Play Might Be the Best Way to Get From DC to Europe This Fall

Bonus: the new budget airline offers (nearly) free stopovers in Iceland

August 29, 2023 7:28 am
A red Play airplane flying in front of snowy mountain
Traveling from D.C. to Europe this fall? Consider catching a flight on Play.

Play is a new budget Icelandic airline shuttling D.C.-area travelers to Europe for substantially less than the major carriers. After flying it this summer starting from BWI, I can say that it is doing many things right and one thing wrong.

Among those right things include the addition of a brand-new flight to Europe from Dulles, building on the BWI service that debuted in 2022. All of Play’s U.S. flights — from BWI and Dulles, as well as New York’s Stewart and Boston’s Logan — head to a single destination (Reykjavik) from which everyone scatters to their connection to the European mainland. Those destinations include 30-plus Schengen Area cities — Amsterdam, Athens, Berlin, Paris and Stockholm among them — plus London and Liverpool. If you flew Wow Air during that airline’s short life in the 2010s (and indeed, Play was founded four years ago by Arnar Már Magnússon and Sveinn Ingi Steinþórsson, two former Wow execs), you get the idea.  

Let’s triangulate this discussion with two other important points: 

Point 1: Europe was oversubscribed this summer. If Europe were a concert, it would have sold out in February and been subject to excruciating levels of dynamic pricing. From Stockholm to Sicily, thousands of fliers descended upon the continent. And indeed, for some European destinations, summer makes sense, Stockholm included. But most of the others are indisputably better in late summer and early autumn, when prices drop (in restaurants, hotels, attractions and elsewhere) and kids everywhere go back to school. Grapes are harvested across winemaking regions. Oktoberfest kicks off. And if you haven’t see fall foliage in Latvia — well, we’d really like to recommend fall foliage in Latvia. It’s spectacular — New England but with Riga Black Balsam, a querulous herbal liqueur, which is to say the best possible version of New England. (Play destination Warsaw is an amazing jumping-off point for exploring the Baltics.) 

Point 2: Iceland is excellent in September. Warm-ish weather, none of that damp spring chill, and while sunshine is never a guarantee, I can say that I’ve seen more of it in Iceland in September than any other time of year, and I’ve spent time there during every month of the year but November. 

This all adds up to our contention that late summer’s best travel idea is flying Play out of BWI or IAD to Europe and then taking advantage of a free stayover in Iceland. 

Here’s Exactly What to See at the New DC Outpost of the Rubell Museum
It’s full of beauty and some well-deserved content advisories

If you’re wondering what it’s like flying Play, I have notes. 

1. Even as a United status member, I didn’t notice much of a difference in boarding, probably because I make it my mission to be the last person to board on any flight. The airline’s livery consists of Airbus A321s and A320s; I flew A321s on all four legs, to and from Europe.

2. There’s no seatback entertainment, so load up your laptop. 

3. This might not matter to most, but it matters to me a lot: Flying into London’s Stansted or Paris’s CDG with an American passport in July — ugh, you’re asking for trouble (and looping lines that begin at the aircraft door). Things are changing, and even occasionally improving, with the introduction of PARAFE facial-recognition gates at both airports, but I’m not totally convinced these are consistently faster than human border control agents — it takes time to position that passport in exactly the right way. Iceland is in the Schengen Area, so for all of Play’s European destinations outside of the U.K. (which stubbornly maintained its own borders even pre-Brexit) you won’t need to go through immigration on arrival. And of all the Schengen countries, Iceland has my vote for the most expedient border control. It is a joy crossing into the Schengen in Iceland, rather than France, for example, and I personally would take the aggravation of deboarding and reboarding over standing/wilting in line at CDG. 

The interior of a Play plane
A view of the inside of a Play plane.
Bernhard Kristinn Ingimundarson

More to the point, the extremely quick change between planes in Reykjavik means that it’s easy to get a (literal) taste of Iceland (read: salmon salad to go) or add on an entirely separate component to your trip. I opted not to make use of the airline’s almost free stopover benefit (there’s a small service fee), which I regretted. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in Iceland — including at the absolutely spectacular Deplar Farm, an Eleven Experience lodge I was told was Justin Timberlake’s “favorite playbox in Iceland,” thanks to its heli-skiing and whale-watching and sauna-going and everything else — and one of the best things about this small, amazing island is that you can have an excellent time in Iceland in 24 hours (I’d stay at the Blue Lagoon and float in the highly mineralized waters for as long as possible) or 24 days (looping around the country on its 820-mile ring road, Þjóðvegur 1). 

All in all, Play is an excellent way to travel. To be fair, as a solo traveler with a single bag to check, no kids, no dietary restrictions and no need for a throw-up bag I noticed wasn’t immediately available in the seatback compartment — I didn’t push at the airline’s edges too much. For me, there was a single downside: Travelers on Play — even those properly registered, who have been using the service for ages — cannot avail themselves of TSA PreCheck departing the U.S. That said, BWI’s security screening was tidy and fast, and I made it through, in July, in under 10 minutes. If that inconvenience wasn’t worth a fare significantly under the major carriers, I don’t know what might be.


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