By Rick Steves
The ease of finding cheap flights in Europe has upended everything about how we plan our travels there. 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 is 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. You can hop just about anywhere on the Continent for less than $250 a flight, making deciding where to go 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 (though those are still perfectly fine ways to travel — it's smart to run through all of your options). It's now entirely feasible to lace together a far-flung trip from Ireland to Portugal to Sicily, if you please.
Using Budget Airlines
After Europe deregulated its airways in the 1990s, a flock of budget-conscious, no-frills airlines took 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, see the table below.
Budget airlines typically offer flights between major European cities for $50–250. These days, you can also fly within Europe on major airlines affordably — and without all the aggressive restrictions. 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 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 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. WhichAirline does a good job of searching budget carriers, and specializes in creative options for getting rock-bottom fares. The visually engaging Momondo automatically includes nearby airports in search results (be clear on which airport it's using). Dohop has a clean interface and generally good results.
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 — 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 instance, you may get dinged for paying with a credit card (even though there's no option for paying any other way), checking in and printing your boarding pass at the airport (instead of online), "priority boarding" ahead of the pack, reserving a seat, carrying an infant on board, and — of course — checking bags. 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.
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 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, what time of year you're flying, 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 $12 per extra kilogram over 20 kilos (44 pounds).
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. 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 might go to Malmö (in Sweden), or a flight bound for Vienna might land in Bratislava (in 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.
|Aer Lingus||Dublin, Shannon|
|CityJet||London (London City)|
|EasyJet||London (Gatwick, Stansted, Luton), Milan, Berlin, Paris (Charles de Gaulle, Orly), and more|
|Eurowings||Cologne, Düsseldorf, Hamburg|
|Norwegian||Oslo, London (Gatwick)|
|Ryanair||London (Stansted), Dublin, and several other cities|
|Transavia||Amsterdam, Paris (Orly)|