EuroCheapo's Budget Air Extravaganza

EuroCheapo's Budget Air Extravaganza - London, United Kingdom

Over three weeks in August and September, your loyal investigators at EuroCheapo hit eight cities in Europe. We returned to London, Amsterdam and Prague in order to update and deepen our listings. We also visited Dublin, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin and Munich to generate new reviews and city guides.

On a Wing and a Budget

Our mission: to cover eight cities over a 14-day period. How would we get around? Train? Bus? Hitchhike? The pace we had to maintain and the geographical range of cities we needed to visit meant that none of these modes of transportation were appropriate. Air travel was the only form of transportation that made sense.

First, no lie, we consulted our own budget air travel guide. Not to toot our own horn too loudly, but our listings of cities served by various budget airlines was indispensable. From there, we hit the budget airline websites and priced out our complex itineraries.

In the end, we relied on eight budget airlines to book 11 flights. Though we are not unfamiliar with budget air transportation in Europe, this was the first time we sampled this wide a range of airlines in such a concentrated period of time. Incredibly, we made all of our reservations in one sitting, just five weeks before our trip began. The total cost of all 16 tickets: $1164.


Kicking Off

We met in Dublin and visited every single hotel in the city center. You don't believe us? Check out our Dublin listings! You'll see that we didn't spend all our time downing pints of Guinness. From Dublin, we split up. One team took off for Stockholm and the other team left for Amsterdam. From here, we split up again. One team reassembled in Berlin and the other in Copenhagen. The Copenhagen team moved on to Prague before heading to London. The Berlin team split up, with one inspector flying to Munich, and the other inspector-editor jetting to London. Got all that? You'll be quizzed later.


Nightmare in the Air

One journey stands out as an illustration of the risks involved in European budget air travel. Two of us flew Ryanair from Dublin to Stockholm Skavsta. There are no direct flights between Dublin and Stockholm on Ryanair, so we connected at London Stansted. We booked a connection that departed just 50 minutes after our first flight arrived.

In retrospect, this was a huge mistake. We discovered that 50 minutes is inadequate for a Ryanair connection at Stansted. In fact, we're going to go out on a limb and suggest that you never leave under 90 minutes for a Ryanair connection.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. At the airport in Dublin, the Ryanair employee who gave us our boarding passes told us point-blank that we would not make our connecting flight. Surprised, we approached two additional Ryanair employees, both working at information booths, about our chances of making our second flight. One employee told us that there was "no way" we would make our connecting flight. Another informed us that we would have to take a tram into the airport proper and then go through customs. Though it turned out that both of these pieces of information were incorrect, this employee did tell us that we had a high likelihood of making a flight at significant additional cost from Stansted to Stockholm Skavsta later in the day.

As it turned out, we were able to claim cramped first row seats, an unexpected stroke of luck considering the crowded nature of the flight. As soon as the plane landed we bounded off and ran through airport corridor upon airport corridor. There was no tram. We passed through a vast baggage claim area. (To make things even more delightful, one member of the team's carry-on bag became unzipped. Toiletries spilled out during our baggage claim area run.)

Continuing our frenzied jog, we then ran into the terminal itself and continued all the way to the bank of Ryanair check-in counters. As we approached the check-in counter, employees were getting ready to leave. At this point we encountered the only Ryanair employee who was genuinely friendly to us. She verified that we had no bags to check and gave us our boarding passes. From here we limped through security and made it to our flight with 15 minutes to spare.

Our flight from Stansted to Stockholm Skavsta was perfectly fine. Happily, it was not completely packed. Without the stresses that plagued us during our previous flight, we were able to actually take note of our surroundings. Our aesthetic tasters were divided on the design merits of the plane's bright yellow headrests.

After overexertion on our Stansted sprint we needed sustenance, so we shelled out €20 (ouch!) for two sandwiches and two coffees. From Stockholm Skavsta we took a bus into Stockholm proper. The bus took a good 90 minutes and cost SEK180 per person.


Lessons learned:

1. Don't expect Ryanair employees to be helpful.

2. Don't expect Ryanair employees to know anything about the layout of the airports to which Ryanair flies.

3. Allow yourself at least 90 minutes between Ryanair connections.

4. If you violate Lesson 3, stretch throughout your first flight's descent so that you'll be limbered up for your upcoming sprint through the terminal.


A Look at the Eight Airlines

Our experiences were varied. Clearly, a gamut of experiences greets budget air passengers.

Though we complain about Ryanair in our long anecdote here, we have to give them props for their amazingly low fares. Know what to expect from Ryanair and you'll be happy with what you get in return. Expect completely bare bones service. The key at Ryanair is staff multitasking. Baggage handlers also collect boarding passes. Ryanair's planes barely finish expelling arriving passengers before packing in a new flight. Two of us flew Ryanair from Dublin to London Stansted for £41.56 in total and then on from Stansted to Stockholm Skavsta for £42.84 total. Later, one member of the team flew from Berlin to London Gatwick on Ryanair for €60.32.

Our Aer Lingus flight was hassle-free. We boarded the plane from the tarmac. We found the employees courteous, even dashing. The flight included a drink service but no food. Two of us flew Aer Lingus from Dublin to Amsterdam at a total cost of €148.56.

Transavia, the Dutch low-cost wing of KLM, was perfectly fine. While the monstrous check-in line was a bit of a pain, the boarding procedure was easy and airplane itself was very clean. Seats were comfortable but didn't recline. We flew Transavia from Amsterdam to Copenhagen for €62.94 and from Amsterdam to Berlin for €72.94.

EasyJet's completely automated check-in worked flawlessly. There was none of the chaos we'd associated with easyJet from prior budget trips across Europe. Two of us flew easyJet from Prague to London Gatwick for CZK4700.

Both efficient and orderly, Germanwings wins the award for the quickest and easiest boarding procedure. Drinks and food were available for purchase only. We flew Germanwings from Berlin to Munich, and our journey set us back €54.17.

Pleasant though a bit cramped, Snowflake is the low-cost component of SAS. When we flew Snowflake we flew on an SAS airplane, with rows of seats marked off for different fare categories. We flew Snowflake from Stockholm to Berlin. Our ticket was priced in US currency at $82.


On Balance

As we argue in our budget airline overview, budget air travel is not for everyone. You must take fare rules, the threat of penalties, potential ticket change costs, the actual quality of your experience in the air, and the possibility of being forced to utilize distant secondary airports (and with them associated ground transportation costs) into account. If these restrictions feel less like limitations than opportunities for adventure—or if they merely strike you as a small price to pay for cheap transportation—then you're a good match for European budget air travel.

However, if any of these restrictions seem potentially intolerable, turn back now. Reading about fare rigidity and other low-fare inconveniences pales in comparison to actually experiencing them.

Identify your priorities as a budget traveler and you'll be able to determine whether or not getting around Europe on budget airlines will work for you or not. And as always, we'll be here to help you sort between airlines and options.

Happy flying, Cheapos!