By Rick Steves
The ease of finding cheap flights within Europe has revolutionized itinerary planning, turning even vagabonds into jetsetters. Before buying a long-distance train or bus ticket, it's smart to first check the cost of a flight — you might be surprised. You can hop just about anywhere on the Continent for less than $250 a flight.
Using Budget Airlines
After Europe deregulated its airways in the 1990s, a flock of budget-conscious, no-frills airlines took flight. Some established ones (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 partial list, see the table below.
Budget airlines typically offer flights between major European cities for $50–250. You can also fly within Europe on major airlines affordably — and without all the aggressive restrictions. If your timing is right, you may even find some remarkable, it-must-be-a-typo deals (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). 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 be careful to 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 travelers 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.
Booking Cheap Flights Within Europe
Most budget airlines focus on particular hubs. 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 Budapest to Oslo, I'd look at Wizz Air (with a hub in Budapest) and at Norwegian (which has a hub in Oslo). Be aware that some airlines forego this "hub-and-spoke" model for a less predictable "point-to-point" schedule.
My first stop when seeking budget flights online is Skyscanner; this straightforward website specializes in European budget airlines and gives an overview of all of my options. Skyscanner also includes major nonbudget carriers.
Several other websites, including the all-purpose Kayak, are worth a look. The visually engaging Momondo shows which days surrounding your scheduled dates have the cheapest fares; it also includes nearby airports in search results (be clear on which airport it's using).
What's the Catch?
With cheaper airfares come potential pitfalls. Budget tickets are usually nonrefundable and nonchangeable. Many airlines take only online bookings, so it can be hard to reach a customer service representative 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 with 50 minutes to spare, you've just missed your plane. Also, it's not uncommon for budget carriers to unexpectedly go out of business or cancel a slow-selling route — leaving you scrambling to find an alternative.
Since budget airlines aren't making much money on your ticket, they look for other ways to pad their profits by 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. The initial fare you see on the website can be misleadingly low: Once you begin the purchasing process, each step seems to come with another charge. Extra charges can include reserving a seat, choosing a seat near the front, line skipping and priority boarding privileges, and — of course — checking bags.
If you plan to check a bag, pay the fee when you purchase your ticket — on many budget airlines, the price per bag gets progressively higher the closer you get to your departure. Be aware that you may have to pay extra for a second carry-on, checking larger or heavier bags, and checking odd-sized bags such as baby equipment. 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.
Another potential headache: Budget airlines sometimes use obscure airports. For example, one of Ryanair's London hubs is Stansted Airport, one of the farthest airports from London's city center. Some of Ryanair's flights to "Frankfurt" actually take you to Hahn, 75 miles away. 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 often more than pays for the difference.
These are some of the budget airlines crisscrossing the European skies, along with their main hubs. To discover more, check out Skyscanner, or search online for "cheap flights" plus the cities you're interested in flying to/from. New airlines appear — and old ones go out of business — all the time.
|EasyJet||London (Gatwick), Milan, Berlin, Paris (Charles de Gaulle, Orly), and more|
|Eurowings||Cologne, Düsseldorf, Hamburg|
|Norwegian||Oslo, London (Gatwick), Helsinki|
|Ryanair||London (Stansted), Dublin, and many other European cities|
|TUIfly||Berlin, Hannover, Munich|