Budget Airline Basics

Have questions about Europe's budget airlines? You're not alone. After all, they're often super cheap and can seem too good to be true. So, what gives?



How can budget airlines be so cheap?



When should I book? Do I need to book in advance?



Do all low-cost carriers operate exclusively as online businesses?



Can I connect from a flight on one low-cost carrier to another?



Are budget airlines in Europe sketchy?



Are these airlines reliable?



What's the biggest difference between low-cost airlines and "regular" airlines?

Q: How can budget airlines be so cheap?

A: First of all, budget airlines manage to keep their costs down. Many low-cost routes fly in and out of secondary airports with low landing fees. Many low-cost airlines have eliminated conventional customer service departments, replacing them with toll-based telephone numbers that levy exorbitant per-minute charges (see: easyJet).

The operating costs of low-cost carriers are also quite minimal. Though practices vary, for the most part you'll find baggage handlers checking tickets, planes being unloaded minutes before they're filled with new customers, and planes not being completely cleaned during general flying hours. For this reason, we recommend against using the air sickness bags. (OK, someone had to make the joke.)

Budget airlines also make money off of additional products and services, from snacks and scratch-off cards sold in the air to the sale of affiliated services through their websites like car rentals, hotel reservations, tours, transfer services, credit cards, and travel insurance.

Low-cost airlines also charge for a dizzying range of "perks," including seat assignments, airport check in (what a perk!), and checking bags (ditto). Some airlines charge for bookings not made with the airline's co-branded credit card.

Q: When should I book? Do I need to book in advance?

A: In general, you should book as far in advance as you can. Low-cost carriers tend to work on a scarcity model, which means that the more seats already booked on the plane, the more expensive the remaining seats will be.

Generally, the further out you are from your travel date, the fewer seats will have been purchased. That said, we've flown for a pittance on two weeks' notice, and we've noted quite pricey seats months in advance.

But not everything depends on the number of available seats. Some routes have much higher starting fares than other routes. In addition, there are fare sales, which for Ryanair, among other airlines, can be as low as the cost of taxes and charges—or, occasionally, even less than that. These extreme sales can be for flights within the short term as well as for journeys six months down the road.

Q: Do all low-cost carriers operate exclusively as online businesses?

A: The Internet allows low-cost carriers to slash costs, while automating their services. Relegating most ticket purchases to the online realm lowers costs for budget carriers. Indeed, many low-cost carriers also sell reservations over the telephone, but most charge a flat fee for the service. Flybe, for example, charges €7 for a telephone booking.

Q: Can I connect from a flight on one low-cost carrier to another?

A: Sorry, we just fell out of our chair. Here's the bottom line: Do not attempt to get from point A to point C via point B in a single day. Europe's budget airlines are focused on point-to-point journeys. They save money by not having to worry about coordinating connecting flights. While a two-hour connection time at an airport may, on the surface, look doable, it very likely isn't.

In many cases, you'll need to exit security in order to check into your next flight. If you miss your connection, you will have no recourse whatsoever, and will have to purchase a connecting flight at the airport to get to your destination. A purchase at the airport will be far more expensive than your advance purchase, made weeks in advance. There may not be another connecting flight for hours or even days.

We can't underscore strongly enough that same-day connections are a bad idea. The only exception is with the few low-cost carriers selling connecting flights. Air Berlin and Germanwings are notable exceptions to the rule.

Q: Are budget airlines in Europe sketchy?

A: That all depends on how you define "sketchy." It's important to know what you're getting yourself into with low-cost carriers in Europe. As long as your expectations are set appropriately, you should be ok.

Don't expect fancy service, for one. And, come with an open mind. We've had crazy folks whooping it up in the seats in front of us on the way to Madrid and super quiet ladies and gents reading on the way to Amsterdam. Every flight—and airline—is different.

Q: Are these airlines reliable?

A: For the most part, yes, although some low-cost airlines cancel flights and don't prepare adequately for their passengers. For example, a major (unnamed) low-cost airline once canceled one of our flights. They offered no means of obtaining a refund for North American customers. With no other routes open for travel from our point of origin to our destination, we were forced to purchase a costly replacement ticket to a city several hours away by train. What should have been a three-hour journey turned into a ten-hour one.

Do experiences like this one mean that low-cost airlines are not reliable? Not exactly, though we recommend having a contingency plan. We also believe that low-cost air journeys are better suited to holiday travel than business travel.

Q: What's the biggest difference between low-cost airlines and "regular" airlines?

A: The assumption of a low fare, probably. We'd like to say service, but many "regular" airlines offer little in the way of service these days.

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