By Rick Steves
When I started traveling, no one spending their own money bought one-way airline tickets within Europe. It simply wasn’t affordable. But today that kind of thinking seems so 20th century. Before buying any long-distance train or bus ticket, it's smart to first check the cost of a flight — you might be surprised.
The proliferation of extremely competitive discount carriers has revolutionized European-itinerary planning and turned vagabonds into jetsetters. Because you can make hops just about anywhere on the Continent for roughly $100 a flight, deciding where to go is now mostly just a question of following your travel dreams: You're no longer limited to places within a convenient train ride (or reasonable drive) from each other. It's now entirely feasible to lace together a far-flung trip that ranges from, say, Ireland to Portugal to Sicily, if you please.
Using Budget Airlines
Since Europe deregulated its airways in the 1990s, a flock of budget-conscious, no-frills airlines have taken flight. Some of the most established (such as easyJet and Ryanair) have route maps that rival their mainstream competitors. Meanwhile, dozens of smaller, niche airlines stick to a more limited flight plan. For a list of many of these carriers — including websites and some of the destinations they serve — see the below.
Budget airlines typically offer flights between major European cities for $50–250. You can even find some remarkable, it-must-be-a-typo deals if your timing is right (for example, Ryanair routinely flies from London to any one of dozens of European cities for less than $30). Even after adding taxes and a boatload of fees, these flights can still be a good value. To get the lowest fares, book long in advance. The cheapest seats sell out fast (aside from occasional surprise sales), leaving the pricier fares for latecomers. Of course, it's important to consider the downsides of flying budget airlines (described later).
One-way flights on low-cost airlines are generally just as affordable as round-trips. Consider linking a couple of cheap flights, either with the same or different airlines, to reach your destination. But leave plenty of time for connections — you’re on your own if a delay on one airline causes you to miss your next flight on a different airline. Pay attention to which terminal your flights use, as low-cost carriers are often in a different terminal than traditional carriers, and you’ll need extra time to get between them. If you’re using a budget carrier to connect to your US-bound flight, allow enough of a layover to absorb delays — maybe even an overnight.
Smart vagabonds use low-cost airlines to creatively connect the dots on their itinerary. If there’s no direct cheap flight to Florence, maybe there’s an alternative that goes to Pisa (1.5 hours away by train); remember that many flight-search websites have a “nearby airports” option that broadens your search. Even adding the cost of the train ticket from Pisa to Florence, the total could be well below the price of a long overland journey, not to mention several hours faster.
Searching for Cheap Flights
New no-frills airlines take off every year. Some major European airlines, faced with competition from budget carriers, have even joined the discount-airfare game.
Most budget airlines focus on particular hubs (for instance, Norwegian Air has hubs in Oslo, Bergen, Copenhagen, Alicante, London, and Stockholm). When looking for cheap flights, first check airlines that use either your starting point or your ending point as a hub. For example, for a trip from Berlin to Oslo, I’d look at airberlin (with a hub in Berlin) and at Norwegian (which has a hub in Oslo). But some airlines forego this “hub-and-spoke” model for a less predictable “point-to-point” schedule.
To find out all your options, use an online search engine that covers everything. My first stop when seeking budget flights is Skyscanner; this no-frills website specializes in European budget airlines, and it’s a fast way to determine if any of them serve the route you’re eyeing. Skyscanner also includes major non-budget carriers.
Several other websites, including the all-purpose Kayak, are worth a look. WhichAirline.com does a good job of searching the budget carriers, and specializes in dredging up creative options for getting the absolutely cheapest fare. The visually engaging Momondo, automatically searches for flights at nearby airports (read the results carefully to be clear on which airport it’s using). Dohop has a clean interface and generally good results. You can also check Flycheapo, which doesn’t include full flight schedules but can tell you which budget airlines fly between any two points.
What's the Catch?
With cheaper airfares come potential pitfalls. These budget tickets are usually nonrefundable and nonchangeable. Many airlines take only online bookings, so you won’t have a travel agent to go to bat for you, and it can be hard to track down a staff member to talk to if problems arise. (Read all the fine print carefully, so you know what you’re getting into.) Flights are often tightly scheduled to squeeze more flying time out of each plane, which can exaggerate the effects of delays. Deadlines are strictly enforced: If they tell you to arrive at the check-in desk an hour before the flight, and you show up only 50 minutes early, you’ve just missed your plane. And, as these are relatively young companies, it’s not uncommon for budget carriers to go out of business or cancel a slow-selling route unexpectedly — leaving you scrambling to find an alternative.
Since budget airlines are not making much money on your ticket, they look for other ways to pad their profits — bombarding you with ads every step of the way (as you book, via email after you've bought your ticket, on board the plane), selling you overpriced food and drinks on board (nothing’s included), and gouging you with fees for everything. For instance, you can get dinged for paying with a credit card (even though there’s no option for paying cash), checking in and printing your boarding pass at the airport (instead of online), “priority boarding” ahead of the pack, reserving a specific seat, carrying an infant on board, and — of course — checking bags. The initial fare you see on the website can be misleadingly low, and once you begin the purchasing process, each page seems to come with another unexpected charge.
If you plan to check a bag, pay the fee online when you purchase your ticket — on many budget airlines, the price per bag isn’t fixed but gets progressively higher the closer you get to your departure. Be aware that you may have to pay extra to check a bag if it’s over a certain (relatively low) weight limit. Don’t assume your bag qualifies as carry-on in Europe; many budget airlines use smaller dimensions than other carriers. To avoid unpleasant surprises, read the baggage policy carefully before you book.
Ryanair, one of the biggest budget carriers, is as famous for its low fares as it is for the creative ways it’s devised to nickel-and-dime passengers. For instance, their complicated checked-luggage price schedule varies depending on how many bags you have, how heavy they are, and whether you prebook online — ranging from about $20 for a small bag prebooked off-season to $180 for a bigger bag booked at the airport in peak season, plus about $30 per extra kilogram over 20 kilos (44 pounds).
Another potential headache: Budget airlines sometimes use obscure airports. For example, one of Ryanair’s English hubs is Stansted Airport, one of the farthest airports from London’s city center. Ryanair’s flights to “Frankfurt” actually take you to Hahn, 75 miles away. Sometimes you may even wind up in a different (though nearby) country: For example, a flight advertised as going to Copenhagen, Denmark, might go to Malmö, Sweden, or a flight bound for Vienna, Austria, might land in Bratislava, Slovakia. These are still safe and legal airstrips, but it can take money and time to reach your final destination by public transportation. On the other hand, the money you save on your ticket (compared to using a mainstream carrier into a major airport) often more than pays for the difference.
These are just a few of the many budget airlines taking to the European skies. To discover more, check out Skyscanner, or simply do an online search for "cheap flights" plus the cities you're interested in flying to/from. Note that new airlines appear — and old ones go out of business — all the time.
|Aer Lingus||Dublin, Shannon, Cork, Belfast|
|airberlin||Multiple German cities|
|Air One||Milan, Venice, Pisa|
|Blue Air||Bucharest, Bacău (Romania)|
|CityJet||London City Airport|
|Condor||Multiple German cities|
|Darwin Airline||Geneva, Lugano|
|easyJet||London, Milan, Berlin, Paris, Liverpool, Geneva, Basel, Nice, Toulouse, Edinburgh, Madrid, and more|
|Flybe||Manchester, Newquay, Exeter, Southampton, London (southern England); Jersey, Guernsey (Channel Islands)|
|Germanwings||Multiple German cities|
|Helvetic Airways||Zürich, Bern|
|Jet2||Multiple British cities|
|Jetairfly||Brussels, Liège, Ostend (Belgium)|
|Meridiana||Olbia, Cagliari (Sardinia); Rome and other Italian cities|
|Monarch Airlines||Multiple British cities|
|Norwegian||Oslo, Bergen, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Alicante, and London|
|Pegasus Airlines||Istanbul, Antalya (Turkey)|
|Ryanair||London, Dublin, and several other cities|
|SmartWings||Prague, Ostrava (Czech Republic)|
|Thomsonfly||Connects various British cities to Mediterranean resorts|
|Transavia||Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Eindhoven|
|TUIfly||Multiple German cities|
|Vueling||Multiple Spanish cities, Amsterdam, Florence, Rome|
|Wizz Air||Budapest and many other Eastern European cities|