Budget flights can save you time and money, but beware the fine print.
By Rick Steves
When I started traveling, no one spending their own money bought one-way airline tickets within Europe. It simply wasn’t affordable. But today that kind of thinking is so 20th century. Before buying any long-distance train or bus ticket, it’s smart to first check the cost of a flight — you might be surprised.
The proliferation of extremely competitive discount carriers has revolutionized European-itinerary planning and turned vagabonds into jetsetters. Because you can make hops just about anywhere on the Continent for roughly $100 a flight, deciding where to go is now mostly just a question of following your travel dreams: You’re no longer limited to places within a convenient train ride (or reasonable drive) from each other. It’s now entirely feasible to lace together a far-flung trip that ranges from, say, Ireland to Portugal to Sicily, if you please.
Using Budget Airlines
Since Europe deregulated its airways in the 1990s, a flock of budget-conscious, no-frills airlines have taken flight. Some of the most established (such as easyJet and Ryanair ) have route maps that rival their mainstream competitors. Meanwhile, dozens of smaller, niche airlines stick to a more limited flight plan. For a list of many of these carriers — including websites and some of the destinations they serve — see the table below.
Budget airlines typically offer flights between major European cities for $50–250. You can even find some remarkable, it-must-be-a-typo deals if your timing is right (for example, Ryanair routinely flies from London to any one of dozens of European cities for less than $30). Even after adding taxes and a boatload of fees, these flights can still be a good value. To get the lowest fares, book long in advance. The cheapest seats sell out fast (aside from occasional surprise sales), leaving the pricier fares for latecomers. Of course, it’s important to consider the downsides of flying budget airlines (described later).
One-way flights on low-cost airlines are generally just as affordable as round-trips. Consider linking a couple of cheap flights, either with the same or different airlines, to reach your destination. But leave plenty of time for connections — you’re on your own if a delay on one airline causes you to miss your next flight on a different airline. Pay attention to which terminal your flights use, as low-cost carriers are often in a different terminal than traditional carriers, and you’ll need extra time to get between them. If you’re using a budget carrier to connect to your US-bound flight, allow enough of a layover to absorb delays — maybe even an overnight.
Smart vagabonds use low-cost airlines to creatively connect the dots on their itinerary. If there’s no direct cheap flight to Florence, maybe there’s an alternative that goes to Pisa (1.5 hours away by train); remember that many flight-search websites have a “nearby airports” option that broadens your search. Even adding the cost of the train ticket from Pisa to Florence, the total could be well below the price of a long overland journey, not to mention several hours faster.
Searching for Cheap Flights
New no-frills airlines take off every year. Some major European airlines, faced with competition from budget carriers, have even joined the discount-airfare game.
Most budget airlines focus on particular hubs (for instance, Norwegian Air has hubs in Oslo, Bergen, Copenhagen, Alicante, London, and Stockholm). When looking for cheap flights, first check airlines that use either your starting point or your ending point as a hub. For example, for a trip from Berlin to Oslo, I’d look at airberlin (with a hub in Berlin) and at Norwegian (which has a hub in Oslo). But some airlines forego this “hub-and-spoke” model for a less predictable “point-to-point” schedule.
To find out all your options, use an online search engine that covers everything. My first stop when seeking budget flights is Skyscanner ; this no-frills website specializes in European budget airlines, and it’s a fast way to determine if any of them serve the route you’re eyeing. Skyscanner also includes major non-budget carriers.
Several other websites, including the all-purpose Kayak. are worth a look. WhichAirline.com does a good job of searching the budget carriers, and specializes in dredging up creative options for getting the absolutely cheapest fare. The visually engaging Momondo automatically searches for flights at nearby airports (read the results carefully to be clear on which airport it’s using). Dohop has a clean interface and generally good results. You can also check Flycheapo. which doesn’t include full flight schedules but can tell you which budget airlines fly between any two points.
What’s the Catch?
With cheaper airfares come potential pitfalls. These budget tickets are usually nonrefundable and nonchangeable. Many airlines take only online bookings, so you won’t have a travel agent to go to bat for you, and it can be hard to track down a staff member to talk to if problems arise. (Read all the fine print carefully, so you know what you’re getting into.) Flights are often tightly scheduled to squeeze more flying time out of each plane, which can exaggerate the effects of delays. Deadlines are strictly enforced: If they tell you to arrive at the check-in desk an hour before the flight, and you show up only 50 minutes early, you’ve just missed your plane. And, as these are relatively young companies, it’s not uncommon for budget carriers to go out of business or cancel a slow-selling route unexpectedly — leaving you scrambling to find an alternative.
Since budget airlines are not making much money on your ticket, they look for other ways to pad their profits — bombarding you with ads every step of the way (as you book, via email after you’ve bought your ticket, on board the plane), selling you overpriced food and drinks on board (nothing’s included), and gouging you with fees for everything. For instance, you can get dinged for paying with a credit card (even though there’s no option for paying cash), checking in and printing your boarding pass at the airport (instead of online), “priority boarding” ahead of the pack, reserving a specific seat, carrying an infant on board, and — of course — checking bags. The initial fare you see on the website can be misleadingly low, and once you begin the purchasing process, each step seems to come with another unexpected charge.
If you plan to check a bag, pay the fee online when you purchase your ticket — on many budget airlines, the price per bag isn’t fixed but gets progressively higher the closer you get to your departure. Be aware that you may have to pay extra to check a bag if it’s over a certain (relatively low) weight limit. Don’t assume your bag qualifies as carry-on in Europe; many budget airlines use smaller dimensions than other carriers. To avoid unpleasant surprises, read the baggage policy carefully before you book.
Ryanair. one of the biggest budget carriers, is as famous for its low fares as it is for the creative ways it’s devised to nickel-and-dime passengers. For instance, their complicated checked-luggage price schedule varies depending on how many bags you have, how heavy they are, and whether you prebook online — ranging from about $20 for a small bag prebooked off-season to $180 for a bigger bag booked at the airport in peak season, plus about $30 per extra kilogram over 20 kilos (44 pounds).
Another potential headache: Budget airlines sometimes use obscure airports. For example, one of Ryanair’s English hubs is Stansted Airport, one of the farthest airports from London’s city center. Ryanair’s flights to “Frankfurt” actually take you to Hahn, 75 miles away. Sometimes you may even wind up in a different (though nearby) country: For example, a flight advertised as going to Copenhagen, Denmark, might go to Malmö, Sweden, or a flight bound for Vienna, Austria, might land in Bratislava, Slovakia. These are still safe and legal airstrips, but it can take money and time to reach your final destination by public transportation. On the other hand, the money you save on your ticket (compared to using a mainstream carrier into a major airport) often more than pays for the difference.
Budget Airlines Within Europe
These are just a few of the many budget airlines taking to the European skies. To discover more, check out Skyscanner. or simply do an online search for "cheap flights" plus the cities you’re interested in flying to/from. Note that new airlines appear — and old ones go out of business — all the time.
The airline is in talks with manufacturers over a long-haul fleet. If they secure the aircraft -- likely provided by Boeing ( BA ) and Airbus ( EADSF ) -- Ryanair plans to offer budget flights to Europe from up to 14 American cities.
"European consumers want lower cost travel to the U.S.A. and the same for Americans coming to Europe," head of communications Robin Kiely said. "We see it as a logical development in the European market."
Tickets would start at £10 ($15). But don't get too excited by the rock bottom fare: passengers will end up paying much more than that.
Passenger taxes add about $200 to a flight from the U.K. to the U.S. And there are "extras" charged by the airline, such as fees for baggage or reserving a seat.
Like other no-frills carriers, Ryanair drives profits by charging passengers for services not included in the ticket price.
The Irish airline has long talked about pushing into the lucrative U.S. market, but it's not the first to spot the opportunity. Norwegian Air launched a low-cost service in May.
Last month French airline La Compagnie unveiled plans for cheap business flights from New York to London. At $2,200, its offer undercuts the majors such as American Airlines ( AAL ) and Air France ( AFLYY ) by more than half.
But the route has seen many try and fail. Three business class operators -- Eos Airlines, MAXjet and Silverjet -- had all collapsed by 2008. A fourth, L'Avion was sold to British Airways.
Ryanair is launching transatlantic flights, which it claims could have fares as low £10, as part of an ambitious five-year growth strategy.
The Irish airline’s board has approved outline plans to fly between up to 14 European cities and the same number of US cities. Destinations will include New York, Boston, Chicago and Miami from London Stansted, Dublin and Berlin in Europe. The services could start in four or five years’ time if the company can secure a deal to buy long-haul aircraft.
Ryanair said it was already in talks with manufacturers about purchasing long-haul aircraft but declined to provide further details.
“European consumers want lower-cost travel to the USA and the same for Americans coming to Europe. We see it as a logical development in the European market,” the company said in a statement. A Ryanair spokesman said the airline’s proposals included one-way transatlantic fares beginning at £10.
Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s chief executive, has long hoped to set up a low-cost transatlantic service. The company has, until now, held off as a series of predecessors have tried and failed to make such an idea pay. Zoom Airlines, a Canadian operation linking Gatwick and North America, had a brief existence in the last decade, while Sir Freddie Laker’s Skytrain famously went bust trying to pursue cheap flights to the US in the 1980s.
More recently, Oslo-based low-cost airline Norwegian Air Shuttle began a transatlantic service in 2013 with a return ticket from London’s Gatwick airport to New York starting at £389, although the cheapest flights can be few and far between. Gatwick boss Stewart Wingate described Norwegian’s long-haul launch as a “game-changing event”. But the costs of expanding into the US have plunged Norwegian into the red for the first time in eight years.
Ryanair’s head of marketing, Kenny Jacobs, told the Financial Times that the Irish carrier was a bigger brand and business than Norwegian and so would be able to build more traffic and a more efficient cost model.
Ryanair has recently seen an uplift in profit hopes after performance improved largely because of its discovery of the benefits of customer service. The airline has allowed more carry-on baggage, started allocating seating and cut punitive charges. It has also improved its website and launched a service for business customers.
The transatlantic route is one of the most profitable in the world, but it is dominated by long-established airlines, led by British Airways, American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic.
Gert Zonneveld, an analyst at Panmure Gordon, said Ryanair’s service would be aimed at a different market to the traditional carriers.
“It would generate new demand. If you can fly people across the Atlantic for a relatively small sum, a lot of people would fly out [to the States] for a long weekend.”
Ryanair would also need to attract business customers paying premium fares to make the flights economical, he added.
“There are a lot of questions, but I think it can probably happen. They have an incredibly strong record in their short-haul business on costs. From a unit-cost point of view they are they the lowest around.”
John Strickland, an independent aviation consultant, said the success of Ryanair’s transatlantic venture would depend on the airline getting a good deal on the purchase or lease of planes: “It is not just any aircraft, it is about getting efficient and cost-effective aircraft, otherwise you could lose your shirt.”
A low-cost transatlantic service would also need to attract a mix of customers, he said, both cost-conscious tourists and business travellers prepared to pay more. “If you have got people travelling for business, you have got a better chance of spreading your risk.”