Tips for getting the most from Europe’s low-cost airlines
Cheap flights have changed the face of travel around the continent, adding flexibility to your dream trip as rail passes have become passé.
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Northwest travel guides
These days “budget European travel” includes point-to-point flights within Europe. When I started traveling, no one spending their own money bought one-way air tickets within Europe. It was prohibitively expensive. Nowadays, before buying any long-distance train or bus ticket, I look into flying, and routinely, it’s cheaper to fly than to make the trip on the ground — especially when you consider all the advantages of flying.
Because you can make hops just about anywhere on the Continent for roughly $100 a flight, people think about itineraries differently. Rather than think “where can I drive to” or “where will the train take me conveniently,” you can now think “where will my travel dreams take me” and lace together a far-flung trip that ranges from Norway to Portugal to Sicily, if you please.
There was a time when my typical trip plan was what used to be called an “open jaw” itinerary — now dubbed a “multiple-city” trip (flying into one European city and out of another at the other end of the Continent) -- with all the travel between done by rail pass. That’s when flights were expensive and rail passes really were passes. Now inter-European flights are cheap and rail passes are complicated with lots of limits and extra fees. I generally structure a trip these days with the same multiple-city flights and connect everything in between with a series of car rentals, point-to-point rail tickets and cheap one-way flights. Here are some tips about taking advantage of Europe’s discount airlines — the companies that have revolutionized the way we put our itineraries together:
Ryanair and easyJet are two of the most established budget airlines; both serve many destinations across the continent. Meanwhile, dozens of smaller, niche airlines stick to a more focused flight plan. For instance, Condor and German Wings are headquartered in Germany while Wizz Air centers on Eastern Europe.
Budget airlines typically offer flights for about $50 to $250, but you can find some remarkable, it-must-be-a-typo deals if your timing is right. For example, Ryanair flies from London to dozens of European cities, sometimes for less than $30. To get the lowest fares, book long in advance, as the cheapest seats sell out fast (aside from occasional surprise sales).
To look for flights, start with a search on Skyscanner, which provides a fast way to determine which airlines serve the route you’re eyeing. Other good search engines are Kayak, Dohop and Momondo. You can also do an online search for “cheap flights” plus the cities you’re interested in flying to and from. Once you determine which carrier covers the trip, go to that airline’s website and book the flight there.
Be suspicious of the initial fare that’s quoted, as additional fees await with every click of the mouse. Prepare to get dinged for paying with a credit card (even though there’s no cash option), reserving a seat, checking in and printing your boarding pass at the airport (instead of online), priority boarding and carrying an infant on board.
As in the United States, baggage fees can add up. Many low-cost airlines use smaller dimensions for carry-on, forcing more passengers to check baggage for a fee. Sometimes it costs extra if your bag is over a certain weight limit. One discount airline I flew had a mere 10-kilo (22-pound) carry-on limit. Thanks to my mantra, “pack light,” mine weighed in at an exact 10 kilos.
Budget-airline tickets are usually nonrefundable and nonchangeable. Many airlines take only online bookings, so it can be hard to find someone to talk to if problems arise. And, as these are relatively young companies, it’s not uncommon for carriers to go out of business or cancel a slow-selling route unexpectedly.
When booking a budget flight, note which airport it flies into. Ryanair’s flights to “Frankfurt” actually take you to Hahn, 75 miles away. Be sure to factor in the additional time and costs of getting from a faraway airport to downtown.
Then again, just getting close to your destination can be a benefit. For instance, if you’re headed for Florence, but there’s no direct cheap flight, you can look for one that goes to Pisa, which is 1-1/2 hours away by train (many flight-search websites have a “nearby airports” option). You’ll pay for the train ticket from Pisa to Florence, but you’ll get to see the Leaning Tower.
Despite their hassles, budget flights present you with a world of possibilities. If you have a flexible schedule, consider keeping an eye out for special fares and letting that guide your itinerary.
For much of my traveling life, I never considered flying within Europe. It simply wasn’t affordable. But today that kind of thinking seems so 20th century. Nowadays, Europe’s vagabonds are jet-setters.
Edmonds-based Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. His column runs weekly at seattletimes.com/travel.
About Rick Steves' Europe
Follow Rick Steves, the Edmonds-based European travel guru, all around Europe. His weekly column runs online each Tuesday in the Travel / Outdoors section.