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12 Things To Know About Flying Low-Cost Airlines in Europe [2023]

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Lori Zaino
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Lori Zaino

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Lori is an intrepid traveler who loves creating itineraries that exude “luxe on a budget.” She’s written for CNN, NBC, The Infatuation, and more, and loves to muse about points-fueled trips to Sri Lan...
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Europe feels like the place to be this year — and beyond. But the inflated cost of airfare, lodging, and well, everything else, isn’t making getting there any easier. While you may be able to score a solid flight deal or use points to fly between the U.S. and Europe, getting around the continent once you arrive comes at a cost, too.

However, you can circumvent some of those costs by taking advantage of European low-cost airlines. Perhaps you’ve heard of airlines such as Ryanair, Easyjet, Wizzair, and Vueling — the “Spirit Airlines” of Europe?

Before you immediately run in the other direction or flat-out refuse, know that flying low-cost in Europe doesn’t have to be daunting. In fact, since flight distances between many cities and countries in Europe are short, flying low-cost is an easy way to get around without overspending, especially if you’re traveling on a budget. After all, almost anyone can handle a quick jaunt on a low-cost carrier from Paris to Rome or London to Madrid, right?

The key to flying low-cost carriers in Europe is understanding the fine print. As these carriers tend to nickel and dime you for everything and frequently amend or alter rules and restrictions, it’s easy to get caught off guard.

This guide to budget-friendly European travel ensures you’ll know where and how to find out the rules for flying low-cost carriers and won’t be caught off-guard or get stuck paying hidden fees. Here’s everything you need to know about flying budget airlines in Europe.

Why Are European Airlines So Cheap, Anyway?

Before we dig into everything you need to know when taking low-cost flights in Europe, it’s a good idea to understand why flying around Europe can be so affordable. The main reason flying around Europe is cheaper is because of the competition. The Open Skies Agreement promotes an open market and fair competition among air carriers.

Airlines also have to compete against high-speed, low-cost trains and even low-cost bus systems that transport people from A to B within Europe.

Hot Tip:

Traveling to Europe on a budget? Here are the best ways to get to Europe using points and miles.

1. Consider These Best Low-Cost European Airlines

Not all air low-cost air carriers in Europe are equal. Some are more “budget” than others. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, as well as various routes and aircraft, but if you’re looking to fly around Europe on a budget, you should consider some of these European discount airlines.

Ryanair plane
Ryanair is one of Europe’s most well-known low-cost carriers. Image Credit: Lucas Davies via Unsplash

List of Cheap European Airlines

SCROLL FOR MORE
AirlineDetails
airBalticBased in Latvia, airBaltic flies to 70+ destinations across the Baltics, Europe, and the Middle East.
CondorThis low-cost carrier operates long-haul and short-haul flights to more than 80 destinations worldwide. Its fleet contains Boeing 767-300ER, Boeing 757-300, Airbus A320-200, and Airbus A321-200 aircraft. 
easyJetKnown as one of the best low-cost European airlines, British low-cost carrier easyJet flies to 154 airports in 35 countries using A320 aircraft.
EurowingsThis German low-cost carrier is part of the Lufthansa Group, flying aircraft in the A320 family. Eurowings flies to more than 210 destinations.
Jet2The UK’s third largest airline, Jet2 flies from 11 British airports to 65 European destinations. The airline is well-known for its package Jet2 Holidays, and its fleet includes A321 aircraft.
NorwegianThe first airline to sign a UN climate initiative and commit to becoming climate neutral by 2050, the airline flies to more than 80 destinations.
PegasusThis Turkish-based low-cost carrier operates flights in 130 destinations, including 37 different destinations within Turkey.
RyanairThis Irish-based air carrier is one of Europe’s most (in?)famous low-cost carriers, offering more than 3,000 daily flights to more than 240 different airports in 40 countries. It has 100 aircraft and will get 300 new Boeing 737-MAX 10 aircraft by 2034.
TransaviaThis low-cost airline flies to more than 100 destinations in Europe and North Africa. The carrier is a full subsidiary of Air France-KLM.
VuelingVueling operates flights to more than 100 destinations. The Spanish carrier is owned by IAG, the parent company of Iberia and British Airways.
WizzairThis Hungarian airline pegs itself as Europe’s greenest low-cost carrier. It flies to 190+ airports in 51 countries using a fleet of A320s.

2. Check the Safety of Low-Cost Airlines in Europe

If you’re unfamiliar with the low-cost carrier you’re considering flying, it’s a good idea to check its safety record at the Aviation Safety Network. You can also look at AirlineRatings.com, which rates the safety of airlines using a 7-star system. However, low-cost airlines are treated the same as regular airlines when it comes to EU safety regulations — they’re required to comply, just as an airline such as Lufthansa, Iberia, or Air France is.

Generally, Europe’s largest and most popular low-cost airlines are safe and affordable. Some of the major low-cost players, like Ryanair, have clean safety records. The airline hasn’t had a single fatality in its 37+ year operating history and Airline Ratings gives it a 7-star rating.

3. Understand Luggage Restrictions

One of the biggest reasons people often steer clear of low-cost carriers is because of the fine print — and this is often manifested in luggage restrictions. While each budget carrier has its rules and regulations, here’s what you need to know about low-cost carrier luggage restrictions before booking and flying.

Luggage airport
Luggage is one of the ways low-cost carriers nickel-and-dime travelers. Image Credit: CHUTTERSNAP via Unsplash
Hot Tip:

Ryanair’s baggage policy is known for being particularly nitpicky, and easyJet’s baggage policy is also one that frequently seems to change and evolve. If you do get stuck paying at the gate for an oversized or overweight bag, make sure to use a credit card that charges no foreign transaction fees and offers bonus points on travel, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve® or Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

Carry-On Luggage

Baggage allowance is one of the most popular ways that low-cost carriers in Europe catch travelers with hidden fees. Many budget airlines only allow free underseat bags, or if they include a bag in the overhead bin, very specific size and/or weight restrictions apply. If your bag is oversize, overweight, or you have a carry-on bag when your fare doesn’t allow for one, you’ll be charged extra at check-in or the gate.

Checked Luggage

In almost all cases, the most basic fares on low-cost airlines in Europe don’t include a checked bag. While certain fare bundles that are priced higher may include one, the cheapest fares don’t. Be prepared to pay for a checked bag when booking. There may be different pricing options based on weight, so consider what you’ll be taking along before selecting a weight.

Hot Tip:

It’s not always cut and dry, but if your carry-on bag isn’t on wheels (e.g., a duffel or large backpack), you may not be asked to place it in a luggage sizer when boarding. It’s your choice if you want to risk an overweight or oversized bag.

Weight vs. Size

Note that size requirements are usually provided in centimeters, with a specific length, width, and depth. If your suitcase exceeds any one of these, the airline can (and likely will) charge you extra. When it comes to weight, it’s usually measured in kilograms. A quick conversion on your phone can help you figure out the conversion in inches or pounds — though you can set most luggage scales to kilograms if you want.

Certain budget carriers may never weigh a carry-on, while others frequently catch travelers whose bags are a mere half a kilo overweight.

Likewise, some carriers always require travelers to place bags in a sizer when boarding, while others don’t. Either way, it’s best to come prepared having already weighed your bag and chosen one that fits the airline’s size requirements.

Follow these steps to ensure you’ll never pay hidden fees for luggage with a low-cost carrier:

  • Check the baggage allowance of your ticket.
  • Pay for any additional luggage you need when booking or online before flying.
  • Measure your desired carry-on bag and checked baggage to ensure they don’t exceed the size allowance.
  • Buy a new suitcase that fits the size requirements, if necessary. This applies especially to carry-on baggage, as the airline may ask you to fit it in a sizer while boarding.
  • Take a small, portable luggage scale and weigh your bag before traveling to ensure it doesn’t exceed weight requirements.

4. Pay Ahead of Time Online vs. At Airport

Paying baggage fees, or any fees at all, is often the cheapest during the booking process. Some low-cost carriers will still charge (relatively) affordable prices for adding luggage and other services to your booking online at a later date.

The most expensive time to pay for extras is at the airport. In some cases, paying at the check-in desk is cheaper than paying at the boarding gate. But, if you’ve done your homework, you shouldn’t have any surprises upon arrival and you won’t need to pay for anything at the airport, anyway.

5. Access Your Boarding Pass Ahead of Time

Make sure to come to the airport with your boarding pass prepared. Though it varies by airline, some charge to print your pass at the airport. In most cases, a digital copy is fine. Many low-cost airlines have apps where you can download your boarding pass, but if you feel most comfortable with a paper copy, plan to print it before arriving.

If you’re concerned about restrictions regarding your boarding pass, make sure to read the fine print with your specific airline before traveling. This is also useful when it comes to things like picking seats, as certain fare classes allow you to do so upon check-in, which you can sometimes do much further in advance than just 24 hours.

6. Be Ready To Pay for Seat Selection, Priority Boarding, Extra Legroom, and Beyond

These airlines are low-cost for a reason. The most basic fares take out all the all-inclusive options to offer travelers the best price, which you can snag if you’re traveling light, don’t care about getting a middle seat, and prefer boarding last.

But if you want all the bells and whistles, you’ll have to pay for them. Add-ons include:

  • Carry-on baggage
  • Checked baggage
  • Fast-track security
  • Meals and drinks onboard
  • Priority boarding
  • Printing boarding pass
  • Seat selection
  • Ticket changes

All of these items come at various additional prices and options. In some cases, weigh the price for adding on items or services à la carte vs. selecting a more expensive fare package, which may bundle several options into a higher fare class. Do the math to see which is the better option to get whatever you need.

Hot Tip:

Want to board first? Here’s everything you need to know about Ryanair’s boarding process and easyJet’s boarding process.

7. Ensure Your Documents Are Ready

Make sure to confirm with the airline exactly what documents you’ll need to fly and if there are specific document checks you’ll need to do beforehand. If you’re not sure, arrive at the airport with time to spare, and make sure to check with a check-in agent to see if there are any additional checks needed.

For example, in some cases, Ryanair requires that non-EU citizens go through an additional document check and get their boarding pass stamped. The location where travelers can get this stamp varies from airport to airport and may also not be necessary in all cases, so it’s essential to allow for extra time and make sure you’re clear on any additional document checks you’ll need before heading through security.

8. Check Rules for Infants and Children

Luggage, stroller, car seat, and seating allocation rules vary from airline to airline for both children and infants. For example, easyJet tries to seat families together, but the only way to ensure you can definitely sit next to your travel companions or family is by paying and booking seats ahead of time. The airline also charges fees for lap infants.

Meanwhile, Wizzair offers priority boarding for 2 adults traveling with an infant and also allows passengers to check a travel crib for free. Norwegian Air doesn’t allow for any additional carry-on luggage for infants but does let parents bring additional milk or food onboard for them.

If you plan to travel with a baby or children, read the rules when booking to ensure you’re clear on seating, additional fees, luggage requirements, and more.

9. Know Your Rights

Knowing your rights when it comes to cancellations and delays can mean you get fair compensation when things go wrong.

Strikes

Summer is strike season in Europe, but strikes can occur anytime. Airlines, especially low-cost carriers, often strike during peak travel times. Strikes are a pain when it comes to any type of travel situation but can be especially frustrating with low-cost carriers, as sometimes customer service or rebooking isn’t as smooth as it might be with a full-fare carrier.

Know your rights. If your flight is canceled due to a strike, you’re entitled to a replacement flight or a full refund as per EU law. Make sure to have the airline confirm the cancellation or delay in writing, and save your boarding passes and flight confirmations for claims.

Delays and Cancellations

In most cases, if your flight is canceled or you land more than 3 hours later than your scheduled landing time, you’re entitled compensation under the EU261 rule. The EU261 rule has many caveats and requires travelers to make claims to receive compensation.

There are various companies, such as AirHelp, that can help you make a claim if you’re entitled to compensation from EU261, which may be the way to go, especially if your delay occurred in a country where you don’t speak the local language. These companies usually take at least 20% of whatever compensation you eventually get, but it may be worth it in some cases.

Bottom Line:

Compensation based on the EU261 rule isn’t unique to low-cost carriers. However, as sometimes organizational systems and customer service are lacking on low-cost airlines, it’s extra-important to know your rights if things don’t go as planned.

10. Don’t Forget About Loyalty Programs

You’re probably reading Upgraded Points because you’re a fan of loyalty programs (us too!). And while some low-cost carriers offer them, the programs certainly aren’t up to par with full-fare carriers — many are subscription-based. Either way, certain travelers may benefit from joining low-cost carrier loyalty programs.

Low-cost carrier loyalty programs don’t have the depth and history many full-fare carrier programs have. For example, Ryanair has said for years that it is setting up a loyalty program, but nothing has really ever had success or longevity when it comes to Ryanair and rewards.

Wizzair and easyJet work with subscription-based programs (Wizzair Discount Club and easyJet Plus) where travelers pay a fee and receive discounts and benefits. Wizzair Discount Club even has a “light” option that’s free, but don’t expect too many perks to come along with it.

Norwegian Reward and Pegasus BolBol loyalty programs operate in a more traditional loyalty program manner. This means you can earn and redeem points. With Vueling Club, you can earn Avios, and you can earn and redeem Flying Blue miles on Transavia.

11. Expect a No-Frills Experience

Airline Economy Seats
Don’t expect the extras when it comes to low-cost carriers. Image Credit: Sandie Clarke via Unsplash

Low-cost carriers are frugal, simple, and don’t have all (or any) of the bells and whistles. For example, legroom is scarce on budget airlines, and sometimes seats don’t recline. You’ll have to pay for food and drinks, and don’t expect anything too fancy — think sandwiches and snacks. Sometimes customer service, organization, and friendliness are lacking. On almost all low-cost carriers, there’s only 1 class of service, so don’t expect business class.

Most of us don’t mind experiencing a less-comfortable flying experience for a short-haul, inter-European flight. But do check and consider the length of the flight when booking and comparing options. For example, a 4-hour flight from Madrid to Crete isn’t the same as a quick, 1-hour flight between Paris and London if your seat doesn’t recline and knees are scrunched up to your chin.

Managing expectations is the way to prepare for a budget flight. Knowing that you may not be the most comfortable but are saving a lot of money on airfare is a good way to look at things.

12. Compare Your Options

Before booking a flight on a low-cost carrier, do your homework and compare prices with full-fare carriers. For example, as a Spain resident, I always check the price of a low-cost carrier and compare it to airlines that operate frequent routes throughout Spain, like Iberia and Air Europa.

In some cases, prices with a full-fare carrier aren’t that different, so it’s worth it to select that option instead. In other situations, low-cost carriers offer better prices, or the only nonstop route to regional airports, so flying budget is definitely the right choice.

Final Thoughts

Flying low-cost carriers in Europe can be an affordable way to explore the continent. But, it’s essential to understand the hidden fees and fine print. In most cases, low-cost fares are cheap only if you don’t have extras tacked on at the last minute. Doing the research, understanding exactly what your fare does or doesn’t include, and paying for extras ahead of time can make the budget airline experience an easy one.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which is the largest low-cost airline in Europe?

Ryanair is the largest low-cost airline in Europe. The airline connects 240 airports in more than 40 countries, with 3,000 flights daily.

Where is it cheapest to fly out of in Europe?

It depends. Travelers can sometimes find cheap flights from Dublin, Paris, or Milan airports. Finding more affordable fares out of a city’s secondary airports is also possible, especially on low-cost carriers. For example, check London Gatwick instead of London Heathrow or Paris Orly instead of Paris Charles de Gaulle.

Are low-cost carriers in Europe safe?

Generally, flying low-cost air carriers in Europe is safe. Most have high safety records, and many have never had any fatalities. For example, Ryanair has never had a fatality and has a 7/7 safety rating on AirlineRatings.com.

What are the key features of low-cost airline?

The key features of low-cost airlines are affordable airfares, sparse comfort features (like seats that don’t recline or not much legroom), a lack of loyalty programs, and not including any extras in fare prices.

What is free on Ryanair?

Don’t expect much for free when flying Ryanair Air. The cheapest fare usually comes with a small, under-the-seat personal item included. Beyond that, expect to pay extra for additional carry-on luggage, checked baggage, food, drinks, priority boarding, seat selection, and more.

Do you have to pay for the toilet on Ryanair?

No, you don’t have to pay to use the toilet on Ryanair or any low-cost European air carrier. However, we suggest always reading the fine print on your ticket and fare class to ensure there are no surprises when traveling.

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About Lori Zaino

Lori is an intrepid traveler who loves creating itineraries that exude “luxe on a budget.” She’s written for CNN, NBC, The Infatuation, and more, and loves to muse about points-fueled trips to Sri Lanka, Sicily, and Myanmar.

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