Budget Airline Information
Last Updated : 28/01/10
fter over 150 flights with budget carriers here is Gazza’s accumulated knowledge distilled into a handy, quick guide to what you should expect and do for the various airlines flying from the UK. I haven't yet flown with all the budget carriers and so, for those I require, I've noted this. For each I'll try and give as much gen as possible including their main bases and routes, the planes they operate and what to expect both at the airport and aboard.
With the new European hand baggage restrictions now in place you can no longer take beer (or anything else remotely fluid) in bottles over 100ml in your carry-on luggage (and if you think this means a bag containing Barbara Windsor's tits you're on the wrong site); you have to put them into your hold luggage. This is all very fine except most weekend trippers don't actually have any hold baggage these days and so, to bring beer back, you either have to take hold luggage which you wouldn't otherwise do or drive!
Ho-hum. What follows is my airline-by-airline (and eventually airport-by-airport) dissection of the current "no-frills" or "low-cost" aviation market. Please be advised that situations do change rapidly and I shan't be held responsible for any inaccuracies herein... and also note that these ramblings are my personal opinions so please, if you disagree, feel free to contact me and put a case for the opposition!
In our opinion and considerable experience (40 flights) Ryanair are unworthy of their name as the "crap end of cheap airlines" or the "unacceptable face of Capitalism". Okay so they don't include anything remotely free, but if you want a face towel or headphones then buy them before you fly - or go with a flag carrier and pay 500% more for the privilege (if they actually get you there). Obviously Ryanair have problems from time-to-time, who doesn't, but we've only had one flight more than 2 hours late and that was due to matters outside their control.
Ryanair have now phased out the last of their Boeing 737-300's, some of them over 20 years old, and now have a brand new fleet of 180+ (and being added to all the time) of Boeing 737-8AS's which are configured with 189 places - the newer ones have unmovable plastic seats, a huge improvement when the seat pitch is narrow - and a garish yellow decor, presumably to keep you awake and therefore buy more of the tat they are continuously hawking in-flight.
Their new policy means that you MUST check-in online for ALL FLIGHTS now and this costs an extra £5 (I think per person per booking although the website isn't clear on this). Online check-in opens 15 days before the flight departs and as there are no longer boarding groups (apart from priority and non-priority) you don''t need to check-in early any more meaning the good old-fashioned "Ryotscrum" is still a feature of travel. When you get on board, row 9 is a good choice as it's in front of the engines and you have two windows to look out of. If you can't - or don't - check-in online it seems as if you get charged £40 at the airport to do so, and you must check-in online if you have luggage and then present the printed boarding card as you drop off your bags at the baggage drop desk.
Don’t forget that when flying into Stansted only the front doors are used for disembarkation 95% of the time and you’ll almost certainly be at Ryanair’s own terminal - which is a good 10-minute slog from the main buildings - along miles of anodyne passages adorned with cartoons of smiling, cuddly seal-like planes with a throng of pissed-off passengers lugging half their wardrobe in suitcases hot on your heels. Don’t forget the 10kg hand baggage limit either; they have a severe financial penalty system in place although we’ve always avoided being found out!
One thing to watch when booking flights via the excellent website is that you know exactly where you're flying to; Ryanair make a habit of using cheaper regional airports to save money and, lets just say, there sometimes isn't a fat lot there or any transport into the nearest town. Use the superb "To and from the airport" website to check, and beware of Ryanair's economy with the truth when describing, for example, Hahn as Frankfurt when it's 64 miles from the city!
Ryanair are now expanding outside of their traditional Stansted base and will, from 2008, operate many more flights from Birmingham, Bristol and Luton which is a good thing for those of us who live over 2 hours from Stansted! When you consider their route network (extensive, and growing all the time), very low fares (can be ludicrously low if you catch a special offer) and general efficiency then I'd say if you need to get anywhere in Europe then Ryanair will almost certainly get you pretty close to it for a minimum outlay.
My main problem with them now is that they seem to charge for every single thing - a huge fee for card purchases (use a prepaid Mastercard, it's free), Priority boarding, checked baggage... what's next, I wonder? Personally I'd rather fly with easyJet who don't seem to be intent on milking their customers for every single penny they can get, although to many destinations Ryanair are the only realistic option and you're left with the option of going (and paying spurious charges) or not bothering. If you pay with an Electron card you can still get cheap deals, but it's the company's ethos that's beginning to grate with me (and many others) now, we'll see what happens as less people fly this year I suppose.
|Fleet||Boeing 737-8AS (100+), 189 seats|
|Fleet age||Average 3 years|
|Website||Excellent, easy to use.|
|In-flight info||Lots of hawking tat|
|Card Charges?||Now pre-paid Mastercard free, all other Debit/credit cards £5 per pax per segment.|
|Fuel Supplements?||No. Michael O'Leary says on the website "Unlike almost all of our competitors Ryanair remains committed to a policy of no fuel surcharges – ever. We will continue to absorb these higher oil costs, even if it means that our profits will fall in the short-term".|
|Seats||Plastic, some non-moveable|
|Online Check-in?||Yes, Now COMPULSORY for everyone flying (£5 fee), else you get charged £40 at the airport!!! Opens 15 days to 4 hours before departure "Priority boarding" was free when you check in online but is now £3 per segment. Check-in at desk is NO LONGER AVAILABLE.|
|Hand Baggage||10kg, max size 55cm x 40cm x 20cm and only one bag on board!|
|Hold Baggage policy||Max 3 bags with total weight of 15kg. Fee of £10 per segment for 1st bag and £20(!!) per segment for bags 2&3. £15 per kilo excess charge over the limit of 15kg. Max size 81cms high,119cms wide and 119cms deep.|
|Seat Allocation||Free for all scrum - but priority boarders usually get on first. At the desk, there are 2 groups, priority queue and "other queue".|
|Seat Pitch||30 Inches|
easyJet ("The big orange"). Website
The original low fares airline from the UK mainland and I fondly remember using them for work trips back in the late 90's when they only owned 5 aircraft and flew from Luton to Scotland! Things have come on a bit since then and easyJet are now one of the largest airlines in Europe with a huge fleet of Airbus A319's (plus 30 737's based at Luton) and their route network is impressive; it complements rather than competes with Ryanair's (which is a good thing) and their policy of creating new bases in the UK continues with Bristol in particular growing at a huge rate.
If you are just travelling with hand luggage (and, when you’re only away for a long weekend, you really don’t need anything more) then do yourself a favour and find the easyJet “hand luggage only” check-in desk. Here you can get checked in without standing in a queue (well, not much of one and usually it’s just you) and, more importantly, more than two hours before the flight – so you should be in the magic first 30-40 and therefore get a decent seat on the plane during the easyScrum. Online check-in is available from most airports these days and, commendably, their system opens flights 1 MONTH before departure allowing you to check-in online weeks before your flight to alleviate the need to be at the airport over 2 hours before departure.
easyJet’s cabin allowance is one bag which must be a reasonable size but with no weight restriction other than you must be able to lift it into the baggage stows yourself – this was great for bringing back those bottles of Baltic Porter or Döllnitz Gose although you can't nowadays with the new hand baggage restrictions! It's still one of the most generous in the business although, as with most other airlines, you now have to pay for any hold baggage.
Their new Airbus A319 planes seem to be a lot nicer to travel in than the old 737's and, to be fair, easyJet seem to have sorted a lot of the problems that befell them in their early years to become a good-quality cheap airline with a huge (and growing) route network. Their average price a touch is higher than Ryanair's, but that's not always the full story - look at which airport they fly to (more central ones, generally) and you may find the extra time and cost of getting to your destination is worth more than the £10 or so you save; it's up to you. They have recently taken over GB airlines so expect more routes from Manchester and Gatwick in 2008.
One particularly good idea they have brought in is that if you miss your flight then you can catch the next available flight for a flat charge of just £35 if you turn up at the airport within two hours of your original flight’s scheduled departure time - making the best of a bad situation. Also, on routes with more than one flight a day, if you arrive in time for an earlier one you can change onto the earlier flight without charge.
|Fleet||Boeing 737-700 (30), new Airbus 319's (100+)|
|Fleet age||Average 3 years (Airbus are still being delivered)|
|Website||Excellent, easy to use.|
|In-flight info||Not too bad, with some sales pitch|
|Card Charges?||Electron free, Debit cards, except Carte Bleue or Visa Electron, are subject to a fixed £3.50 charge. Credit cards incur an additional percentage charge of 2,5% of the total amount payable, with a minimum charge of £4 .|
|Fuel Supplements?||No, they claim they "never will".|
|Seats||Varies depending on plane, but generally standard recliners|
|Online Check-in?||Yes, from 60 days before departure, it's free and you are allocated to the correct group too! You can pay extra for "speedy boarding" (around £5) if you want to feel important)|
|Hand Baggage||Unlimited weight, max size 55cm x 40cm x 20cm|
|Hold Baggage policy||One piece of checked-in hold baggage per person, up to 20 Kg, now attracts a charge. All additional pieces of baggage (maximum 8 pieces of hold baggage) and excess baggage (over 20 Kg) will be charged for. Additional pieces of checked-in hold baggage are subject to a charge of £5.00 if you pay online, or £10.00 if you pay at the airport. The total weight allowance for all pieces of checked-in hold baggage is 20 Kg. Excess baggage fees are charged £6 per Kg exceeding 20 Kg up to a max of 50kg.|
|Seat Allocation||Free for all scrum - but "speedy boarders" usually get on first. At the desk, there are usually 4 (sometimes 2) allocation groups plus "kids & disabled".|
|Seat Pitch||29 Inches - although new Airbus may be 30 inches|
"The best airline you've never heard of" is their sales catchphrase, and I'd totally agree with that! I really like them – and I’d fly more often if they went to some more beery places. Air Berlin are expanding throughout Europe and now offer a whole host of destinations from Stansted and beyond, and for the German beer lover they really do go where you want to go - Nürnberg (handy for Bamberg), Leipzig, Berlin, München, Düsseldorf and loads of other beery destinations.
Their check-in desks are usually “all flights” (although there may be a "hand baggage only" one too) so just look for the red-coloured area (it’s towards the right as you walk into Stansted) and check-in; there has rarely been a queue when we’ve walked past the desk and the staff are helpful. You get a reserved seat so no need to rush, although don’t blame me if you check in late and get placed in row 1 or at the back – two rows that are definitely worth avoiding! They have a 6kg hand baggage allowance which is the main drawback but, by compensation, you get either a cheese or ham butty and a cup of juice/pop/water for nothing.
You also get drop-down screens above your head that show flight details or an annoying variety of crap programmes including the absolutely irrelevant "Blue Man Group" (what the fuck is all that about, eh? Anyone know?) for your entertainment. Overall a very civilised operation and the budget airline of choice if they fly to where you want to go to. Unfortunately they now charge a £4 booking fee which kind of puts me off using them for single leg trips plus a whopping fuel surcharge, but I suppose that almost everyone else does it these days...
|Air Berlin||Updated 26/04/08|
|Fleet||Boeing 737, Airbus 319/320, Fokker 100|
|Fleet age||Varies (737's being replaced by Airbus)|
|Website||Not bad, some bits are slightly confusing|
|In-flight info||Good, fold-down screens on ceiling|
|Card Charges?||Yes, 6EUR per segment or 7EUR within Germany.|
|Fuel Supplements?||Yes, currently 18EUR per segment.|
|Seats||Plenty of space, quality seats (esp. in Fokker)|
|Online Check-in?||Yes - certain routes only and only 1 day before travel.|
|Hand Baggage||Hand baggage must not weigh more than 6 kg (8kg for Laptop). The dimensions of hand baggage must not exceed the measurements of 55 cm x 40 cm x 20 cm. On account of space restrictions and security, only one item of hand baggage per passenger is permitted.|
|Hold Baggage policy||The maximum free baggage allowance for checked baggage is 20 kg per passenger, unless otherwise agreed (e.g. by special provisions within the scope of customer loyalty schemes). An additional charge is payable if the free baggage allowance applicable to the passenger is exceeded. 5EUR/kg fee for exceeding baggage limit. Amusingly, "Special regulations apply to rodents. The airline will not carry any kind of reptile (apart from tortoises)"!!!|
|Seat Allocation||Allocated seats at check-in.|
|Seat Pitch||Unknown, but it's plenty!|
Sky Europe Website
** Sadly, Sky Europe went bust in Autumn 2009 **
A little-known airline based in Eastern Europe, Sky Europe have embarked upon a large expansion programme which involves flying into the UK from some unusual airports in Eastern Europe and offering some excellent fares in the process. We've flown with them twice now and, despite having an issue with their timekeeping on both occasions (the airline claim 80% of flights arrive within 15 minutes of schedule, not in our experience they don't but then again they're not as bad as most flag carriers), the overall experience was a good one with clean and good aircraft, cheery and efficient staff and great prices.
With 32 new 737-700's on order to replace the few older aircraft they still use this airline is going places and seems determined to corner a slice of the increasing UK market for travel to Eastern Europe. Whilst they may not fly to many destinations as of yet, I'm sure their route network will increase when the new aircraft come on stream and we'll see more of them in the years to come.
|Sky Europe||Updated 26/04/08|
|Fleet||Boeing 737's, some old ones with 32 737-700's on order|
|Fleet age||Mainly new aircraft|
|Website||Slightly garish but it works very well|
|In-flight info||Little hawking of crap, relaxed and sociable although the standard of English announcements can be poor!|
|Fuel Supplements?||Yes, £6.75|
|Seats||Leather-ish seats (mainly)|
|Online Check-in?||Yes, from 48hrs before departure, but not from UK yet.|
|Hand Baggage||The dimensions of hand baggage must not exceed the measurements of 55 cm x 40 cm x 20 cm. Only one item of hand baggage per passenger is permitted. No weight limit is given, although the website says it "must be light enough for the passengers to place it safely in the overhead lockers without any assistance".|
|Hold Baggage policy||€4 per bag. Total checked baggage allowance of 20kg per passenger, max 5 bags.|
|Seat Allocation||Allocated seats at check-in, can book seats beforehand for 2,5 or 10EUR depending on the seat.|
|Seat Pitch||Unknown. 149 seats per plane, which suggests a decent amount of legspace.|
Thomsonfly (part of TUI) Website
Being part of the massive TUI group has it's benefits for both airline and customers; the airline get access to the parent company's booking system and aircraft and we get cheap (ish) fares... as long as you book early and act cannily! I'd say that Thomsonfly aren't really that cheap when it comes down to it, but if you compare fares and choose the right times to travel then you can get some bargains, especially from the smaller airports such as Coventry and Doncaster/Sheffield. Thomsonfly are famous for operating out of the widest number of regional airports in the UK (20 at the last count), so you may find that it's worth the few extra quid to fly from somewhere locally - if they go to where you want to get to, which isn't guaranteed!
The airline branded as Hapag Lloyd Express (HLX) is about to be re-branded TUIfly and so this will bring their routes into the fold with a few interesting ones such as Manchester to Stuttgart, although the company's main focus is on package holidays with the "no-frills" sector seeming to be increasingly out of touch with the rest of their thrust and I'm not sure that they will continue in this increasingly tenacious market for that much longer - although I hope to be proved wrong!
|Fleet||Boeing 737's, mostly old and second-hand|
|Fleet age||Fairly old, must be at least 10 years.|
|Website||Not too bad, usual low-cost garish appearance|
|In-flight info||Standard "package tour" stuff|
|Card Charges?||Electron free, Debit card £2.50, Credit card 2% min £5.|
|Seats||Recliners, not a lot of room - some of the worst in the business.|
|Hand Baggage||The dimensions of hand baggage must not exceed the measurements of 55 cm x 40 cm x 20 cm. Only one item of hand baggage per passenger is permitted. 10 kg weight limit on hand baggage.|
|Hold Baggage policy||Each passenger has a 20kg limit on checked-in luggage, irrespective of the number of bags checked in. Maximum of 5 items, £5 per item if booked online. £6/kg excess on European flights.|
|Seat Allocation||Allocated seats at check-in. Seats can be chosen on the website for £5 per pax.|
|Seat Pitch||Apparently 28 to 29 inches - some of the worst around.|
I have now flown with this fairly new Central European operator and can confirm what I've been told by several people, namely they're a decent operation which provides a service comparable with the other cheap airlines for - if you get the right deals - cheap prices, although beware of their bizarre "taxes and charges" which seem to change every day... strange, that.
Their fleet is solidly Airbus and seems to be well looked after albeit they are quite new! The cabin crew's grasp of English isn't always the best (ours to Zagreb were Romanian and the announcements were puzzling to say the least) although understandable and, if you've flown a bit, you'll guess what they're saying anyhow, it's amazing how you can pick up the words for "lifejacket" and "blow into this tube"!
With an expanding route network and some good deals to be had, as well as their flying to some interesting Central and Eastern European destinations, I'd say that I shall be using Wizz again in the future, although being careful to choose the cheap days!
|Fleet age||Relatively new|
|Website||A touch garish with all that pink, but easy to use and to see how much the flights will cost.|
|In-flight info||Announcements not always the best, some selling tat.|
|Card Charges?||Diners club free, Visa £3, Switch £1.50|
|Fuel Supplements?||Yes, varies on flight, around £5.|
|Seats||Allox at check in at the airport.|
|Hand Baggage||Max imension of 115 cm (55x40x20) weighing up to 10 kg.|
|Hold Baggage policy||Max 20kg per pax, £7.50/kg excess fee. £6/bag when booking, £12/bag after booking.|
|Seat Allocation||£4 for extra legroom when booking.|
|Seat Pitch||Unknown, but seemed to be around 30".|
FlyBE can't really be classed as a budget option per se, as you'll be lucky to get a flight with them to somewhere outside of the UK for less than £60, but they do have some special offers and so are included here just in case you manage to find one of them! They have recently (2007) taken over the regional business of British Airways and thus is their main business revealed - business travel first, cheap travel second.
Saying that it's possible to fly at a reasonable price if you get an offer and, with their destination list now huge, they may be your only option to some of the more business-oriented destinations.
© Gazza 11/10/09. V1.2