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Europe is a diverse continent saturated with tantalizing foods, vibrant culture, and jaw-dropping landscapes. When traveling with limited time, you understandably want to visit as many destinations as possible. After all, who knows when you’ll be back?
While we don’t recommend packing too many cities into a short trip, knocking several destinations off your bucket list in each visit is easily doable. Europe’s infrastructure is solid, and thanks to the European Union, traveling between nations is usually hassle-free.
In many cases, flying Europe’s budget airlines is the quickest and most economical transportation option.
However, ticket prices are cheap for a reason. If you’re not careful, the experience can turn into an expensive nightmare that ruins your trip and makes you hate Europe. Don’t let that happen to you!
Here are 7 things you need to know before flying Europe’s budget airlines:
1. Search aggregator sites, but book directly.
Searching aggregator sites (our favorite is Skyscanner) can help you find the cheapest flights without the hassle of searching each airline individually. However, once you get an idea of which airlines are the cheapest, always look the flights up directly on the airline’s website to be sure you get the best price.
Also know that some budget airlines don’t show up on all aggregator sites. For Europe, be sure to check Ryanair, Vueling, easyJet, Norwegian Air Shuttle, and Transavia. It’s also a good idea to look up airlines based in either your starting or destination country, as they typically have the most options.
2. Pay attention to the airport location.
Unlike train stations, which tend to be centrally located, European airports are often situated on the outskirts of the city they service.
In some cases, European budget airlines keep prices low by using smaller, secondary airports. For example, many budget airlines in London fly out of London Gatwick, which is further from London’s city center than Heathrow.
When budgeting, be sure to calculate the cost of transportation to and from the airport rather than simply the flight cost. Sometimes the public transit or taxi fee can be as expensive as the flight!
3. Print your boarding pass in advance.
If you forget everything else from this post, remember this. You MUST check in and print your boarding pass (or save it on your smartphone) in advance. Otherwise you’ll be slapped with a huge fine and, despite that amazing croissant you ate, you will find yourself curled into a fetal position on the terminal floor crying and cursing yourself for traveling to such an evil, desolate continent.
When we flew Ryanair, we showed up at the airport 1.5 hours before our flight to check in. We were traveling without laptops, and navigating the check-in page on our phones was tedious.
At the check-in counter, the perky Ryanair representative smiled sweetly and informed us that the cost of printing our boarding pass at the airport was €45 each since our flight was less than 2 hours from takeoff!
Needless to say, we were not happy campers. Don’t make our mistake.
4. Pack light.
Other than gouging poor, ignorant North Americans who don’t print their boarding passes in advance, another way budget airlines keep their fares low is by charging an exorbitant fee for checked luggage.
Carefully read the carry-on luggage allotment for your airline, and be sure your bag fits within those restrictions. We took our Osprey Porter 46 backpacks and had no trouble carrying them on any budget airline. You can read our full backpack review here.
Note: Some budget airlines (such as easyJet) allow only one carry-on item per person. Be prepared to consolidate belongings if necessary.
If you think traveling carry-on-only is too restrictive, ask yourself this: Is that fourth pair of shoes really worth the steep baggage fee? (For more packing tips, read my Europe packing guide.)
That said, if the thought of spending two weeks in Europe without 7 pairs of shoes and 10 shirts makes you break out in a cold sweat, pay your checked baggage fee at the time of booking for a better rate.
5. Take your own snacks.
Budget airlines offer few amenities beyond a stiff seat and oxygen. So if you think you’ll get hungry or thirsty, buy a snack before you board.
Side-note regarding airplane etiquette: if you plan to snack on the plane, don’t make your 100+ fellow passengers hate you by choosing something stinky. I still harbor violent thoughts about the gentleman who boarded my plane with greasy onion rings.
6. Seat assignment costs extra.
If you absolutely must sit in the left-hand window seat of the third row to enjoy your flight, you will need to pay an additional fee to lock in your seat assignment. But if you’re not too picky where you sit, you can save money by not selecting a seat in advance.
Though I can’t guarantee this is always the case, we were automatically assigned seats beside each other on all three flights.
7. No boarding zones.
On most airlines, the boarding process is broken up into “boarding zones,” starting with people who have high status and working downward. Once they’ve opened up boarding for zones 1-239, which seemingly includes every passerby from the janitor restocking toilet paper to the chef at Manchu Wok, they finally allow the riff-raff class to board. That’s the zone where Sam and I typically belong.
On budget airlines, the boarding process is typically first come, first served. So the earlier you arrive at the gate and get in line, the more likely you are to find space available in the overhead compartment for your luggage.
Also note that departure gates are typically not posted until 30 minutes before takeoff, something that caused a part of my Type-A, North American soul to wither and die and possibly gave me an ulcer. If you’re the type of person who likes to be the first passenger at the gate, be sure to plant yourself in front of a departures board so you see your gate assignment as soon as it’s posted.
Further Reading: What to Know Before Volunteering Your Airplane Seat
Though traveling on Europe’s budget airlines can be tricky to navigate for first-timers, following these tips will help ensure a hassle-free experience!
Have you ever flown on a budget airline in Europe? Do you have any tips to add?
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