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Low-cost European airlines: Fly across Europe for pocket change

SmarterTravel

When planning domestic travel within the U.S., seasoned budget travelers often turn to low-cost carriers like Southwest and JetBlue first. Sure, budget carrier service is of the no-frills variety, and often you have to fly to smaller airports located some distance from your final destination, but it’s hard to argue with those super-low, one-way fares.

Low-cost air travel isn’t limited to the U.S., however. Thanks to EU reforms, dozens of budget carriers have cropped up across Europe, making it possible to travel from one end of the continent to the other in mere hours, often for well under $100. If you’re planning a multi-city trip to Europe, it’s well worth it to learn about these airlines before traveling, as you may find that budget air travel is the cheapest, most convenient mode of transportation for your itinerary.

What airlines should I consider?

There are currently over 60 low-cost carriers operating in Europe, with most of the major lines based in and around London, including the two most popular lines, Ryanair and EasyJet. Ryanair flies to over 90 cities in 19 European countries, with the majority of its flights originating in London’s Stansted airport. With sale fares that start under ₤1 ($1.88), excluding taxes and fees, Ryanair usually has the cheapest prices out there. The line’s chief competitor, EasyJet, flies to nearly 60 European cities, mostly from smaller airports in the U.K. Its fares tend to be higher than Ryanair’s, but it does fly directly to major airports that Ryanair does not, such as Paris’ Charles de Gaulle (Ryanair flies to smaller Paris Beauvais).

If you’re not flying to or from the U.K., there are numerous low-cost carriers based in other cities, such as Virgin Express (based in Brussels and Amsterdam) or Snowflake (based in Stockholm and Copenhagen). Also, check out EuropeByAir.com, which offers a flight pass that lets you fly to cities all over the continent for $99 each-way.

What are the benefits of traveling by low-cost carrier in Europe?

For long-distance travel between major cities, flying by budget carrier is usually cheaper and quicker than travel by train, ferry, or car in most cases. Consider, for instance, a journey from Brussels to Rome: You could go on an 18-hour train ride for $216, or you could take a two-hour Ryanair flight for $33, taxes included. Travel by rail might be a better option if you enjoy viewing the scenery or plan to stop in small towns along the way. But, if you’re just trying to get from one city to another, flying is often your best bet. And, unlike major airlines that often require you to buy round-trip tickets, most budget carriers sell one-way fares.

For shorter distances, you’ll need to compare the air and rail options to find the best deal. You can find rates and travel times for point-to-point rail journeys through the Rail Europe website.

What are the pitfalls of flying on a low-cost carrier?

Great travel bargains almost always come with a few caveats attached, and low-cost European carriers are no exception. Here are a few things to keep in mind before flying:

  • Low-cost carriers are able to keep prices down in part by using small secondary airports located outside major cities. For instance, Ryanair flies from London’s Stansted Airport, located 40 miles outside London, not the more convenient Heathrow Airport. In some cases, it can be more costly and time-consuming to reach such obscure airports.
  • Service is minimal. There are exceptions to the rule of course, but generally no-frills service means no free meals, drinks, or movies; no choice in seating; little legroom; no phone reservations; and no ticket changes or cancellations.
  • Baggage rules on low-cost carriers tend to be very strict, with a limit of one carry-on and one checked bag. Carry-ons are subject to size limits, and sometimes harsh weight limits of five to 15kg (11 to 33 lbs)also apply. Checked bags are often limited to 45 pounds, and stiff fines apply to overweight bags. Virgin Express, for example, limits checked bags to 20 kg (44 lbs) and charges 25 euros ($32) for every five kilos over this amount.

How do I find the right airline?

To find out which airlines cover the route that interests you, go to WhichBudget.com, a travel website that allows you to choose which country and airport you wish to fly from and then lists the destinations that you can reach and the airlines that serve them. You can then link to the appropriate airline’s website. Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive booking site for low-cost European carriers, so you’ll have to go to each airline’s website to do an accurate fare comparison.

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