EasyJet, one of the oldest and best low-cost carriers in Europe, Low-cost carriers, Italy, Italy (Photo by Rob Mitchell)
EasyJet, one of the oldest and best low-cost carriers in Europe

Fly across Europe for as little as $25—welcome to the wonderful age of no-frills airlines, the little jet engines that could

The days of high plane fares are over, my friends, as are the days of having to spend two days on a train just to cross a continent cheaply.

Thanks to no-frills airlines and low cost carriers like easyJet, Wow, Ryanair, and more you can often now hop a plane for considerably less than it costs than the train—and for bucketloads less than the former regular fare on most established airlines—while at the same time save dozens of hours on travel.

Cheaper, easier, faster—what more could you want? Well, how about making Europe more manageable? No-frills are also opening up the "corners" of Europe to travelers—Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia, Greece—turning what were once epic journeys of two or three days on trains and ferries into easy two- or three-hour flights.

Heck, you can even use low-cost airlines to get from one place in Italy to another more quickly and cheaply than the train, bus, or ferry.

In practical terms: Let's take a hypothetical trip from London to Venice:

  • By train, 15 hours, $246
  • By traditional airline, 3 hours, $258
  • By no-frills airline, 3 hours, $48

How can they do it?

Well, "no-frills" means they cut a few corners—but not ones you'd really miss.

What frills are missing?

Transatlantic no-frills
There are even low-cost airlines that fly across the Atlantic. Routes change year to year (and seasonally), but as an example in 2018 Norwegian Air had direct flights from New York, LA, Miami, Orlando, and Boston to Rome (plus to London, Paris, Scandinavian capitals, and more), and Wow Air flew from NYC, LA, Boston, San Francisco, BWI, Miami, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Montreal and more to Milan via Reykjavik.

A good aggregator will include these flights in the mix of fares they find.

With some exceptions (JetBlue anyone?) these new airlines forgo such frills as free meals, free booze, and free movies—in other words, just like most major airlines these days—plus they have strict luggage limits, charging an arm and a leg for over-heavy suitcases—making them better than most airlines these days, since the major carriers now charge you to check even one clutch purse full of feathers.

However, since almost all inter-European travel is short haul—most flights within Europe are 60– to 90-minute hops—who's going to care about getting a snack instead of a meal, or paying for your drinks, or missing in-flight entertainment? You're on the plane for two to three hours max—barely time to get to cruising altitude, munch on whatever cheap snack you brought onboard, and read a chapter or two of your novel.

Seating on a no-friller is generally a first-come, first-served free-for-all familiar to anyone who has flown Southwest. You're guaranteed a seat, of course; that's not an issue. But if you're particular about getting aisle/window, or want to be sure you and your companions get to sit together, show up early enough.

Most no-frills also shave costs on the end of operations that you don't really see (flying just one model of jet, so that maintenance and parts costs are easily contained, that sort of thing).

They also tend to fly at less popular hours, since those "slots" at the airports are cheaper (or, more frequently, those are the only slots the airports—long in the pockets of the major airlines—will grant them).

One of the big savings on no-frills balance books comes from the fact that they fly largely out of secondary airports at or near major cities (in Rome it might be Ciampino rather than Fiumicino; a flight to Milan might actually be to nearby Bergamo, or for Venice nearby Treviso; in London, you might fly out of Luton or Stansted rather than Heathrow or Gatwick; in Paris it might be Beauvais rather than Charles de Gaulle).

Is this a problem? Not to my mind. In fact, in some cases it can be a major benefit.

Major benefits to minor airports

OK, almost all major airports are well outside town to begin with, and even with the ones that have special high-speed rail links into town, you're looking at anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes to get out there. So what's an extra 10 to 20 minutes to go all the way out to some secondary airport the no-friller uses when you're saving literally hundreds of dollars on the fare?

This can also be a godsend to folks with a quirky itinerary in mind, allowing you to make an otherwise inconvenient flight from, say, London to Ancona in Italy.

What's more, smaller airports are often more convenient. With its long lines, crowds, and sheer size, I have never gotten out of Heathrow in less than an hour and a half. However, on a no-frills flight from Barcelona to London's Luton airport, the plane taxied right up to the arrivals gate, I walked down the staircase, across 50 feet of tarmac, and through the doors.

I glided past the smiling passport clerk and waited at the luggage belt immediately beyond for but a few minutes before my bag trundled its way out on the belt. I checked my watch as I exited the airport and crossed the sidewalk to the bus that would take me to downtown London. Time from stepping off the plane to boarding the bus: 12 minutes.

Beat THAT Heathrow!

Lost-cost carriers connect the dots

Perhaps the best thing about no-frills airlines is that all tickets are priced one-way, all the time. That means you can easily hopscotch your way across the Continent without ever having to return to some central or origin airport first.

You could fly transatlantic into London, and then use cheap no-frills tickets elsewhere in Europe on any of a variety of airlines (no need to be loyal to just one).

Perhaps you'll fly first down to Venice for the Italy portion of your vacation, then from there perhaps amble over to Athens, then mosey on up to Munich, bop over to Barcelona, plane it to Paris, and finally lug all your souvenirs back to London for your flight home.

Connecting the dots thusly (by flying first into London—always the cheapest European gateway) is called the Big Ben Swithcheroo, and the strategies, secrets, and pitfalls involved are described in detail elsewhere on this site. For now, let's look at a few drawbacks to the no-frills phenomenon.

Pack light—real light

The dark side of no-frills airlines

A few bad apples among low-cost airlines make money by charging fees for absolutely everything.

Ryanair in particular is notorious for this—especially for slapping outrageous fees on luggage or carry-ons that are as little as an ounce overweight. 

You know how you sometimes hear a news story about some airline that is threatening to start charging to use the toilets, or is considering selling standing-room-only berths? Yep: that's Ryanair.

Beyond the onerous and sometimes indefensible fees, many Ryanair employees are simply flat-out rude to customers. Some are almost gleefully cruel to you. 

Unless it is the only option on your chosen route, I recommend avoiding Ryanair precisely because it has such atrocious customer service. 

However, most no-frills airlines are far, far better than that. Don't let horror stories you hear about Ryanair put you off from flying its far friendlier rivals.

Most no-frills have strict (on some, draconian—side the box to the right) baggage weight limits and charge exorbitantly steep fees if you go over. Travel writers accumulate an obscene amount of research in the form of brochures and other heavy paper items, and I've ended up paying more at the check-in counter for my excess baggage than for my plane ticket!

Then again, as I said above, most airlines in the U.S. now charge you a fee merely to check a bag at all, and while some no-frillers have jumped on this bandwagon, others are still letting that first bag sail through for free so long as it's not over 25 kilos (roughly 50 pounds)—so it's actually a frill they're offering that the major airlines at home are not! » more

But are no-frills airlines trustworthy?

Good question. If you've never heard of some of these carriers, would you fly with them?

Well, I don't have all the answers, but I can tell you this: I've never had a problem flying a low-coast airline (aside from rude Ryanair clerks). In fact, when I took my Boy Scout troop to Europe one summer, we ended up flying everyone from London to Amsterdam on easyJet because taking the Chunnel train and switching in Brussels would have taken longer and cost more.

I've flown from Paris to Florence, London to Prague, from Venice to Santorini, Paris to Bologna, Alghero (in Sardegna) to Pisa, and many other routes on no-frillers in Europe and scarcely had any problems aside from those overages on luggage (and, once, a four-hour delay—but that airline's out of business now, and I've had worse delays on American Airlines, Northwest, US Airways, Delta... well, actually, all of them).

I do trust that the majority of alternative airlines are legitimate business, every bit as capable as a major airline is of getting you from point A to point B safely, and often far more inexpensively.

A lot of folks worry that a smaller airlines has a higher chance of going belly-up between the time you buy tickets and the day of the flight. That is a bit illogical. Frankly I'm more concerned about the future of all those major US carriers that have spent the past decade wallowing in, or flirting with, Chapter 11.

Any airline, no matter how large or important, can merge or go out of business overnight. Just ask anyone who once flew or worked for such massive, standard-bearer, household-name airlines as United, US Airways, TWA, Eastern, or PanAm. (My first flight to Europe was on Eastern, and I used to live near a TWA hub.)

I figure these scrappy little guys have just as much of a chance of staying in business as any airline these days. Keep in mind that only a few of these alternative airlines in Europe are actually recent start-ups. Most have been operating for years if not decades. It's just that they've been (heh) flying under the radar of public awareness.

In many cases, they've heretofore been serving as charter airlines whose names were known only to the travel agents and tour companies that booked them, or as regional carriers operating under a contract with (and under the name of) a more famous airline.

Photo gallery
  • EasyJet, one of the oldest and best low-cost carriers in Europe, Low-cost carriers, Italy (Photo by Rob Mitchell)
  • Places where easyJet flies for under \\\$50 from Paris, Low-cost carriers, Italy (Photo courtesy of easyJet)
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Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for air travel

English (inglese) Italian  (italiano)   Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is... Dov'é doh-VAY
the airport l'aeroporto LAHW-ro-port-oh
the airplane l'aereo LAIR-reh-oh
terminal terminal TEAR-me-nahl
flight volo VOH-lo
gate uscita d'imbarco oo-SHEE-tah deem-BARK-oh
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
keep going straight sempre diritto SEM-pray dee-REE-toh
departures partenze par-TEN-zay
arrivals arrivi ah-REE-vee
delayed in ritardo een ree-TAR-doh
on time in orario een oh-RAH-ree-yo
early in avanti een ah-VAHN-tee
boarding imbarco eem-BARK-o
connecting flight la coincidenza la ko-een-chee-DEN-za
check-in accettazione ah-chet-ta-zee-YO-nee
immigration controllo passaporti cone-TRO-lo pah-sa-POR-tee
security check controllo di sicurezza kohn-TRO-lo dee see-kur-AY-tzah
customs dogana do-GA-na
shuttle la navetta lah na-VET-tah
boarding pass carta d'imbarco kart-ta deem-BARK-o
baggage claim ritiro bagagli ree-TEER-oh bah-GA-lyee
carry-on luggage bagaglio à mano bah-GA-lyo ah MA_no
checked luggage bagalio bah-GA-lyo

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).