Ultra low fare airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet changed the landscape of flying in Europe when they were created. They introduced the lowest fares anyone had seen, especially compared to legacy carriers like British Airways or Aer Lingus, advertising tickets for as low as £1 plus tax. To compensate, their list of ‘no’ is long – no reclining seats, no free food or drink, no free checked bags. Ryanair in particular, developed a reputation for being stingy with the allowed size for carry-on luggage and its long list of fees. They were, and still are, the Spirit Airlines of Europe. Despite those crazy fees and the general hatred the public has for Ryanair, the flights remain packed, much like Spirit.
In the end, it all comes down to money.
There is a point when the difference in cost is so extreme that people are willing to endure a lot to save money. Doing a basic search on Skyscanner, I found a flight to Shannon, Ireland from London in May on Ryanair for £46, while the next airline alternative was Aer Lingus for £157. That is a big enough gap that you may be able to put up with a potentially terrible flying and customer service experience.
The key to flying budget airlines is lowering your expectations. Do not expect complimentary peanuts, pretzels or a delicious cup of coffee. The cheap fare should be considered solely as a ticket from point A to point B. Fares of typical airlines are padded to include the cost of “free” drinks and checked luggage. (In fact, many major airlines like US Air and United have started removing the free perks but maintaining higher prices, pissing off customers by the thousands.) Safety should not be a concern, as many budget airlines have stellar safety ratings. Ryanair has a perfect safety record and also flies newer, more modern aircraft than a lot of the large, national carriers. Additionally, Easyjet and Ryanair both have superior on-time arrival percentages, dwarfing the on-time performance of Air France or Alitalia.
I have found little difference between the budget airlines, having flown Easyjet, Ryanair, Norwegian and Wizz Air. The key is understanding the rules and regulations of each airline, as they vary slightly. Check in online prior to arrival at the airport, or else you will get charged. Do not carry a massive carry-on bag and assume it will be fine. Read the rules so that you are not surprised when you are charged a bag fee because you have a purse and a carry-on. I almost never check a bag, so I rarely pay the check bagged fee, but I did buy a new, cheap carry-on bag that fit within the requirements of Ryanair, which has the smallest allowed dimensions. I do not buy food on board, usually grabbing a coffee and sandwich in the terminal instead, which typically is cheaper and better. I also never pay for advanced seating, since I know I will get a seat and if I get in line early at the gate I will have my pick of seats and plenty of overhead bin space (many budget airlines have started assigning seating in advance, eliminating the seat clamouring altogether).
There are still downsides. I personally have not had any flight delay or cancellation issues, so I have not had to deal with customer service at any if the budget airlines. Based on their reputation, I would not expect the experience to go smoothly or be pleasant. Most of the budget airlines do not sell connecting flights, meaning all flights are direct. If you had to connect to travel to a different city, you would have to buy two separate tickets, which is a bit of a gamble if you run into delays or weather issues. Luckily, from London, the budget airlines cover most of European destinations, so I will never have to deal with that situation. I have had to learn to deal with the cabin looking like a minor league baseball stadium, covered in ads wherever there is space. But hey, if it makes my fare cheaper, I can manage.
I find that Americans are especially weary of flying the European budget airlines. People, the days of flying being prestigious or luxurious are gone. We have to accept that. People now generally just want to get to their destination safely and on time. Ultimately, isn’t that the point of flying? Travelling in the modern era tends to be less about the journey and more about the destination, for better or worse. If that is the priority for most, why not choose the budget airlines that have better on time performance and stellar safety records while costing a fraction of larger carriers? I do not hesitate to fly budget carriers and will gladly fly them in the future and so should you. Frankly, the budget airlines make it financially viable to travel the way I do. I paid £45 round trip to go to Copenhagen. I paid £40 round trip to Dortmund, Germany. The hassle and the fine print are worth it to me and, judging from most of my flights being 100% full, are worth it to most people.