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Transatlantic flights: Is no-frills the future of long-haul?

With British Airways and Virgin Atlantic adding 'basic' fares — and a new low-cost airline on the scene — will we be changing the way we fly transatlantic?

By Nicola Trup
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:23 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 12:27 BST
Virgin Atlantic
Virgin Atlantic

What's the deal here?
The airline price war has just got interesting with transatlantic flights. Two of the biggest 'full-service' airlines are introducing discounted 'basic' fares on long-haul flights — meaning travelling to North America could become a great deal cheaper.

Who are we talking about?
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. Just days apart, each announced it was introducing hand-baggage only fares for long-haul. Both include meals, with Virgin's Economy Light ticket also offering seat selection at check-in, which is handy if you're going to be stuck in the same seat for eight hours. British Airways' Basic economy, meanwhile, doesn't allow passengers to choose their seats, and will be offered on 10 long-haul routes, including Dubai, Boston, Hong Kong, Philadelphia and Singapore.

The new fares will see British Airways and Virgin going head-to-head with no-frills airline Norwegian and another Scandinavian carrier, Primera Air. The latter's first long-haul routes from the UK take off in April, starting with Stansted to New York's Newark airport, with return fares from around £246.

What's the upshot?
That depends on your priorities. British Airways say its Basic fair will cost up to £60 less than the standard return fare, with London to Boston starting from £175 each way. Virgin Atlantic's Economy Light prices from London to New York start at £310 return.

While this may sound like great news, practically speaking it might not make much of a difference to most of us. As an ABTA spokesperson pointed out: "The intention [of unbundling certain services] is to lower fares, and for many people price is their primary concern. However, on long-haul flights people are less likely to travel with just hand luggage."

Craig West, editor of Airliner World magazine, added: "The advantage of unbundling economy services is that customers are only paying for the elements they want to receive. Or, to put it another way, they aren't paying for things they don't."

Is this definitely the way to go, then?
This is where the priorities come in. A bunch of us here at National Geographic Traveller are about to fly out to New York for a colleague's wedding, and we each paid between £360 and £390 for economy tickets on full-service carriers. The trick: we all booked via trusted third-party sites, such as Travelbag and Expedia (always check the reviews first), which knocked around £100 off the cost. We felt check-in luggage and meals were essential on our eight-hour hop across the Atlantic.

However, with prices seemingly about to drop even further, it may soon be time for all of us to start travelling — and eating — light.

What we paid: Heathrow — New York JFK in May

Virgin Atlantic
Cost: £389 return
Booked through: Travelbag
Luggage allowance: 10kg hand baggage,
23kg checked-in luggage
Includes: meals, seat selection 24 hours before departure, free wi-fi
Farida Zeynalova, contributing editor

British Airways
Cost: £365 return
Booked through: TravelUp
Luggage allowance: 23kg hand baggage plus an additional
handbag/laptop bag up to 23kg, 23kg checked-in luggage
Includes: meals, seat selection 24 hours before departure
Nicola Trup, associate editor

Follow @nickytrup

Published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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