When Hans Lei ’21 and Hyun Choi ’21 woke up Thursday morning in Iceland, they had plans to spend their last days of spring break seeing glaciers and ice caves before heading back to Providence the following Saturday. Traveling with six other University students, Lei and Choi expected the tail end of the trip to be smooth sailing despite the fickle Icelandic weather. But their hopes of a restful end to the week-long break were shattered when another student in the group browsed online and found an article about Wow Air, the carrier that was supposed to bring them home.
On Thursday morning, the Icelandic airline known for its low-budget fares from the United States to Europe canceled all flights indefinitely, according to a travel alert posted to its website.
The quick shutdown left many ticket holders surprised and in limbo. Thousands of passengers, including Lei, Choi and other University students, were left stranded abroad. Flying out of Boston to Reykjavik and other European vacation destinations, Wow Air had been a popular travel option for students planning vacations on a budget.
With no notification from the airline and no immediate refund, Lei and Choi found out via news coverage that they had to find a new flight, and they needed to find it fast. Two members of the group who are not U.S. citizens were traveling to Iceland on visas that expired five hours after their original flight was supposed to depart. If they could not find a flight back to the United States before the expiration, the students would technically be in Iceland illegally, something no one in the group wanted to risk.
As the students refreshed Google Flights and Icelandair’s website, they eventually found one Icelandair flight that left Friday with just enough room for the group; they secured the last eight seats on the flight.
Lei and Choi were among the lucky and prepared. Not only did they find a way home, but they had also purchased third-party travel insurance prior to their trip. After learning that a merger between Wow Air and Icelandair had recently fallen through, Choi had convinced the group that it would be a good idea to purchase the travel insurance for $50 per person, guaranteeing coverage if the airline went bankrupt.
For passengers without third-party travel insurance, reimbursement is uncertain. Flights purchased on a credit card or through a European travel agency trip package may be reimbursed with restrictions, according to a Wow Air statement. Others will have to wait for the company to file bankruptcy before being paid back, if at all.
While Wow Air’s financial status remains in transition, Icelandair is offering more affordable flights to those affected by the shutdown. But for Lei and Choi, those tickets were still more expensive than the original fares they purchased from Wow Air months ago. For a one-way ticket to Boston, the group paid about $430 per ticket, compared to the $400 round trip price they had paid to fly with Wow Air.
Lei and Choi said that they had purchased flights in November precisely because tickets were so inexpensive at that time. Although they knew that using a budget airline would mean higher baggage fees and lesser accommodations, Choi said that he had traveled on other budget airlines and was not worried. The group had joked that the airline would charge a quarter per minute for air, but they felt the savings was worth it.
“The most important lesson we learned is, when you are booking a flight, look at the financial statements of the airline,” Lei said, adding that they looked at Wow Air’s financial records since their flight was canceled and were shocked at its insolvency.
Although both Choi and Lei were grateful that they had the insurance, they had to pay for new tickets upfront, and will have to file a claim to get their money back — a process that could take weeks or even months. Many travelers may not have the ability to pay for another ticket before receiving a reimbursement.
“This was a fluke accident,” Choi said, explaining that most budget flights work out well. “If spring break was a week earlier, we would have been totally fine.”