Although it’s possible to travel between many continental European countries by bus or train, if you’ve got a long distance to cover or are travelling to or from an island, flying can often be the quickest and most cost-effective option. With an abundance of low-cost airlines operating in Europe, fares can be low, but these bargains can also be hard to find.
The price you pay depends on when you travel. Tickets on weekends (especially Friday and Sunday evenings) and during school holidays generally come at a premium, while mid-week flights can sometimes be great value. As a rule of thumb, a one-way flight within Europe (excluding luggage but including taxes and other charges) is cheap at €50 or under; if you see anything for €30 or less, it’s time to reach for your credit-card before the other bargain-hunters do.
My first port of call is always Skyscanner, a search tool which allows you to look for flights on your chosen dates, scanning the websites of all the airlines that offer your route to find the best price. In cities with multiple airports, you can search for cheap tickets to or from all airports at once.
The main low-cost operators in Europe are EasyJet and Ryanair. On the surface, there is little to distinguish between them: both are no-frills carriers that charge for ‘extras’ such as luggage, and impose a fee for payment by credit or debit card, even though there’s no other way to pay. However, Ryanair charges more for almost everything. Checking a 15kg suitcase on a Ryanair flight costs €15, while carrying a 20kg bag on an EasyJet flight is a more reasonable €11. EasyJet is also more comfortable and delivers a higher level of service to its passengers, while Ryanair is a more basic way to get from A to B.
Other good value airlines with similar policies and charges (but fewer routes) include Jet2.com (mostly UK to continental Europe), German Wings (Germany to the rest of Europe) and Wizz Air (lots of European routes, particularly to and from Eastern Europe).
In order to make sure you get a good deal, don’t believe that the first price that comes up when you search an airline’s website will be the price you pay. It could be just the seat, or the seat and taxes. Always do a ‘dummy’ booking, following through until you reach the ‘total to pay’. If you’ll be carrying a lot of luggage, check out more established carriers such as national airlines, which don’t charge for checked baggage and often turn a blind eye to (very) slightly overweight luggage – you might get away with 2 or 3 kgs, but they would most likely make you pay for 5 or more.
As a frequent flyer, here are my tips and tricks for getting a good deal.
·If possible, be flexible about when you fly.
·Book as far in advance as possible.
·To make sure you know about special promotions and sales, sign up to airlines’ e-newsletters.
·If you’re travelling between England and Northern France or Belgium, always check out the Eurostar first. This high-speed train zooms from London and Kent to Lille, Paris or Brussels in 2.5 hours. It’s more environmentally friendly than flying, and arriving in the city centre makes it very convenient.
·In a city with multiple airports, make sure to consider the cost of travel to each airport when you’re looking for cheap fares. Sometimes, booking bus or train tickets in advance can help you save money too – as with Easybus in London.
·Make sure you read the terms and conditions carefully when booking. With low-cost carriers, things are often less clear than they initially appear.
·If you’re going away for a weekend, consider flying with a carry-on (hand luggage) only to save money. Be sure to check the size restrictions carefully, and remember your handbag/purse will have to go inside your carry-on. The size of your bag will often be checked at the boarding gate, and anything too big will have to be checked in (for a high price).
·Check the weight of your luggage and size of your hand luggage carefully to avoid penalty charges at the airport. Buying a hand-held luggage scale can be useful if you fly often.
·Find the cheapest card to pay with – most airlines charge less for debit than credit card payments, and some do not charge for payment with a Visa Electron card.
·If flying with Ryanair, make sure to check in online and print your boarding pass at home regardless of whether you are checking in luggage (you must use what is known as a ‘bag drop’ – basically a normal check in, but you already have your boarding pass). If you turn up at the airport without a printed pass, be prepared to pay a huge fee. Other airlines may charge you to check in at the airport if you are travelling with hand luggage only – check their policies carefully. Printing off your own boarding pass also speeds up your progress through the airport as you can proceed straight to security.
*Photo via flickr by Andre Dimofte