No-Frills airlines in Europe

What if you could fly from one end of any given continent to the other for as little as $25? Welcome to the wonderful age of no-frills airlines, the little jet engines that could. Here's how to use them.

Jetblue may be a cheap ticket, btu the service is top-notch, including leather seats and your own personal DirectTV screen
Jetblue may be a cheap ticket, but the service is top-notch, including leather seats with plenty of leg room, and even your own personal DirectTV screen. That's more frills than you get with a legacy carrier.
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, 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 and 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 or ferry—especially to the big islands of Sicily and Sardegna.

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 We Talking About Here, Exactly?

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 London, out of Luton or Stansted rather than Heathrow or Gatwick).

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!

Connecting 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, 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. » more

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 They 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: those trips on Eurofly I mentioned above certainly worked a dream. And 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 Venice to Santorini, Paris to Bologna, Alghero (in Sardegna) to Pisa, London to Prague, 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 Air... well, actually, all of them).

I do trust that each of the alternative airlines mentioned here and among the booking resources on the next page 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 go out of business overnight. Just ask anyone who once flew or worked for such massive, standard-bearer, household-name airlines as Eastern, PanAm, or TWA. (My first flight to Italy 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.

The next page is fill of resources for finding and booking no-frills airlines to help you track down the current crop of low-cost carriers, or you can try this booking engine:

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