If you want to get to the UK from mainland Europe, you can save hundreds on your plane ticket just by changing how you book. Using the new wave of budget airlines you really can make massive savings – and spend the extra however you want.
Coming from or going to Europe?
Whilst Travelocity, Expedia etc can be very good for transatlantic flights, they tend to fall down when it comes to travel within Europe: they completely miss ‘budget’ or low-cost airlines. These have exploded in popularity over the last ten years and are now THE best way of getting round Europe by air without breaking the bank. They don’t travel beyond Europe at the moment as it’s not economically viable for them to do so, though they do have plans to expand in the future.
In fact Ryanair, Easyjet and the rest have a dizzying array of routes to and from just about every part of Europe that you would conceivably want to go to – not to mention many you wouldn’t – though they do have a special trick of saving money for themselves by flying you to airports that aren’t exactly near the city center. If you can deal with this and are coming from or going to Europe: read on.
Anyway: to get the cheapest possible fare from a European city to London (or vice versa) you’re going to need to do a bit of legwork. Again, all this works best if you’re planning some way in advance.
The majority of budget airlines fly from Stansted, with some from Luton and Gatwick. Very few go from Heathrow or London City. When you’re searching try choosing ‘London’ as an option – this will search all the airports. Otherwise, Stansted is the default easiest option to pick as it has the biggest range.
Before we get to the search, just a quick disclaimer: with budget airlines you really do get what you pay for – there’s no reserved seating, no entertainment, no free drinks or meals or anything at all really apart from a seat, but, hey, they’re ‘cheap as chips’ as the English like to say and will get you to your destination. However if things do go wrong – a big ‘normal’ airline will look after you reasonably well; with the budget airlines you’re on your own so it’s definitely worth making sure you have travel insurance (which you should have anyway – i have tips on how to get the best value travel insurance too).
Anyway – onto the best search strategies!
This section all seems a bit like hard work. But remember: an hour spent shopping around now could save you well over £100. £100 for an hour’s work? Not bad!
If you’re looking to buy on a future day, sign up to the email lists of ryanair and easyjet – this will tell you when they have their sales on – you can sometimes pick up seats for £1 (plus taxes and fees, but still).
1. If you’re looking for fares, start with Kelkoo – this does a reasonable, if incomplete, job, but will offer you a useful benchmark to beat. There is no single meta search site for all budget fares, irritatingly. Write down what it comes up with.
2.Then head to Ryanair. This Irish-based carrier is famous for taking cost-cutting to unheard-of levels – banning highlighting pens in head office as wasteful frippery, for example. It’s still a safe airline though, and indeed all the budget carriers have a good safety record. Take a note of their best fares.
3.After getting prices from these guys check out Easyjet. It’s marginally more expensive on average but it does offer a nicer travel experience as the staff aren’t quite so rude and there does seem to be more comeback if things go wrong. Plus they make all their staff wear orange uniforms, which I find funny.
Ryanair and Easyjet are by far the biggest no frills operators going in and out of the UK, but some smaller carriers specialise in specific parts of mainland Europe.
For Germany FlyNiki is good. For Ireland (as well as Ryanair) and the Alpine countries, Aer Lingus is good; for Eastern Europe try Wizzair. For Spain and Greece (mainly beach resorts) try Avro. If Iceland beckons – and why wouldn’t it? It’s a lovely little country – Iceland Express is your best bet. While for Turkey Pegasus Airlines are the main cheap operator.
I’m being excessively cautious here but all these operators apart from Ryanair and Easyjet are smaller and therefore at greater risk of financial troubles in turbulent economic times – again, good insurance is crucial. More so than ever indeed, as the list of failed airlines gets longer – on 1 September 2009 SkyEurope went bust, leaving people stranded. Paying a few bucks to insure your butt and get the money back in the event of an airline collapse really is money well-spent.
Prices on these websites now include all fees and taxes (after years where your ‘free’ air ticket ended up costing about £50 after government taxes etc were added on: you used to only find this out at the last stage of booking. This practice is now, rightly, banned.) However be warned that you will have to pay for things that other airlines would give you ‘free’ – factor in around £10 for every bag you need placed in the hold for example, and booking by credit card (which is possible from the states) will attract a small extra fee too. Each individual website will tell you about these extra charges before you’ve booked. Once you have booked you just print out the confirmation email and show it to the gate/check-in staff at your departure airport; no ‘normal’ ticket is issued so you can order these before you leave the states.
A few other budget airlines tips:
Don’t pay extra for priority boarding – it really isn’t worth it. The flights are short and the seats are so crammed together anyway you don’t get much advantage.
Before boarding buy some sandwiches or carry-on food and a bottle of water from the shops before you board the plane – prices are (understandably) steep while on board. You also get to choose what you want, and tragically I look forward to this a LOT. In fact far more than many would consider reasonable.
The main hub for these budget airlines is Stansted, just to the north of London, although, increasingly, Gatwick is becoming big in this area too.
There’s no financial advantage to buying the outward and return legs with the same company, so shop around for each direction in turn: it may be cheaper to fly out with one airline and back with another. Assuming of course that you’re stopping back this way after all.
Happy flying! One final tip: if you’re travelling to BOTH the UK and Europe a world phone cellphone may be your best option for staying in touch.