B udget 'no-frills' airlines have changed the dynamics of the short-haul airfare market considerably over the last two decades. Southwest airlines originally pioneered the low-cost concept in the US back in the 1970s.
In the late 1990s we saw Ryanair and Easyjet in Europe offering low fares which started to put pressure on the high fare national carriers.
By the early 2000s a large number of budget airlines had entered the European space and fares hit their lowest ever level...
Meanwhile in Asia we saw Air Asia grow into a budget powerhouse and domestic Indian low-cost airlines offered many people the chance to fly for the very first time.
However the last few years has seen a blurring between the budget and full service airlines. With the credit crisis and higher oil prices, many of the weaker entrants went under. Full service airlines started to act more like no frills carriers themselves - lowering their prices, offering one-way fares and charging for luggage and food/drinks.
On the contrary, some budget airlines have become more like full service airlines - such as Air Berlin, which is now a member of the Oneworld alliance; and Virgin Australia which started out as the no-frills Virgin Blue.
Airfares today are more expensive than the ultra-low fares of the early 2000s - especially with oil prices remaining high and some governments (UK, Germany) increasing departure taxes significantly. We would estimate that the lowest short-haul fares in Europe have probably doubled - a return flight which cost €40 is now selling at around €80.
Here are a few tips and considerations for flying with budget carriers in Europe:
1. Generally you should book your flight well in advance - lowest fares are filled on a first come, first serve basis. Try to book 2 to 4 months out - the nearer the departure date, the more expensive the flights become - especially within the last 2 weeks.
2. Fly off-peak, either very early or very late in the day. Fly during midweek - Tuesday and Wednesday are usually the cheapest days. Try to avoid Monday and Friday where business travel demand is greater. Watch out for weekends where schedules are often reduced.
3. Keep an eye out for any regular airfare sales offered by the budget carriers. Get on their email list or follow them using social media like Twitter and Facebook.
4. Online aggregators or price checkers (such as Skyscanner) can help you track down the cheapest flights over a month-long period. Some airline websites are clearer than others at finding the cheapest fares - Easyjet, for example has a useful "3 week" view facility to do this.
5. Don't assume that the no frills airlines will always be cheapest - also check prices with the full service carriers. Think about the all-in price which includes checked luggage fees, food and drink, booking fees etc.
6. You should also consider the advantages of flying the majors - frequent flyer miles, better airport terminals, the convenience of online check-in and assigned seating rather than the scrum boarding of many budget airlines.
7. Avoid flying with checked luggage which can cost up to €25 to check-in if pre-booked online (and a lot more if deciding to check bags at the airport, especially with Ryanair). Bring hand baggage only but do check the weight and dimension limits allowed by your airline. Most airlines allow a 10kg limit though Easyjet has no weight limit.
8. Beware extra charges - most budget airlines will charge you considerable fees for making a booking. Easyjet has an unavoidable £9/€11 admin fee per booking and also charges a 2.5% credit card fee (min charge £4.95/€6 - no fee for debit cards). Ryanair charges £6/€6 per person per one-way flight - this can be avoided using Ryanair's own branded Cash Passport pre-paid Mastercard - although this card comes with certain usage/inactivity charges. Note also, Ryanair charges a hefty £60/€60 (per person) to print a boarding pass at the airport!
The likes of Germanwings, bmibaby, Flybe, Thomson, Jet2 and Monarch allow free payment using a Visa Electron card. Wizzair has its own branded card which offers fee-free booking. In some EU countries (such as Germany, Netherlands, Austria) the use of bank direct debits is well established and is normally free for airlines that accept this form of payment.
Finally, during the booking process be vigilant about paying for any unwanted extras - such as assigning you seats (beware Flybe) or adding in trip insurance.
9. Ryanair can still offer some exceptionally cheap flight deals which include taxes and charges. Just avoid the extra "optional" charges - fly without checked luggage, check-in online, print your own boarding pass and use the prepaid Mastercard for payment.
10. Be aware of where your destination airport actually is and any onward transport options. For example "Frankfurt" Hahn used by Ryanair and Wizzair is actually an airbase around 80 miles from Frankfurt! This may be fine for a leisure trip but possibly inconvenient if you are flying in on quick business.
11. Don't fly just before holidays and be wary of major football matches in Europe which can cause a spike in demand to certain destinations as fans fly out to watch the game.
12. You should always allow plenty of time for any connections. Flights can be delayed or cancelled which could disrupt your travel plans - the airline will not be responsible if you miss a connecting flight on another airline which is on a separate booking.