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Finding cheap flights in Europe

Although most U.S. travelers are pretty well up on our own domestic low-fare airlines, we’re often in the dark about the many similar lines that have suddenly emerged in Europe. I often receive questions about, say, how to find low-fare flights between Barcelona and Zurich. Fortunately, the Internet makes the search easy.

The European low-cost airlines

Europe took a different path to low-cost air service than we did here in the U.S. We deregulated our airlines early, and airlines such as Southwest, JetBlue, AirTran, and others have flourished with low-cost, low-fare business models. By and large, our low-fare lines fly the same routes that were formerly the province of the “legacy” lines.

By contrast, Europe had earlier developed a huge charter-based tour system linking the main population centers in the North with beach destinations on the Mediterranean coasts and nearby islands. The charter airlines involved in this system coexisted with high-fare legacy lines because they catered almost entirely to vacationers and sold most of their seats as parts of tour packages; the legacies remained dominant on popular business routes.

In Europe, the growth of scheduled low-fare lines serving both business and vacation markets has been fairly recent. So far, the region has grown two “800-pound gorillas,” easyJet and Ryanair, plus dozens of smaller wannabes. More than a dozen upstart lines have already folded, and the future of many others is uncertain. EasyJet is based in England, and Ryanair in Ireland, although both lines have established additional hubs in other countries. And you find smaller startup lines based in just about any European country you can name.

As in the U.S., competition from low-fare lines has squeezed the legacy lines to the extent that the latter have matched many of the newly reduced fares, at least for some seats. However, the low-fare lines still serve some routes that the legacies ignore.

Remote or underused airports

One of the main differences between low-fare lines in Europe and the U.S. is that some European lines serve major cities through secondary—and often extremely remote—airports:

  • Ryanair is the main proponent of this approach, serving Brussels through Charleroi (about 30 miles), Frankfurt through Hahn (about 75 miles), Milan through Orio al Serio (about 30 miles), Paris through Beauvais (about 55 miles), Rome through Ciampino (Rome’s old close-in airport), and such. Some other low-fare lines also use these fields. In general, transportation between these fields and the major cities is poor, requiring a combination of bus and rail. By contrast, easyJet generally uses the same airports as the legacy lines.
  • London. EasyJet serves London mainly through Luton, although it has some flights from Gatwick; Ryanair uses mainly Stansted but with a few flights from Luton and Gatwick. All three airports are considerably farther from the city center than Heathrow, usually requiring a rail trip, but rail service is pretty good.

Minimal service

If you thought coach service in the U.S. was as bad as it gets, wait until you try easyJet or Ryanair. Legroom on Ryanair is one to two inches less than even the usual sardine-can seating you find in the U.S., and easyJet is an inch less than that. On Ryanair, especially, you pay extra for just about anything. I know of no short-haul European low-fare line that offers a premium economy option, although that’s available on a few of the charter or charter-style lines that fly long-haul services to beach destinations around the world.

Still, most of you are looking for low prices, and that’s what you get. As in the U.S., however, the cheapest seats are capacity controlled, and the lowest rates sell out very quickly on peak days and at peak times. You may have a tough time finding any seats at those enticing prices you see in the ads.

Finding your flights

As far as I can tell, the big U.S. online sites such as Expedia do not show flights or fares on lines such as easyJet, Ryanair, or the smaller low-cost lines. You can, however, locate flights through any of several sites based in Europe. All of them provide information only; you click through to individual airlines to make reservations and buy tickets:

  • CH-Aviation. Enter your origin and destination (cities or countries) and the site displays routes and the airlines that fly these routes. You locate airlines of interest on a different menu, with links to those lines’ websites.
  • Flybudget. This site includes airlines around the world, with a major section on Europe. It uses an intriguing graphic interface: Once you enter routes and dates, you get a display of fare ranges by day; once you select a travel day, you get specific flight prices.
  • Flycheapo. Enter your origin and destination, select an airline that flies the route, and the site links you directly to that airline.
  • Skyscanner presents the same destination-date-fare information mix as Flybudget , but with a more conventional interface. In fact, Flybudget says it’s “powered” by Skyscanner, so Flybudget may be just an independent front-end to the same data.

Overall, if you’re really looking for the lowest airfares—and have flexibility about travel dates—the Flybudget/Skyscanner system is by far the most useful. However, if you’re pretty much tied to specific dates, CH-Aviation and Flycheapo can help as easily.

Air passes

Consider a fixed-price visitor ticket program as yet another alternative for low-cost flights within Europe. Two programs provide for travel within Europe for a flat rate of $99 per nonstop flight:

  • Europe by Air provides flights on 23 airlines—mainly small—throughout much of Europe, as far east as Moscow. In addition, a few “premium” flights, generally in the eastern Mediterranean, cost $129 each.
  • Euroflightpass offers a similar $99 flat rate throughout Europe, again as far east as Moscow.

It’s hard to tell from the websites whether Europe by Air and Euroflightpass overlap at all. They both use what seems to be identical interactive map technology, but the routes displayed are different.

With both programs, there’s no minimum purchase, tickets are good for 120 days, and there are no blackouts. Airport taxes are extra, to be paid on the spot when you travel.

On many routes, pass prices are higher than the cheapest rates you can get through individual tickets. However, with the passes, you find no variation between days of the week or hours of the day. For these reasons, the pass price may turn out to be your best bet, at least on some flights.

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