Thanks to Europe’s low cost airlines, I was able to visit over 10 new countries during my time living and working in Madrid. In my opinion, flying was always the best way to travel around the region. Bus trips in Europe are typically lengthy and train journeys are costly. In Europe, you can find flight deals within and to other countries for as little as $20. While the prices fluctuate and the best deals are found in advance, with a little preparation anyone on a budget can travel around Europe.
These savings still come at a cost though. Budget airlines are notorious for their hassles, fine print and difficulties, which sometimes could even be called scams. Still, if you do your research and follow the rules, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to take advantage of what they offer. To make it easier, I’ve compiled all the tips and things you need to know for fool-proof budget flying.
1. Check-in far in advance
With low cost airlines it’s better to be safe, and check-in early, then sorry. Here’s why:
When I arrived at the Madrid Barajas airport at 5:30am for a 7:30am flight to London, I was told some awful news at the check-in counter. “I’m sorry, you didn’t check in early enough and you’ve been bumped off this flight.”
I then proceeded to explain to the lady that I tried to check in multiple times over the last few days and the website wouldn’t let me. She said that’s because at that point I had already been un-booked. She also explained that during busy periods you can lose your seat on a flight if you don’t check in a week or two in advance. When I tried to plead my case about how I had no idea, she then explained that it is written in the terms and conditions.
Basically, some low cost airlines overbook flights so heavily that the seats become “first come, first serve” when check-in becomes available.
If you do happen to be bumped off a flight, make sure you follow up with the airline and request your settlement. They won’t always tell you, but the airlines will reimburse you for your trouble. From this EasyJet fiasco I was given 200 euros!
2. Try to not book individual flights and allow for long layovers
When I was bumped off my EasyJet flight from Madrid, I was put on stand-by until I could catch another. Since I couldn’t get on another until 9:30am or so (original flight was at 7:30am) this meant I missed my connection to Iceland.
Since I booked both of these tickets separately, I lost the money I spent on the ticket to Iceland and had to buy another for $200 (luckily it about evened out with the settlement money given from EasyJet). I also then had to spend time on the phone re-arranging flights and rebooking myself.
Although you can sometimes save a lot of money buy purchasing flights separately, you are taking a gamble. If something happens and you miss a connection, no one is guaranteeing a ticket to your final destination.
If you really want to save the cash and purchase separate tickets, reduce your chances of missing any flights by planning in long layovers. While this isn’t fool proof, at least you’ll have a better chance of making it to all your connections on time, even if one flight happens to be late. I’d stick to giving yourself at least two hours, but it doesn’t hurt to even give yourself more time.
3. Book all extras online in advance
Budget airlines love to charge for everything under the sun, from seat selections to early check-in. They also will raise the prices of these items as it gets closer to your flight. If you happen to need or want any of these extras, make sure to do it at the time of ticket purchase or well in advance. While some items like in-flight meals will only go up a few dollars if purchased the day of, other items like checked baggage could cost an arm and a leg if you wait.
4. Check the arrival airports
Ever thought you were flying to Paris to all of the sudden be in the middle of the countryside and an hour’s bus journey away? If so, you were probably flying Ryanair.
Budget airlines around Europe set up hubs in often times very random airports, but still claim they are located in the main city, like Paris. Another example is London, since the city itself has 5 different airports. The budget airline you are flying with will determine which airport you land in.
Make sure to check these details and how long it is from your actual destination before booking a flight. Sometimes, after factoring in the transportation costs you might as well fly a more expensive airline with a convenient arrival location.
5. Check and strictly follow the budget airline carry on allowance
Cabin baggage is serious business, and if you are over your limit (by even a centimeter sometimes) you could be in trouble. Fees for over-sized (and sometimes overweight bags, IF they check) can range from an extra $30 to $70. I’ve made it through a couple of times with a backpack that was 2 centimeters too long, but I was prepared to fight. They usually make you put your bag inside a metal frame to see if it fits. The frame of my backpack is flexible, so in that case I would have pushed it down.
It’s usually the roller carry-ons which are checked for exact measurements most frequently.
6. Print boarding passes
Certain budget airlines have found another way to swindle money out of you by making you print your boarding passes, and punishing you accordingly if you don’t. This could mean a fee of up to $50 just for printer trouble. Make sure to check the rules of your airline and follow acccordingly.
What to do if you’re bumped off a flight, or it gets cancelled:
When booking a flight with a larger, more service orientated airline, you can assume you’ll be taken care of if something goes wrong. This isn’t the same with budget airlines. If your flight happens to be cancelled, or you get bumped off, always make sure to speak to someone at the airport or over the phone for how to receive a settlement. While most budget airlines won’t advertise this, they do give customers money for the hassles their airlines may cause. Like stated in my experience above, EasyJet offers around 200 euros for these types of experiences. The money was transferred back into my account within 2 weeks.
What to do if your flight is delayed:
If your flight is delayed, sometimes the only option you have is to wait it out. If by some chance this delayed flight will be effecting your next flights, go to the desk as early as possible and see if you can be re-routed. (This would only be possible if both flights you have are with the same airline). Sometimes there is an alternative route that can get you to your destination much earlier than if you just waited for your current delayed flight.
If your flight gets delayed for more than 3 hours, there is a law in the EU which states that you can receive compensation. The flight must be departing from the EU and the delay must be the airline’s fault. If this happens, you are entitled to a compensation between £90-440. To receive this you must call to complain and then file a claim. For more details, see this guide here.
Popular low cost airlines in Europe and their rules
British budget carrier with base from London’s Luton airport.
- Baggage Allowance: One piece of cabin baggage no bigger than 56 x 45 x 25cm including handles and wheels. If the flight is crowded this bag may have to be checked into the hold. If you bring a bag no bigger than 50 x 40 x 20cm including handles and wheels then it is guaranteed to stay with you.
- Need to Know: You are not allowed a “personal item” with Easy Jet, and even a small purse won’t be okay. Everything must fit in your ONE cabin bag. If you are struggling, wear a few coats and carry them or hide a few things under that coat when going through the gate. 😉
- Checking in: You can check in up to 30 days in advance for an Easy Jet flight. Do so as early as possible since their terms and conditions state that they can give away your seat. You can check in via the website or through the Easy Jet app. The app will allow you to show a mobile boarding pass instead of printed one.
- Watch out for: Checking-in early enough!
Flag carrier and largest airline of Spain with many budget flights around Europe.
- Baggage Allowance: The standard baggage allowance is one item of 56cm x 45cm x 25cm. You can also take one small personal item like a purse or laptop. Iberia also offers one free cabin bag on some flights.
- Checking in: You can check in between 24 hours and 2 hours before your flight. This isn’t mandatory and you can also use the check in kiosks at the airport. When you check in online you get the option of printing a PDF, getting an email, a mobile ticket or even a text message.
- Need to know: Iberia does have some great flight deals especially from Spain. It seems to be one of the easiest and laid back of the budget airlines around Europe.
Infamous Irish budget carrier with flights all throughout the UK and Europe.
- Baggage Allowance: One cabin bag weighing up to 10 kg with maximum dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm, plus 1 small bag up to 35 x 20 x 20 cms may be carried per passenger. (Ryanair used to only allow one bag total, this changed thank god!)
If there happens to be more than 90 cabin bags on the flight they will put your bag in the hold free of charge.
- Need to know: Ryanair requires a “visa check” for all non-EU passengers before the flight. Make sure you get your boarding pass stamped BEFORE going through security by either the Ryanair information desk or check-in desk. You usually don’t have to wait in line for this. If you arrive at your gate without the visa check clearance stamp they will typically not allow you on the flight and you’ll have to run back through security.
- Checking in: Customers who have purchased an allocated seat can check in from 30 days to 2 hours in advance. General customers can check in between 7 days to 2 hours in advance and will be given a seat assignment. The earlier you check in, the ‘better’ the seat. Regardless, for some reason I don’t understand why people still love to stand in line at the gate ages before actual boarding is called.
After checking in online you MUST print the boarding pass.
- Watch out for: The Ryanair website loves to try and sell you anything they can think of. Make sure you uncheck all the boxes necessary while purchasing your ticket to avoid any random purchases or fees. Also, the biggest mistake you can make with Ryanair is to forget to print out your boarding pass. They will not do it for you at the airport and will charge up to £50.
British low cost carrier with 7 UK bases and 65 destinations.
- Baggage Allowance: You can take one piece of baggage no bigger than 56 x 45 x 25cm. You can book more baggage online for up to 50% cheaper than at the airport.
- Checking in: When purchasing the ticket you can opt to either check in online or at the airport. If you opt to check in online you can do so from 28 days to 5 hours before the flight. You also must print out the boarding pass or else you will be charged an “administration fee”.
Spanish low cost carrier with largest hubs in Barcelona and Rome.
- Baggage allowance: Cabin baggage for Vueling is 10 kg and is no larger than 55 x 40 x 20 cm. You are also allowed a small personal item.
- Checking in: The Vueling website doesn’t say when check-in opens but read email instructions. You can check in online and wither print or use the mobile boarding pass. You can also check in at the airport.
Hungarian low cost airline flying routes around much of Eastern Europe.
- Baggage Allowance: Wizz Air has two types of cabin baggage.
- Small cabin bag:
If your cabin baggage is of size 42x32x25cm or smaller it can be taken onboard free of charge. It must fit under the seat in front of you.
Large cabin bag:
If your cabin baggage is larger than the dimensions of a small cabin bag but not exceeding 56x45x25cm, you can take it onboard for a fee. It must fit in the overhead compartment. You must be able to place it in the overhead compartment unassisted.
Checking in: You can check in online between 30 days and 3 hours before scheduled flight time. If you fail to print your boarding pass there is a fee at the airport.
Need to know: Non-EU passengers must present themselves at the check-in counter to have the boarding pass stamped no later than 40 minutes before departure.
- My favorite (and only) flight search tool: Skyscanner
- Know what you are getting yourself into : Worst Airports in Europe
- Wikitravel guide to low cost airlines Europe
- Ryanair Survival Guide
- The Travel Hack: Secrets to Packing Light
- Ninja Packing Tips: How to Pack for Europe with Just a 30L Backpack
Do you have any other tips or horror stories to share? Spill!