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European Budget Airlines

An article by Joe Wiebe © All rights reserved.

London to Milan for ₤0.99!  This deal might seem unbelievable, but it is regularly advertised on the website for Ryanair, a Dublin-based economy airline that flies to 84 destinations in 16 European countries.  The same price is available for other cities, too, including: Stockholm, Oslo, and Hamburg.  ₤1.99 will get you from London to Salzburg, or for ₤3.99, you can choose between Rome, Venice, or Riga.  Reading the fine print reveals that this price does not include taxes, fees, and charges, which turn that ₤0.99 into ₤14.85, or about $36 (Cdn).  That is a significant difference, but then again, London to Milan for $36 is still an incredible price.
Competition between several low-cost European airlines over the last decade is making budget travel much easier.  For those of us for whom a trip to Europe is a major financial endeavour, but still would prefer a little comfort — say, a two-star hotel instead of a cot in a backpackers’ hostel — a two-hour flight versus an overnight train is a tantalizing prospect.  The prices these airlines offer are often much less expensive than a train or even a bus ticket, so it seems to be an easy decision.

Aside from Ryanair, there are several other low-cost carriers serving the 700 million residents of Europe and the huge number of tourists who flock to the Continent each year.  EasyJet, a British airline that boasts 92 aircraft flying 178 routes from fifty European airports, claims to have carried more passengers in Europe last year than British Airways.  Over on the Continent, Hanover-based HLX’s catchy slogan is “Fly for the price of a taxi — from ₤5.41.”  GermanWings offers 22 destinations from Köln and Stuttgart.  Yet another option is Amsterdam-based BasiqAir.

Considering most of the thirteen countries that joined the E.U. this spring are in central and eastern Europe, that market seems to be destined for rapid growth.  Slovakia’s SkyEurope is well on its way to reaping the benefits.  Calling itself “the gateway to central Europe,” SkyEurope operates from bases in Bratislava (conveniently only 50 kilometres from Vienna), Budapest, Warsaw, and Krakow, connecting with all the major western and southern European centres.  Other options in the newly trendy Baltic states include: Estonian Airlines, Lithuanian Airlines, and AirBaltic, based in Latvia.  Intrepid travelers take note: each of these fly to Moscow, too.
With all of these low-cost options for flying within Europe, almost any travel itinerary could be achieved on a budget.  However, there are other considerations.  To get the really good deals, you need to book far in advance.  Most of these airlines operate like Westjet here in Canada, selling a preset (and unknown) number of tickets at several price ranges.  For instance, a Ryanair flight from London to Milan tomorrow might cost as much as ₤99.00 ($240 Cdn.), though even just a few days away, prices fall as low as ₤27.99 ($67 Cdn.).  To get that ₤0.99 deal, however, you probably have to book several months in advance.

Cancellation policies are strict, but then again what airline is easygoing about letting their customers off the hook?  No refunds are allowed, but these budget airlines generally offer some flexibility — for a price.  EasyJet, for instance, will let you change your reservation up to two hours before the flight for a fee of ₤15.  It is important to note, however, that you will also have to pay the difference if the tickets for your new flight are more expensive.  EasyJet will even let you change the name on your ticket for ₤15; in other words, you can sell or give your ticket to someone else if you cannot use it yourself.

It is also important to note that these airlines do not always fly out of the main airports.  This can be a problem in London, where most of them fly out of Stansted, Luton, or Gatwick airports, while international flights almost always go through Heathrow.  It may not sound like a big deal, but let’s say you are flying home to Canada at the end of your whirlwind trip through Europe, and bought a cheap fare from Warsaw to Stansted.  First, you wait in line at customs upon arrival, then you wait for your luggage to appear.  Next, you transfer from Stansted to Heathrow on a National Express coach, which costs ₤20 ($50!), and takes anywhere from 80 minutes to two hours depending on the time of day.  The only cheaper way to get from airport to airport is to go through central London using the Tube and other connections, but with all the different transfers involved, you only save a few pounds and give up at least an hour more of your precious time.  Once you get to Heathrow, you have to check in with your airline (another line-up) and then go through security — a huge queue that can take anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours at busy times! 

Still, a $100 flight across Europe might save you enough to allow you to be able to go somewhere you otherwise could not afford, and this may justify the several hours of added hardship.  This is not a problem in other major cities like Paris where most of the budget airlines fly through Charles de Gaulle, just like Air Canada and other international airlines.

It is doubtful that these budget airlines will replace the Eurail pass as the preferred choice for the backpacker simply because a rail pass offers unlimited flexibility: when the gang at the hostel decides to take a side trip to Nice or Normandy, you can just take the next train with them.  But for those of us who know exactly which cathedrals, museums, and beerhalls we want to explore in our precious two weeks of holidays, nothing beats the convenience of flying.  These budget airlines make flying an affordable option as well.

Some European budget airline websites:

airBaltic —   http://www.airbaltic.com
Air Berlin —  http://www.airberlin.com
Basiq Air —  http://www.basiqair.com
BMI —   http://www.flybmi.com
easyJet —  http://www.easyjet.com
Estonian Air — http://www.estonian-air.ee
Lithuanian Airlines —  http://www.lal.lt/en
OpenJet —  http://www.openjet.com
RyanAir —  http://www.ryanair.com
SkyEurope —  http://www.skyeurope.com
VolareWeb —  http://www.volareweb.com
Wizz Air —  http://wizzair.com

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver freelance writer. 
For reprint permission contact the author


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