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Low-Fare Airlines in Europe

On my last trip to Europe, I planned a few days in London, then a week of driving around Switzerland, starting in Geneva. My frequent-flyer award would not allow a London-Geneva flight link, so I needed some way to get there. I looked into doing the trip by train, but I quickly found discouraging news: The trip would take almost seven hours, including a schlep on the Paris Metro between the Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon, at a cost of more than $140. Reluctantly, I turned to an airline option—low-fare EasyJet—where I found a nonstop from London to Geneva for about $75, including a checked bag. An easy call.

By now, you probably have a pretty good handle on the low-fare airline options available to you in North America. But you may sometimes want to move around within Europe on trips that are too long for comfortable rail travel. And, as in my European experience, a cheap airline ticket often costs less than a second-class train ticket. Although low-fare lines have proliferated in Europe, you’re most likely to find what you want on one of two lines.

Ryanair, one of the two giant European low-fare lines, boasts that it carries more international passengers than any other line in the world. Although Ryanair has no “hubs” in the conventional sense—airports where travelers make lots of connections—it has primary bases at London/Stansted, Dublin, Milan, Brussels, Frankfurt, and Alicante, with at least a dozen secondary bases and flights to almost 200 airports in Europe and North Africa, with an emphasis on beach destinations. Ryanair, however, uses remote rather than major airports whenever it can. As a result, what Ryanair calls “Paris” is really Beauvais or Vatry, “Brussels” is really Charleroi, “Frankfurt” is really Hahn, and “Milan” is really Bergamo—not a big problem if you’re renting a car, but a real hassle if you want convenient public transportation to the central city.

Fares are very low, typically starting at around $30 one way and often less, but Ryanair charges extra for everything—using a credit card, printing a boarding pass, advance boarding, reserved seating, and checked baggage, along with the required laundry list of official fees and taxes. Flying Ryanair poses a particular problem for North Americans: Fees are lower if you pay online, in advance, and print out whatever paperwork you need—a capability you might not have when you’re away from home. Also getting from central London to its Stansted base costs at least $35 each way—a lot more than getting to Gatwick or Luton. As far as I can tell, the main online fare-search systems do not include Ryanair. All flights are on 737s with extremely tight no-recline seating.

EasyJet, the other giant, isn’t quite as large as Ryanair, but in many ways it’s similar. It flies point-to-point rather than using hub connections and it has bases around Europe, including London/Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, and Southend, along with Basel, Berlin, Geneva, and several others. Flights operate to/from 134 airports from Iceland to Egypt and Israel to the Canary Islands. Despite some overlaps, you often find service on either EasyJet or Ryanair but not both. EasyJet generally serves primary rather than secondary airports.

As with Ryanair, EasyJet shows very low fares, then adds fees for practically everything. EasyJet now flies only A319s and 320s, with typical very tight seating. From central London, EasyJet offers the advantage of lower-cost train service to Gatwick, Luton, or Southend than to Stansted. All in all, given the choice, I’d select EasyJet every time. Kayak and some other third-party search systems include EasyJet, but Expedia does not. Skytrax rates EasyJet number two among European low-fare lines; Ryanair doesn’t make the top 100.

As noted, the big online travel agencies and search systems don’t cover all the low-fare options. Any time you’re looking for a low-cost flight, Floogie has a low-fare point-to-point airline locator for Europe; SkyScanner, WeGoLo, and WhichBudget cover the entire world.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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