Cheap Air Travel in Europe
Budget Options for Flights Are on the Rise
Air travelers in Europe today have many more cheap air travel options than only a decade ago. The partial deregulation of air travel in Europe in the 1990s allowed the rise of low-cost airlines, and flying even short distances in Europe is often cheaper than taking the train. The days when national flagship carriers dominated air traffic and were regarded as national symbols are gone, and the fierce competition from low-cost airlines has led to bankruptcies and mergers of several large and reputable airlines. But with so many more airlines operating in Europe comes the difficult choice for travelers to figure out how to get the best prices and the services they desire. This article is intended to shed some light on cheap air travel within Europe, while also covering some aspects of traveling to Europe from overseas.
Flying to Europe
London is still the cheapest European destination from North America, but it is not a great gateway for continental Europe. If your final travel destination is not Great Britain, you are better off using a hub in continental Europe for connecting flights. The international airport at Heathrow is so huge and congested, that it is difficult to make connections on time. If you have a connecting flight to continental Europe, chances are that your bags will be delayed, due to the airport’s enormous size and the different terminals that are far apart. In addition, with ongoing terrorist threats and security alerts, security checks at London’s Heathrow airport are a continuous nightmare. But if you stay in Great Britain and then continue to other European countries, you can catch low-cost flights from secondary London airports that take you almost anywhere in Europe at incredibly low prices.
Also keep in mind that booking a direct flight to your European destination is not always the cheapest way to get there. The major European airlines will often take you to one of their hubs, from where you can catch a connecting flight to your final destination. A few years ago I wanted to fly from Boston to Lisbon, but the cheapest flight was first to Frankfurt, and then Lisbon. Frankfurt is a major hub of the German airline Lufthansa, with frequent connections to most European cities. Another option is to fly open-jaw, which means that you arrive in one city and fly out from another on the same airline, and you usually only pay a little bit extra. This is a great way to plan a one-way itinerary in Europe, which saves you additional travel expenses and time.
Starting in March 2008, the Open Skies agreement between the U.S. and the European Union will go into affect after years of negotiations. This partial deregulation of transatlantic air traffic will allow European airlines to fly from any city in the EU to any city in the U.S., and vice versa. U.S. airlines will also be allowed to fly within Europe. This agreement is largely expected to increase competition on transatlantic flights and reduce fares.
Low-Cost Airlines in Europe
Low-cost airlines have exploded onto the European market in recent years, and routes that were traditionally covered by national airlines now face the stiff competition of low-cost carriers. This has prompted several major European airlines to start their own low-cost subsidiary airlines to remain competitive.
Low-cost airlines typically fly to smaller cities or secondary airports, where landing fees are lower and where fewer airlines compete for landing slots. While large airports often operate at maximum capacity leading to delays and canceled flights, smaller regional airports still have room for additional flights, which many low-cost airlines take advantage of. This means that if you are flexible and willing to consider secondary airports or smaller cities as your destination, you can save a lot of money. Low-cost carriers usually offer only one passenger class and often have no assigned seating. Keep in mind that tickets from low-cost airlines are usually non-refundable and that flight dates cannot be changed.
To save cost and make extra money, low-cost airlines charge for food or drinks, and you will find the baggage and weight allowance to be very low, or you might even be charged for every checked bag. Airport taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges are often listed separately from the low advertised fare. Many low-cost airlines sell their tickets almost exclusively online, and few travel agents will be able to book a flight on a European low-cost carrier for you from overseas. If you are flying to Europe from overseas and want to continue with a low-cost carrier, you should do your own online search for a suitable airline and book a flight directly online.
Charter Flights in Europe
Charter flights in Europe are the most popular way for vacationers to get to their destination in the sun. Tickets are not sold by the charter airline, but instead by large travel companies who hire an entire airplane and sell the tickets as part of vacation packages. Flights typically do not link neighboring countries or large cities, but are almost exclusively routes from northern and central Europe to vacation destinations in southern Europe, North Africa, and the Near East. Charter flights are also very seasonal, and when the summer vacation season is over, travel companies gear up to sell vacation packages with charter flights to popular ski destinations, or more distant southern locations with warm water and pleasant weather year-round. Traditionally charter flights are part of vacation packages that also include accommodation, but travelers can also buy flight-only packages, giving them more flexibility about where to stay and where to travel. Make sure you get a full quote of the final price of your ticket before making a reservation.
Booking a Cheap Flight Online
More and more people book their flights online and often take advantage of airlines’ website-only specials, but you should not discount the research capabilities of a good travel agent. As I often buy open-jaw airline tickets, allowing me to arrive in one European city and fly back to the U.S. from another, I still regularly use the services of a travel agent. I have found it difficult to book an open-jaw flight online, as most websites give you only a ‘one way’ or ‘return’ ticket option. Apparently you can book open-jaw tickets online, but this option is not easy to find. I have also found it difficult on websites to easily find the day of the week with the lowest fare. This is often a time-consuming trial and error process, while travel agents can easily tell you on what days the fares are lower. Travel agents are also often willing to consult ticket consolidators on your behalf, which offer discounted flights not available on airline websites or online travel agencies.
If you have some flexibility with your travel dates, you can also save on fares by traveling to Europe during the low or mid-season. To find a flight that both suits my budget and my schedule I usually do some research on airline websites and online travel agencies, and then call a travel agent to see if they can come up with a better departure day or time, or with a better price. While the prices are usually similar, travel agents often surprise me with different options or connections not available online. On one occasion I needed an open-jaw ticket to Europe that included a flight within Germany. Using the same airline as for my international flights would have been very expensive, and the travel agent found a flight for me on a German low-cost carrier. Travel agents charge a small fee for their services, but I have found it to be a worthwhile expenditure. Whenever I go to Europe I end up staying longer than intended. So when you book your flight you should find out if you can change your departure date and how much the airline charges to change your flight date.
What traveler has not had to deal with canceled flights? Airline agents usually try to convince you to go home (or back to your hotel) and come back the next day to catch another flight. They don’t want to lose your business and will make every effort for you to fly with them. Persistence and tenacity are you best tools here, while remaining polite. If you make it clear that you need to get on a plane on this day, airline agents will eventually book you on another airline, even though they will lose your business. Unfortunately, switching to another airline in the case of a canceled flight is not an option if you fly with a charter or low-cost airline due to their different fare structure. In this case you simply have to accept whatever arrangement the airline offers.
In 2004, the European Union established common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding, cancellation or long delay of flights. But few countries implemented the rules and fewer airlines followed them. Flooded with complaints from air travelers, the European Union decided to give member states until October 2007 to comply with the passenger protection rules. This should help passengers to more easily obtain compensation and get a fair and swift response to their complaints. The Air Transport Portal of the European Commission, ec.europa.eu/transport/modes/air/, provides information about rules and policies regarding air travel in Europe, including air passenger rights.
The European Union maintains strict safety standards, and travelers can rest assured that even low-cost airlines meet the established safety criteria. The European Commission publishes a list of airlines that are banned from flying to within the EU. The German Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre (JACDEC) provides airline accident statistics in Europe of the past 15 years, showing that air travel in Europe is in fact very safe.
A Selection of Low-Cost Airlines in Europe
Air Berlin, www.airberlin.com, is Germany’s second-largest airline, offering cheap flights to popular holiday destinations and major European cities.
bmi baby, www.bmibaby.com, is a British low-cost airline that flies to destinations in Europe from several airports in Great Britain.
Ryan Air, www.ryanair.com, an Irish airline with its major hub at London Stansted, is Europe’s largest budget airline with flights to every corner of the continent.
EasyJet, www.easyjet.com, based at London Luton airport, is a large low-cost carrier with destinations all over Europe.
Other Useful Resources for Cheap Air Travel in Europe
Europe By Air, www.europebyair.com, a California-based company, offers the Europe By Air Flight Pass, which is a flat-rate ticket for $99 or $129 per flight within Europe. The Flight Pass is based on partnerships with a growing number of established European airlines.
The AirDB, www.theairdb.com, provides information about airports, airlines, and connections worldwide, with lots of useful information about Europe.
FlyCheapo.com, www.flycheapo.com, is a cheap flight finder for Europe using a low-cost airline route database.
SkyScanner, www.skyscanner.net, is a low-cost flight search engine, focusing mostly on cheap flights in Europe.