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How much does that budget airline ticket really cost?

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Ryanair Beauvais
Disembarking a Ryanair flight at Paris Beauvais, which is not to be confused with Charles de Gaulle. Photo: Phil-It

Are cheap flights in Europe an illusion? For many travelers who are used to flying major carriers, one’s first experience with a low-cost carrier may be eye-opening, in both good and bad ways.

First, the good — yes, you really can book flights regularly for less than €30 each way, if you pay attention to sales (even just two weeks before your flight) or book a couple months in advance. And if you carry on your luggage, obey the weight restrictions, and are flying between major airports, you will most likely feel that you have scored an unbelievable bargain.

Low-cost carriers are shaking up the airline industry for good reason — they deliver virtually the same product as the big players at a fraction of the price. EuroCheapo’s new and improved flight search makes these tickets even easier to find.

Yet as this video (warning: they use grown-up language) makes hilariously clear, there are plenty of opportunities to make expensive missteps when flying with a low-cost carrier.

Here are some of the additional costs you need to consider when weighing your travel options:

Ryanair charges €7 for "Web check in" and another €7 as an "Administration fee."

Ryanair charges €7 for “Web check in” and another €7 as an “Administration fee.”

1. Cost (in money and time) of traveling to/from the airport

Do not assume that your ticket to “Paris” lands you at well-connected Charles de Gaulle. Many smaller airports used by low-cost carriers name themselves after major metropolitan areas that can be over 90 minutes away. Your options may be limited to charter buses to/from your actual destination, and, if you book a very early departure or very late arrival, you may be looking at a hotel stay and taxi ride to/from somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

A little due diligence here is necessary to make sure you will not be stuck literally or financially.

2. Additional baggage fees

Every low-cost carrier allows you one carry-on bag at no additional cost. If you can fit all of your things into their space/weight constraints (be sure to check your airline’s website for exact specifications!), you can take it on board and save yourself quite a bit of money. (Although, as I mentioned in my last column, some airlines might push you to check your carry-on at the gate.)

If you must check a bag, book the option in advance online. You can generally add this to an existing booking later at no additional cost, but it will often cost double to add the same suitcase at the airport. If you’re traveling with a partner, consider checking just one bag for the two of you and splitting the cost.

Note that you are regularly limited to no more than 20 kg total in checked luggage per person, no matter how many bags you have paid to check. If you exceed this limit, you can expect it to cost you dearly on a per-kilo basis.

3. Online check-in

Do not show up to the airport without checking in online and printing your boarding passes beforehand. At the time of publication, easyJet will allow reprints of boarding cards from its machines at the airport no later than 40 minutes before the flight at no additional cost, while Ryanair charges €70 for this privilege. And despite the fact that it’s their standard, Ryanair’s non-sale flights also regularly include a €7 charge for web check-in.

4. Booking fees, including credit card fees

Low-cost airlines pass these costs of business directly onto the customer.

• Ryanair charges a €7 administrative fee per flight, plus 2% of the total if booked using a credit card
• easyJet charges €12.50 per order, regardless of the number of tickets, and an additional 2.5% of the entire purchase on cards

On both airlines, you can forgo the additional credit card fee if you use a debit card (or, in Germany only, ELV bank transfers), though travelers should note that debit cards may not grant the same protections as credit cards in the case of airline bankruptcy.

Now what’s cheaper?

Carefully examining these very real additional costs may make it clear that the major carrier who doesn’t charge through the nose for luggage isn’t actually more expensive after all, or that taking the train isn’t any longer door-to-door and in fact a better option for your trip given the pleasant scenery, variety of departure options, and lack of airport security hassles.

The real magic of frugal travel is in finding the option that is truly best for you, and for that, the only “special powers” needed are a little knowledge and the application of reason.

About the author

Hilary Bown

An academic by training, a writer by day, and a Cheapo by heritage, Hilary Bown's meagre means and insatiable travel appetite have helped her sharpen her "no-budget travel" skills across the European continent over the past decade. At home in Berlin or on an adventure abroad, you'll find her in sandals, riding the bus, reading novels while walking, drinking the local wine, writing out postcards with a felt-tip pen, and browsing the shelves of the supermarket and hardware store. Find her unique blend of travel adventure and tested advice at Less Than a Shoestring.

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