BWI is a gem among East Coast airports. (Sorry, Dulles.)

Myer said she had originally been scheduled to depart the following day, but had been emailed by the airline notifying her that her flight might be canceled on account of storms — a not-uncommon occurrence, I came to find out, given Iceland’s famously fickle weather. Play gave her the option of flying out one day early with no change fee. And she couldn’t wait to get to her destination.

“I just love Iceland,” she said. “I step off the plane and I have a sense of relief.”

With that vote of confidence in mind, I made my way through BWI’s security line and headed toward my gate. En route, I chowed down on a crab cake at an airport restaurant and began stockpiling snacks and water bottles. Like many budget airlines, Play charges extra for food, and I was worried about getting hungry during my approximately six-hour flight. (They don’t show movies, either, but lucky passengers who pay attention like my flightmate might catch the famed natural light show.)

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Beware that baggage and fees can eat into savings. On Play, each passenger is allowed one personal item, which must fit beneath the seat in front of you. When booking my flight, I paid around $70 extra to bring a carry-on suitcase. And since flight prices, as mentioned above, can be wildly inconsistent, you may want to comparison shop; Icelandair also offers nonstop flights from BWI to Keflavik.

As I lined up at the gate I noticed some of my fellow travelers seemed to have taken the personal item rule rule a little more generously than I had, cramming backpacks full of gear and wearing fanny packs, too. Flight attendants at BWI didn’t seem to enforce the size requirements before boarding, though on my return flight I noticed at least one passenger was stopped for having what was suspected to be an oversized bag.

Considering the horror stories I’ve heard from other budget airlines, my experience on Play was far better than expected. The planes, which have a cherry red exterior, looked clean and brand new inside. My seat was a bit firmer than typical, but the legroom — 29 to 30 inches, which is standard for budget airlines — was adequate. (A seat with extra legroom, which costs extra, will give you 32 to 35 inches in which to stretch out.) We boarded later than expected, but still managed to arrive on time.

My confidence in Play dipped slightly during my return flight back to Baltimore, when the passenger to my left tried to sit in the empty row in front of us. A flight attendant informed us that someone would actually be sitting in them. This was confusing — we were literally already in the air.

The crew member explained that both passengers were already on the plane and had spent takeoff in the cockpit. After a few minutes, the two stragglers emerged to take their seats, but returned to the front of the plane periodically, apparently to chat with the pilot. Already a nervous flyer, I worried about distractions.

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In the end, though, we landed safely, and I got to see one of the world’s coldest — and coolest — islands for just a few hundred dollars. On my next trip with Play, I’ll keep an eye out for those Northern Lights.

Illustrations by Rebecca Bradley for The Baltimore Banner

Christina Tkacik is the food reporter for The Baltimore Banner.

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