Unless you have lived under a rock for the past 10 years, you already know about the existence of low-cost carriers, those airlines which advertise very low fares and have made it possible for a lot of travelers to enjoy a cheap vacation. When they started operating in Europe, everyone seemed to only point out the bad things about them – the added fees or not being safe – but lately they are popular among more and more travelers.
Having flown, since 2011, exclusively low-cost within Europe, I am sure I can help you understand how these airline work and how you can keep your plane ticket low. And yes, you should book with a low-cost carrier, but first, make sure you know the details and how they work.
Budget carrier vs low cost carrier
Both designate the same way of running their business, but the airlines which market themselves as budget carriers – for example, Blue Air – tend to be on the more expensive side of the spectrum.
Research, research and more research
There are a lot of theories out there about when it’s best to book your cheap airline tickets. But you can throw those out the window when it comes to low-cost carriers. Yes, you need to book in advance. If you are flexible and keep your eyes on the airlines’ offers, you can book when they announce one of those super-low / I-think-this-is-a-typo deals. Otherwise, about 2-3 months before departure is when you want to book your plane tickets. And you should sign up for email alerts.
Understand the base price
The low price advertised by low-cost carriers only includes your “right” to board the plane and a free carry on (hand) bag. That’s it.
Understand the fees
Before you even go on the airline’s website to look for cheap flights, make a list of what you must include in your ticket and what’s not necessary. Because anything on top of the base price is paid for.
These possible add-on are:
- hand luggage fee: yup. I am looking at you , WizzAir for having two types of hand luggage (the tiny one for free and the larger one paid for), but EasyJet is not far behind either (the bigger luggage, though not paid for, may end up as checked luggage). If you prefer the larger one , pay for it before you get to the airport.
- personal item: the only way to get a “personal item” on board (which can be a handbag , camera bag, or a small backpack, for example) is to pay for priority boarding (but do check which airlines offer it, I know for sure about WizzAir and Ryanair)
- checked luggage fee: of course, this is not included with these tickets. More so, full-service carriers don’t include this for internal Europe flights anymore either (only a handful of them still do). If you need to carry checked luggage, pay for it before you head to the airport. You can even add it at check in.
- preferred seating: want to seat by the window after the wings? You’ll pay something for that.
- credit / debit card fees: these seem to have vanished lately on WizzAir but EasyJet still charges them, for example. So make sure to use a card with no additional fee.
Check in online
This is a must for low-cost carriers. The fees are not worth it to check in at the airport. Only some airlines actually have an app so in most cases, you have to print out the boarding pass.
Tip: do the online check in as soon as it opens! And thankfully, this happens 30 days before the flight and sometimes earlier
Now that you know what you want to bring with you, make sure your luggage falls within the required size. And yes, consider the wheels and handle! The best options are backpacks.
My current choice is a 44L backpack from CabinZero.
If your luggage is bigger / weighs more than what the airlines accept, you will pay a lot for it. Sure, it depends on the gate agent but don’t relay on everyone being super nice.
And pay attention that the luggage policies change sometimes. Luckily, the airlines do write about it and advertise the changes ahead of time (for example, Ryanair just changed the cabin luggage policy in early 2018).
Only one piece of hand luggage
And yes, no camera bag! Or handbag. The gate agent will make you stash everything in one hand luggage so come prepared. Or buy priority boarding (in case the airline offers this option).
Tip: gift bags from the airport’s shops can be used to “store” additional items , in case your bag overflows on the way back. Ahem.
On board food and drinks
Everything is paid for and overpriced. You may as well buy a bottle of water after you pass security check and it’s going to cost less than to buy from the plane. But since most low cost carriers’ flights being short hauls, you don’t need to worry much about the water or eating.
No entertainment. Bring your own
It is allowed to use your smartphone or table in airplane mode, so you can read or listen to music. Aside from the airline’s magazine – which can be fun to read to avoid boredom – you won’t find any other entertainment on board.
Know where you land
One of the things many travelers don’t like about low-cost carriers is that they use the secondary airports, in most of the cases. These are usually located further out from the city center. And since the cheapest flights are available either in the early morning or late at night, you also have to check what public transportation options are available.
Tickets are non-refundable
When you book a flight with a low-cost carrier, consider that tickets are non-refundable. The airline may reimburse part of the taxes but, if you will not take the flight, consider it a loss. Tickets can be changed for a fee and fare difference.
Flying into / out of Central – Eastern Europe but not always within
Low cost carriers are awesome to get to Central – Eastern Europe…or get out of it. But when it comes to traveling within this area, they don’t offer many connections . For example, WizzAir flies Budapest to Bucharest and Targu Mures (both in Romania), while Ryanair doesn’t offer similar routes but has recently opened Timisoara to Bucharest (both in Romania). On the other hand, Rynair flies out of 3 cities in Romania, operating flights to cities in Italy, Greece, UK and plenty other countries.
Newest planes on the market
Because low cost carriers use a plane for a lot of flights daily, their fleet is the newest on the market. WizzAir operates planes with an average age of 4.3 years , while Ryanair’s is 6.7 years old and EasyJet’s is 6.8 years. On the other hand, Lufthansa’s fleet has an average age of 11 years and KLM’s fleet average age is 11.2 years.
How we travel on low-cost carriers
We always book the flights 2-3 months in advance. I did get a complimentary discount club membership last time I booked a flight with WizzAir but have yet to use the discounts. We choose a free hand luggage and one paid for (because it’s larger). We prefer seats in the middle section, on or after the wings, so we end up paying a bit for that and we always check in online. We have never had problems with the size of the luggage at the airport. But we are careful to measure it (yes, before we buy it!)
Low cost airlines operating in Europe (excludes Turkey)
Eurowings (former German Wings) : subsidiary of Lufthansa
Note: info updated in Jan 2018