The European Open-Skies Treaty of 1992 blew the lid off the system in place before, where national government would restrict access to their airspace to expensive 'flag-carriers', such as British Airways or Lufthansa. This enabled airlines to fly anywhere they wished in the European Union without government approval.
Ryanair was the first airline in Europe to try this model, and now have many imitators offering low fares across the continent. These are boom times for cheap air travel in Europe, with fares on some routes as low as €10 (£7, US$12) one-way including tax.
Points to consider
Discount airlines are often much more strict about their fares. For example, while in "fat" airlines they usually allow some baggage over the weight limit, WizzAir will charge you €6 for each kg over the limit. Also, some airlines have lower limits than the usual 20 kg. A few kilograms of weight can double your ticket price. Check your terms carefully and weigh your luggage before a journey.
Be prepared that food is usually not served during the flight, or it is available for a fee. It's best to bring your own food and water.
In-flight entertainment isn't normally provided either. Again, bring your own (laptop, music player, book or magazine)
Most discount airlines try to lower airport fees, so they often use smaller airports, sometimes quite far away from the city they state they fly to. For example Paris Beauvais Airport is some 90 km from Paris, bus costs about €13 one-way and it takes about 1h15 to get to Paris (TAXI would be €130-150 one-way).
Following competition from discount airlines, main carriers such as BA have also cut their fares on competing routes, and are often only about 20% more expensive than discount airlines, a price worth paying if the journey to the airport is cheaper and faster. Sometimes they can even be cheaper than discount airlines, especially during public holidays.
Many airlines including but not limited to: easyJet, hlx.com, SkyEurope, and AirBerlin have changed their schedule with as little as week before departure, so the flight is up to 10 hours earlier/later than in the original reservation. Options they typically give are: rebooking (normally you still have to pay the difference in ticket price but no fee.) or a refund (sidenote: buying another ticket a week before the flight can be well over 10 times more expensive then the refund). Anyway, flying low-cost airline, you agree to take that risk.
Many discount airliners are "point-to-point" airlines, and do not sell connecting tickets if you need to take two planes to reach your destination. This means you might need to collect your luggage and check it in again for the next leg of the journey. Another risk is that several low cost carriers do not take responsibility if you miss your connection, even if your connecting flight is with the same airliner. This could force you to purchase a new ticket for the next flight. Some low cost carriers will help you out though, so check their rules.
easyJet plane in takeoff
easyJet carried 30.3 million in 2005 making them just smaller than Ryanair and the 7th busiest airline in Europe. Fares are priced as single segment one way trips. Their website allows you to book multiple flights simultaneously however, and even allows you to exchange a flight you have purchased for a different flight of your choice on their website providing a partial refund (e.g. changing to a flight on a different date and/or with different passenger names). Note that if you change planes at an Easyjet hub you must collect your luggage and check it in again at the hub. You can book a return at the same time as the outbound but you get no discount for doing so. Some of the advanced features on the Easyjet website are only available if you create an account for yourself on the website.
EasyJet has hubs in 3 London airports (Gatwick, Stansted, Luton) as well as Paris (CDG and Orly), Berlin, Dortmund, Liverpool, Bristol and various other UK airports. As well as these hubs they serve 45 other airports throughout Europe and Morocco, with over 180 routes.
EasyJet operate an ever-expanding network, keep your eyes peeled to their site. They have an extensive UK domestic network, and operate to and between large European airports. Unlike Ryanair, easyJet tend to operate out of principal airports, such as Barcelona and not Barcelona Girona, in Spain.
Travel insurance is optional but is encouraged at the time of booking.
Tickets start under €20 all inclusive one-way.
Ryanair are Europe's largest budget airline with Ryanair 33.4 million passenger in 2005 making them Europe's 5th largest airline and 14th in the world. Fares are priced as single segment one way trips. If you wish to change planes in a hub then you must book the two segments separately, and there is no transfer of baggage. You can book a return at the same time as the outbound but you get no discount for doing so. Paying for return and outbound trips at the same time will however save you from paying the credit/debit card fee twice, which can cost up to €10 with Ryanair. If you miss a second flight due to a delay in the earlier Ryanair flight, you will not get a refund for the missed flight and will be forced to buy a new ticket.
Ryanair operate a huge network in Europe, and are generally (but not always) the cheapest airline on the routes where they compete with another airline. They have hubs in Shannon, Dublin, Glasgow (Prestwick), Liverpool, London, Brussels (Charleroi), Frankfurt (Hahn), Stockholm (Skavsta), Milan Bergamo, Rome, Barcelona and add more practically monthly. They serve 82 other European destinations as well as Monaco, with over 209 routes.
In order to lower travel costs, Ryanair uses small airports that can be quite far from the the city they purport to serve so check carefully your travel time and costs estimates.
Ryanair keeps extremely low prices by setting a standard customer behaviour (typically an airport to airport travel without on flight meal and hand luggage only) and placing additional fares for every addition you need. So you'll be able to catch a €20fare for a London - Milan flight, but you'll be heavily charged for on flight meal, excessive luggage weight and so on. If you need a basic and cheap transport service, Ryanair is definitely a good choice.
In order to allow passengers with hand luggage only a faster check-in, starting from March 2006 Ryanair introduced the possibility for them to check-in in advance via their website and a fixed fare €7.00 return per checked suitcase, if booked in advance (else doubled at the airport). Luggage weight limits are 10kg for hand luggage and checked luggage is sold in 20 kg increments.
Compared to most other budget airlines, Ryanair provides very limited compensation in the event of flight cancellations, despite the EU regulations. Typically, Ryanair will only provide a replacement seat on a later Ryanair flight (which can depart up to 3 days later than the original flight), or a full refund of the single journey price. Alternative travel arrangements and accomodation is not normally provided by Ryanair. Passengers wishing to return on the same day are normally forced purchase a new non-advance ticket with a different airline, which can easily exceed the price of the original ticket by a factor of ten. Therefore, it is not advisable to travel with Ryanair if you're not insured against flight cancellation or if you have important work commitments the day after the return flight.
Also bear in mind that Ryanair is very stict about checking in no later than 40 min prior to the scheduled departure time. Passengers arriving at the check-in desk even one minute late have been known to be refused boarding, even if they only carried hand-luggage and despite the flight being delayed. When flying with Ryanair it is advisable to get to the airport early.
Travel insurance is optional and but is encouraged at the time of booking.
Tickets start from €10 all inclusive one-way, however always check the full final cost of the fare including all "taxes" and "fees" before booking.
Air Berlin, Europe's third largest discount airline, operates a huge network between Austria, France, Egypt, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Spain, Tunisia, Greece and the UK. Tickets can be booked one-way for at no penalty. They are also one of the few European budget airlines offering connecting flights, i.e. via their hubs in Nuremberg, Germany (NUE) or Palma de Mallorca, Spain (PMI). . Also one of the very few low-cost-airlines which serve free beverages and food on their flights, even short ones. Works in an alliance with Fly Niki and Germania Express.
Tickets start from €29 all inclusive one-way.
Virgin Express is one of Europe's most famous, yet smallest and most expensive, budget operators. In cooperation with SN Brussels Airlines, Virgin Express operates only between Brussels and various cities in continental Europe, and flights can be booked as one-way or return trips with fares priced as single segment one-way trips.
As of 2006, Virgin Express allows you to change flight details, including departure and destination (€30 charge), time and date of travel (€30 charge), seat allocation and extra leg room (€10 per leg), and passenger name (€25 to €60 charge depending on fare), after you have purchased. Virgin Express does not offer a connecting service. Each booking attracts a €5.50 administration fee, so booking legs separately will cost that much more than booking both legs of a return trip. Their website has links to extra services such as to car hire partner Hertz, which offers a discount over Hertz direct. Prices tend to be lower than traditional airlines but higher than other budget airlines when booked 2 to 3 weeks in advance, but can be as high, or higher than, traditional airlines only a week before travel. Food, drink and gifts can be purchased on board. Travel insurance is optional and can be purchased at the time of booking. As of 2006, for flights departing Brussels, Virgin Express appears to offer insurance only if the holder is a resident of Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, or Switzerland.
Like easyJet, Virgin Express operates out of principal airports.
Tickets start from €49 all inclusive, one-way, on all routes.
Other low cost airlines
There are 62 low cost airlines in Europe, and this number is rapidly changing. Here are a few of the biggest.
Aer Lingus operate many routes to and from the Republic of Ireland. Fares as low as €1 on certain routes mean that flying to or via Ireland can be very cheap. (from €28 all inclusive, one-way.)
Air Berlin operates a huge network between Austria, France, Egypt, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Spain, Tunisia, Greece and the UK. They book through tickets. One of the very few low-cost-airlines which serve free beverages and food on their flights, even short ones. They offer connective-flights as well, i.e. via their hubs in Nuremberg, Germany (NUE) or Palma de Mallorca, Spain (PMI). Works in an alliance with Fly Niki and Germania Express. (from €29 all inclusive, one-way.)
Air Baltic have a wide variety of cheap fares from Riga, which can be used as a transit point. E.g. it is cheaper to travel Odessa-Riga-Kiev with airbaltic than Odessa-Kiev directly with regular-fare airlines. (from €14 all inclusive, one-way.)
Blue 1 operate routes between northern Europe (Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden) and seven different cities in Finland.
Blue Air operates six routes, as of 2005 September, between Bucharest and Barcelona, Maastricht, Lyon, Milan, Rome, and Madrid.
BMI Baby, a subsidiary of bmi, have bases in Teeside, Cardiff, Manchester and Nottingham East Midlands. They operate domestic flights to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and also have a small number of flights out of Gatwick.
Centralwings operates out of Poland (Warsaw, Krakow, Katowice) to several European destinations. It is a child airline of LOT Polish Airlines, the national operator, using their fleet, and thus is probably safer (eg. bankruptcy less likely), but more expensive than others. Booking by Internet and phone, as well as by some travel agencies (additional fee apply).
Condor operates out of major airports in Germany (doesn't use obscure airfields) and sells tickets starting at 29,00 € one-way within Europe, putting it into the discount airline bracket as well. Offers free food and beverages catered by Lufthansa.
Corendon operates out of Turkey to Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands
FlyBe operates out of the UK to many European Destinations
FlyGlobeSpan based in Scotland (Glasgow, Edinburgh) with cheap flights over Europe; a few cheap flights to Canada and as of 6/2/06 direct service between Sanford/Orlando Florida and Glasgow.
FlyNordic operates from Stockholm to mostly Scandinavian places but also to Europe
German Wings operate a large network out of German airports Berlin, Cologne-Bonn, Hamburg, and Stuttgart. (from €20 all inclusive, one-way, to all destinations.)
Hapag-Lloyd Express operate a large network out of Stuttgart, Cologne/Bonn, Hanover, Hamburg and Berlin. (from €20 all inclusive, one-way.)
Iceland Express operates out of London Stansted, Copenhagen & Frankfurt to Reykjavik.
Lauda Air operates out of Austria to many European destinations.
jet2 operate out of UK airports Belfast, Blackpool, Edinburgh, Leeds/Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle to destinations throughout continental Europe.
Maersk Air Maersk is now part of Sterling airlines with Scandinavian based routes and will redirect the weblink to their site.
Meridiana operates out of Italy to many European & Italian destinations.
Spanair operates throughout Spain and to a few other European destinations. Owned by SAS and a member of Star Alliance.
Snowflake operates out of Copenhagen and Stockholm. Snowflake is the discount version of SAS.
Sterling operate from Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö, Oslo, and Copenhagen. On the Scandinavian routes Sterling often compete with SAS by offering the same service at much lower prices, but not give air miles.
Thomsonfly Operates from many UK airports to destinations across Europe and Northern Africa.
Transavia (former BasiqAir), Operates out of Amsterdam to many European destinations.
Vueling operates out of Barcelona (Spain) to many European destinations.
Wizzair operates from Poland and Hungary. (from €20 all inclusive, one-way.)
Wind-Jet operates out of Italy to many European & Italian destinations.
Low cost airline hubs
If you cannot find a direct flight with a low cost carrier, it may be necessary to change flights at a low cost airline hub. Make sure you leave plenty of time for connections, as you will not be refunded if you miss a flight. It may be sensible to stay overnight in a city near the hub.
List of low cost airline hubs
For these purposes, a low cost airline hub is an airport which provides more than seventy routes by the low-cost carriers listed on this page.
There are some very useful websites to use when booking connecting low cost airline flights (in alphabetical order):
Cheapflights.co.uk Price comparison for cheap flights out of the UK.
dohop.com cleverly composes multileg journeys based on low-cost airlines. Be careful when you plan journeys with connections! Lowcost airlines don't guarantee any time and not even the flight so put at least 3-4 hours between arrival and last check-in time (As the site suggests).
Eurovoli.com is a search engine for low cost flights from the UK to the rest of Europe.
flybilligst.com is a must if you're flying to or from Norway. The site lets you choose between the destinations of five low cost airlines. It then shows a graph with the prices for the next months, letting you easily select the cheapest day to fly. It is, however, in Norwegian, and seems not to have heard about Liverpool.
Flylc.com shows all European cheap flights on one screen and redirects to the low-cost airline operating the flight selected (Information site).
Flylowcostairlines.org Comprehensive search engine of low-cost airlines' flights, that enables to find direct, one-stop or two-stop connections.
Low Fare Flights, this UK site compares budget airfares on over 300 european routes, originating from the UK only.
mixfly.com expands your low-cost destinations by arranging flights from several low-cost airlines. Mixfly.com gives you flight schedules and travel duration times for all your low-cost flights needs in Europe.
momondo.com helps you find and compare prices across 120 low cost airlines in realtime.
Openjet will find the cheapest way of getting between the 91 cities served by Easyjet, MytravelLite, BMIbaby, Basiq Air, HLX and Germanwings. Doesn't always work.
Opodo Joint airline company that sell spare seats and combines low cost with flagcarrier tickets.
Resetips is a site in Swedish and English useful for finding low cost flights to and from Sweden.
seekFlight.com compares prices of both direct and indirect discount flights within Europe. Information site.
Skyscanner will find the cheapest way of getting between cities and has additional tools, such as fare graphs for a given route over a month and cheap weekend flights from any given city.
Also of use are some information sites (in alphabetical order):
2cheapflight.com can be used to search and compare air fares of the major travel agents.
attitudetravel.com has information on 80 low cost and low fare airlines across Europe and further info on web-fares available on competing flag-carriers
Euroflights.info provides information on low cost flights available to several hundred European destinations.
flycheapo.com is another excellent resource, and has up-to-date low-cost airline route news.
lowcostairlines.org lists all 61 European low cost airlines (plus many other low cost airlines all over the world)
Routehunter.com More than 7.300 routes, 349 Airports and 70 Low Costs Airlines ready to browse. And with a very useful tool that will show you only the avalaible routes and will send you directly to the airline website.
seatscanner.com creates multi-segment low cost trips based on current routing information from low cost carriers worldwide. Answers the question "who flies where?". Information site (you cannot book there).
Whichbudget.com Provides a regularly updated list of cheap flights with booking links, organised by airport. Concentrates on Europe, but covers some budget routes around the world. Be aware that an airline offering cheap fares on just a few routes (such as BMI) will be listed here under every airport it flies from, even if some routes are always very expensive.