Why I Love Budget Airlines

Checked bag fees. Charges for exit rows. Fees for checking in at the airport. The reality of the airline industry is drastically different than in the golden era of flying, the 1950s, full of champagne, white gloves and women in fancy hats. Now, flying is closer to taking a Greyhound bus, but with less comfortable seats and no Wi-Fi. In the US, airlines like Spirit have gained a reputation for grabbing any additional cash it can get from its passengers while maintaining one of the lowest Consumer Reports rating of any US company, not only any US airline.  For Europe, this type of ultra low fare airline is ubiquitous, with a dozen such airlines operating around the continent. Surprisingly, I love them and fly them extensively. Let me explain why.

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.

  • April 4, 2014
    Dan Seaman

    As crappy as discount airlines may be, at least you have access to them. Huntsville has the distinction of being the MOST expensive airport to fly from in the United States for the past two years in a row. And no discount airlines will come here because Huntsville isn’t “big” enough. The local governments have subsidized discount airlines three different times, to entice them here. But as soon as the free money runs out, they bail out of here like DB Cooper with a backpack full of cash. So, all of this has prompted American Airlines to announce a big sale on discounted tickets out of Huntsville, starting this week, with great fanfare. They took about $20 off most of the fares, but they raised the fee for one checked bag to $60 or $70, which cancels out the alleged “discount” on the ticket price. All of a sudden, Greyhound is looking pretty good. On the plus side, a local fellow has started a shuttle service to the Nashville airport. For $40 he will drive me there, where I can fly for an average of $200 less per ticket. I am enjoying your expat perspective on all things Euro. My son is still in Stuttgart, way beyond his limit for overseas assignments, until the Army decides where to send him next.

    • April 4, 2014

      We are lucky to have the access. We have 6 airports within an hour, all with flights across Europe. I find what the legacy carriers have been doing in the US crazy. The major airlines collected $3.5 billion in baggage fees yet overall fares are increasing. What separates a legacy carrier from a budget airline is very blurry.

      • April 4, 2014
        Dan Seaman

        Blurry, indeed. Like trying to read the newspaper looking through a glass full of Bloody Mary. You are probably not old enough to remember when President Reagan deregulated the airlines and the phone companies. The cost of phone service has gone up, but technology has made the cost of long distance become zero. Overall, a pretty good deal. Customers are happy, and telecoms are making a ton of money. But making airlines “market-driven” has been much different. Everyone has to have a phone, every day. But air travel is occasional, and is driven by two distinctly different forces — pleasure travel and business travel. And as much as I liked Reaganomics, I think the decision to completely deregulate airlines has not worked out to anyone’s advantage. Customers aren’t happy. The airlines are going broke. And did I mention that the customers aren’t happy?? From my perspective, there has been no long term benefit to deregulating the airlines. None. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Fewer people are being served, none are being served well, and the future is bleak.