The good news is that Europe is teeming with airlines ready to take you a short hop from one country to another, often for less than the cost of a hostel stay. The bad news is that if you don’t understand the system, getting hold of those cheap flights can be as elusive as finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and even if you do get your lucky paws on a cheap ticket, you can quickly find any deal obliterated by additional charges if you don’t follow the airline’s rules.
I met one traveler from the USA who had managed to bag herself a bargain flight, but she’d not flown with a low cost airline before and found herself handing over double the flight price at the airport for failing to buy checked baggage in advance and not printing her boarding card before she left.
The sad reality is that, while the headline prices can look enticingly low, the rules for keeping the price that way can be brutally challenging. Set one booking step wrong, and all the good work of securing the low flight price can be obliterated in one swipe of the credit card, leaving you wondering if the train journey through the Italian countryside might have been the better option all round.
If you do want to make the most of Europe’s low cost airlines, here are eight simple steps for securing a cheap seat.
1. Know the market
Europe’s relatively compact size makes it perfect for covering a lot of countries in a short space of time. The downside for travelers is that it also means coming to grips with a huge number of airlines serving the region, distinguishing the budget from the premium carriers, and fathoming the complex network of routes on offer by each airline. It may sound like a large piece of homework, but there are plenty of resources out there to help.
Start by having a look at a budget friendly guidebook such as Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, which should have a section highlighting the main airlines serving each country. If you don’t want to pay for or pack a huge guidebook, most hostels have them available for reference, or make friends with another traveler who has one.
In addition to guidebooks, a simple search on the internet will usually bring up the basic information you are looking for, and if you want to double check the results, this Wikipedia entry does a pretty good job of listing each country’s low cost carriers.
2. Chase the deals
Super cheap flight prices aren’t offered by the airlines out of a heart-warming sense of generosity. They’re designed to grab headlines and lure in customers all while offering as few low priced seats as they can legally get away with. In short, your chances of scoring a cheap flight are limited from the outset, but there are a few things you can do to improve your chances of securing a deal.
One option is to becoming a regular checker of the sites, adding it to your routine over breakfast or checking each time you log into Facebook. A more efficient method is to sign up to each airline’s email offers. Yes, that’s likely to lead to an influx of messages to your account, but with seat sales and other offers pinging into your inbox, you can get online and find low cost deals as soon as they’re released.
Another good way to find deals without having to hand over your email address is to check on popular flight search sites like Skyscanner.net. The advantage is that these sites will quickly search across a wide range of airlines, and with search capabilities such as checking prices for a whole month, you can quickly whistle through the rates to find the best deal. This approach comes with two caveats. First, make sure that all of the region’s low cost airlines are included in the site’s search, and second, that there are no fees added on for booking (if there are, skip straight to the airline’s website and book direct).
3. Abandon all of your plans
Flexibility is undoubtedly the key to securing a cheap seat. While it may be a nice idea to fly into London for New Year’s Eve or flit to Paris for Valentine’s Day, these popular times rarely come with a low price tag. Equally, weekend flights, those during key school holidays and trips at travel friendly times of the day, usually command higher prices.
As a general rule, the best prices appear mid-week, during low season, and see you leaving early or arriving late. For the absolute best access to low prices, try to introduce some flexibility to your destinations. For example, if you can hop from London to France to Spain in any order, you can open up an even broader selection of deals compared to sticking to an itinerary that takes you through the countries in a fixed order.
If you are able to free your mind of date constraints, travel in the dead of night, or hit Rome in winter (but not too close to Christmas), you’ll be able to explore the cheapest flight combinations.
4. Pay attention to your clicks
You’ve found the deal, and you’re excited to be one of the lucky few who have managed to get online and book before the seats sell out, but don’t be hasty – one wrong click in the buying process can turn out to be an expensive venture. Whether you mistyped your name in the frenzy or click the mouse a day or even year later than you want, you’re going to face expensive administrative costs to correct your error (assuming you’re permitted to correct the mistake at all).
Inputting errors aren’t the only risk as you pass from page to page in the purchasing process. Many of the websites have been designed to cunningly sneak added extras into your basket. From travel insurance to purchasing airline compliant luggage to adding small (almost unnoticeable) fees to receive confirmation of your flight by text, the additional services can all push the price of your ticket up.
Take your time, read every line like you are declaring your Last Will and Testament, and make sure you opt out of any extra service that you don’t need.
If you don’t trust yourself to get it right, you may be tempted to call the airline to book.
Before you do so, check how much that activity might cost you. Not only is the telephone number likely to be a premium or higher rate number simply for placing the call, many airlines add on additional charges for booking by phone (and even correcting errors that can be resolved online).
5. Travel light
Traveling light is advisable for many reasons, and not least so that you can save on costly baggage fees. The current trend with low cost airlines is to charge passengers for any luggage that is placed in the hold, and the more luggage you check in, the greater the fees that apply. By way of example, if you check two bags on a peak season flight with Ryanair, where one bag weighs up to 20kg (44 lbs.) and the other up to 15kg (33 lbs.), and you haven’t pre-booked checked baggage at the time you buy your ticket (more on this below), your baggage fee alone will be up to €280 ($362USD).
With this in mind, the best advice is that unless it can fit into the overhead locker, is under 100mls for liquids, and meets the airline’s stringent measurement rules (which they will stick to with devotion), don’t take it. And don’t forget that for many of the airlines, one bag means one bag – i.e. your handbag/laptop must fit in your carry-on luggage or you’ll be required to pay to check it in at the inflated airport check in prices.
If you’re on a long trip, simply can’t leave that extra pair of shoes at home, or perhaps find that it isn’t cost effective to continually purchase liquids in miniature size, then you will have little option but to check baggage. Yes, you’ll have to pay, but if you’re savvy, you can secure the cheapest rates by doing three simple things.
- If you can’t restrict yourself to carry-on luggage, then you should absolutely make sure that your bag weighs less than 15kg (33 lbs.) for the lowest fees and is never more than 20kg (44 lbs.), after which you are likely to have to pay costly excess baggage fees. Acceptable weights vary for each airline, so do check in advance.
- Compare baggage prices between the airlines as they vary enough (by more than €50) that it can make a huge difference to your overall flight price.
- Always book baggage online as many low cost airlines have started to charge a significantly higher price (more than double the cost in many cases) if you turn up at the airport with bags to check in but haven’t booked checked baggage as part of your ticket.
6. Expect to sit by yourself and in any available seat
Taking any seat going is the fastest way to avoid a swathe of extra charges. Boarding the aircraft first for a better choice of seats, choosing extra leg room and securing seats next to your travel buddy all cost extra, so unless it is fundamental to your journey that you sit next to your companion or stretch your legs in front, you will save money by not paying for pre-booked seats or speedy boarding (which usually only gets you to the front of the queue in any case).
Taking unreserved seats is also less stressful, too – boarding the plane last with indifference as to where you sit means you won’t enter the rugby scrum of passengers fighting it out for the window or aisle seat in a Darwinian style. Still not convinced? Remember that most flights in Europe are barely more than a short hop – wouldn’t you rather spend that money on doing fun stuff when you arrive at your destination?
7. Do everything before you get to the airport
Adding checked baggage to your booking isn’t the only pre-airport task that you should do to save money. Printing your own boarding pass generally makes for a swifter check in process, but for some low cost airlines, it is now essential to print your own pass to avoid extra fees.
Ryanair, for example, charges €60 ($77 USD) per customer if you need them to print your pass at the airport. If you think that’s expensive, pity the poor woman who had to spring €300 ($388USD) when she turned up at the airport with her family and only had her boarding card as a pdf on her smartphone. Sadly, her misfortune is a valuable lesson for all travelers – check the rules and follow them to the letter, making sure you have everything done before you get to the airport.
8. Do the math – is it really cheaper?
Finding that €20 flight is an exciting moment, but the reality is that the headline price is rarely the price that you finally pay. Add administrative charges for booking online, baggage fees, and other booking extras, and you can depart from the advertised price quite quickly. And these aren’t the only additional costs to take into consideration.
Many low cost airlines fly into smaller airports that sit further away from the city center of your destination, which usually means you are going to have increased travel costs to get to and from the airport. For example, Ryan Air flies into Beauvais airport in Paris, which is around 1 hour outside of the city, compared to the more centrally located Charles de Gaul. The same airline’s option for Rome is actually closer to the coast than the Eternal City. Therefore, make sure your research the airport location and transport options before you book.
Flight times should also be given some thought. Flying at 6am might be ok in principle, but factor in the recommendation that you get to the airport 2 hours beforehand and travel time to the airport, and you’re likely to find yourself journeying at a time when public transport has stopped running. In expensive cities, this can spell a costly taxi ride, or often cheaper (though still expensive), an overnight stay at the airport.
Add any food and drink costs onboard, and the overall cost of that €20 flight can be double, triple, or even quadruple the face value of the ticket. In those cases, it’s time to do a quick cross check – tally up the real costs of your flight and compare them to the national carrier, which is less likely to charge for checking baggage, probably doesn’t have booking fees, will usually fly into the main airport, let you sit next to your friend for free, and tend to provide a complementary coffee and sandwich onboard.
Do the math – is your low cost airline really providing that good a deal? If it is, get booking. If it isn’t, there’s always that train through the Italian countryside, which may well provide the better experience all round.
To read more about airfare and flying around the world, check out the following articles and resources: