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What’s new with Europe’s top low-fare carriers?

SmarterTravel

It’s no secret that flying Europe’s no-frills, low-fare airlines is a popular—and cheap—way to get around the Continent (and not just for the student crowd, either). The demand is such that more than 45 carriers have sprouted up to serve Europe. With the peak summer travel season just around the corner, now’s a good time for a refresher on Europe’s most popular low-fare carriers, and a look at what’s new with each.

Ryanair

With its flashy “free” or £1 airfare promotions and broad route map, Ryanair has long been the low-fare kingpin of Europe. But last year, it began charging about $6 (or €4.50) for each piece of checked baggage. It also now charges for online check-in and snacks and drinks onboard, and doesn’t offer assigned seats.

Ryanair serves a wide variety of destinations in Europe and northern Africa from 18 focus cities, seven of which are located in the U.K. Its route map includes major destinations like London, Madrid, Paris, and Rome; Fez and Marrakesh in Morocco; Malta; and smaller cities in Eastern Europe such as Riga and Gdansk. In many cases, Ryanair serves secondary airports far from a city’s center, as is the case with London’s Luton and Stansted or Paris’ Beauvais.

easyJet

EasyJet is Ryanair’s major competitor, and it serves more than 65 destinations across Europe. It added Madrid as a hub for southern Europe in mid-2006, going head to head with Spain’s major domestic carrier Iberia. EasyJet’s route map includes cities in the U.K., Western and Eastern Europe, northern Africa, and Turkey.

EasyJet did not follow Ryanair’s example of charging for checked baggage, so travelers can still check up to 20 kilograms (about 44 pounds) for free. However, easyJet does charge for onboard snacks and drinks, and does not offer assigned seating. Like Southwest in the U.S., easyJet assigns lettered boarding cards so travelers that check in early will board first.

Aer Lingus

To compete with Ryanair, its fellow Ireland-based competitor, Aer Lingus truly became a low-fare carrier in 2004, when it threw out conventional fare restrictions such as round-trip and advance-purchase requirements and mandatory minimum or maximum stays. Instead, capacity control (which is affected by how well a flight is selling) and traditional peak/off-peak seasonal variations now determine Aer Lingus’ one-way fares.

Aer Lingus is leaving the oneworld alliance on April 1, and in early February, announced a potential ticket-booking agreement with JetBlue. While not a codeshare, the move will allow some ease for travelers booking itineraries that include flights on both airlines.

In Europe, Aer Lingus flies from Dublin and Cork to cities in the U.K., Western and Eastern Europe, and Northern Africa.

Virgin Express

Last November, Virgin Express entered a merger agreement with SN Brussels Airlines to form Brussels’ largest airline, Brussels Airlines. When Brussels Airlines begins flying in late March, it will offer two levels of fares for intra-Europe travel.

B.light fares will compete with fares from other low-fare carriers. Prices will start at €49 one-way, and if travelers find a lower comparable fare from another airline, Brussels Airlines will reimburse the difference. Onboard, passengers can buy drinks, snacks, and newspapers.

B.flex fares will be comparable to fares on full-service carriers. Passengers will have priority check-in, faster security, priority boarding and disembarkment, and free food, drink, and newspapers onboard.

Currently, Virgin Express flies from Brussels to major cities in Europe including Athens, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Geneva, Lisbon, Madrid, Munich, and Rome.

Other options

Bmibaby, bmi’s low-cost spin-off, flies to many of Europe’s major cities from its U.K. hubs. Another carrier, the Cologne/Bonn-based Germanwings, serves Western, Eastern, and southern Europe, including several of the Greek Isles.

These are only a handful of more than 45 intra-Europe budget carriers. WhichBudget is an infinitely helpful website that can help you determine which carriers serve any two cities.

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