Discount airlines in Europe
Europe has a number of low cost airlines, the largest and most established being EasyJet, Ryanair, and Air Berlin. These airlines have stirred up air travel within Europe by dramatically cutting fares.
This new generation of low-cost airlines run along similar lines to the American airline Southwest. Southwest revolutionised American air transport by running fleets with one type of aircraft, the Boeing 737, to save on maintenance costs, and eliminating the 'frills' of air travel.
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. The de-regulation of Europe's skies enabled a European airline run like Southwest to become a reality.
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 low-cost air travel in Europe, and with fares on some routes as low as €10 (£7, US$12) one-way including tax, millions are discovering the joy of travelling across Europe cheaply and quickly. For the 'tricks of the trade' of low-cost fares, read on.
How to get low fares
Book during sales
Most low cost airlines in Europe offer seat sales at regular intervals. This happens particularly during off-peak times of year, such as winter. There can be incredibly good deals on offer during such sales. Ryanair tend to have both the widest choice of seats, most frequent sales, and cheapest fares during such sales. They sell 'free' flights, where you just pay the taxes and charges. The total cost of the flight will depend on what airports you use. The total cost of a one-way flight from London to Milan during a seat sale is €20 (£14, US$25). Flying from less busy airports during a seat sale will provide even cheaper seats, as fees at London Stansted airport are (comparatively) high. A flight from Glasgow (Prestwick) to Rome during a seat sale costs €16.50 (£11, US$20). Fly between even less busy airports (Stockholm Skavsta and Hamburg Lubeck, for example) during a free fare sale and you will pay around €10 (£7, US$12.50).
Other airlines can have brilliant deals during sales as well. If you intend to go somewhere in Europe, find out who flies there and make regular visits to their websites, and register for their newsletter.
Book well in advance
This should go without saying. The cheapest fares are the first few seats on an aircraft, so book well ahead. If there is nothing particularly cheap when you first look, and there is a long time before your trip, you might be better off waiting for a seat sale.
Price wars are your friend
If two airlines are having a price war, then this will work to your advantage. This typically happens when two airlines announce a new route at the same time, and attempt to price each other out of the market. Use a good news source such as Google News to look for news articles about this. Search for both the airlines and the destination you are hoping to go to. For example, easyJet and BMI Baby have a price war on the London Gatwick - Prague sector at the moment. This is good news for you.
Be creative with your routes
The cheapest route is not necessarily the most direct. jet2 fly between Belfast and Prague direct, but you will often be better flying from Belfast to Gatwick, and then on to Prague from there. It will take longer, but you could save substantial amounts of money. This is just one example, there are thousands.
Know thy airlines
Make sure that you know all the airlines that serve the destination you want to go to. As competition expands, it can be hard to know what airline flies where. Keep yourself informed by using the resources below to keep tabs on the situation.
Go for it
If you see a brilliant deal, just go ahead and book it, even if you're not sure if you will be able to use the flight. Go places you've never heard of, just because you can. Enjoy the low-cost airline boom while it lasts, and have fun.
It is well known that some carriers such as Ryanair fly to airports that are sometimes well away from the advertised destination. Hahn Airport, the airport for Frankfurt, is some 100 km away from the city. However, there are always public transport links to the advertised city, often timed to meet incoming flights. You shouldn't normally pay more than €20 (£13.50, US$24.50) for onward travel to the advertised city, and mostly a lot less. And in some cases you might even prefer where Ryanair fly to, Lubeck, Germany and Bergamo, Italy being nicer than Hamburg and Milan respectively.
In-flight food and drink
You will almost always have to pay for this yourself. Count on paying upwards of €5 (£3.50, US$6) for a sandwich, or €3 (£2, US$3.50) for tea/coffee. However, free refreshments are provided by Air Berlin and BMI (British Midland).
Low Cost Airline Connections
Unlike Southwest in the US, all low cost airlines in Europe (apart from Air Berlin) operate a "point to point" service. If you are making a journey that involves a change of plane, you will have to check your luggage in for each leg of the journey. In addition, with some airlines (including Ryanair), if your first leg is late you will not be transferred onto another plane if you miss the second. easyJet will sometimes transfer you for free onto another flight when the first one is late if you have left a gap of two hours between flights and they are both easyJet flights. However their carrier regulations do not guarentee this. It is wise to check with each airline their policy on missed connections. You can insure against missing low cost connections with Netcoverdirect.
However making low cost connections can often work out significantly cheaper and in many cases is the only way of getting between two European cities. For example, there are very few direct low cost flights between Dublin and mainland Europe. You will most likely need to fly with Ryanair to an airport in England, and then another flight on from there. Flying indirectly between two cities can often work out cheaper even if there are direct routes.
Almost all low cost airline connections go without a problem. However, make sure you leave enough time between legs, and consider getting insured against missed flights.
Many airlines now let you change your booking, for a fee (generally around €25 (£17, US$30.50)), plus any difference in fare. See the airline websites for information.
Simply put, there aren't any. This is one of the frills cut out by the airlines to lower fares.
In contrast to the price additions noted above discount airlines quite often tie up with local transport and hotel groups who offer significant discounts if you book having been referred by the discount airline. As always it pays to use the internet to do some comparison shopping but frequently you will be able to get a discounted car-rental, train ticket or hotel room by clicking on the links after you have purchased your flight. The catch is that many of these discounted prices are extremely inflexible, non-refundable and require payment in advance so try not to change your mind after you have made the booking.
EasyJet 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 (meaning also that you collect your luggage and check 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.
EasyJet has hubs in 3 London airports (Gatwick, Stansted, Luton) as well as Paris (CDG and Orly), Amsterdam, Geneva, Liverpool, Bristol and various other UK airports. From the summer of 2004 they will start to operate out of Berlin, Dortmund and Cologne-Bonn.
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.
Ryanair 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. You can book a return at the same time as the outbound but you get no discount for doing so.
Ryanair operate a huge network in Europe, and are generally the cheapest airline on the routes where they compete with another airline.
Other low cost airlines
There are 54 low cost airlines in Europe, and this number is growing all the time. Here are a few of the biggest.
Low cost airline resources
There are some very useful websites to use when booking connecting low cost airline flights. One is Openjet. This site will find the cheapest way of getting between the 91 cities served by Easyjet, MytravelLite, BMIbaby, Volareweb, Basiq Air, HLX and Germanwings. Another is Low Fare Flights, this UK site compares budget airfares on over 300 european routes, originating from the UK only. Applefares covers European-based routes: you can give it a range of airports or even countries, and find the cheapest flight to any destination on a range of dates. It searches the airlines that Openjet uses, plus Air 2000, BMI, Duo, Sky Europe, Sterling, V Bird and Virgin Express. Skyscanner offers a similar service with additional tools, such as fare graphs for a given route over a month and cheap weekend flights from any given city. Unfortunately Ryanair actively keeps its fares off any of these fare comparison websites, forcing users to go directly to ryanair.com.
Also of use are two information sites: lowcostairlines.org which lists all 54 European low cost airlines (plus many other low cost airlines all over the world) and attitudetravel.com which has country-by-country maps and information detailing all the low cost airline routes to and from each European destination. cheap0.com is another good resource, and has up-to-date low-cost airline route news.