Admit your curiosity was piqued by yesterday’s post on low-cost carrier RyanAir. In 2005, RyanAir represented over 5% of the intra-european market, with the number of passengers expected double in 2007. For you and me and an estimated 52 million people this year, it’s hard NOT to get excited about a way to get from point A to point B for only 1 cent.
I’ve flown a number of airlines I’m sure you’ve never heard of. EasyJet. Wizz!Air. TUIfly. AirBerlin. SmartWings. I’m sure there’s a couple of others even I’ve forgotten. These airlines all operate on the same model — offering flights at the lowest possible price, based on demand. Some of these fares (like 1 cent, and especially when they pay the taxes(!), which generally amount to around 20 euros each way) are obviously below cost and are used to fill seats, to create brand loyalty, or — not unlike the modern movie theater industry — to sell refreshments and other in-flight amenities to a captive audience. They strictly limit services offered; like most of the major U.S. airlines today, they offer meals and drinks only for payment. They tightly regulate luggage; RyanAir charges 6 euros per leg for any checked luggage (at a maximum of 15 kg), others offer one piece of checked luggage free, but ruthlessly charge for overweight items. So the first two rules for no-budget low-cost air travelers are:
1) pack drinks and snacks in your carry-on
2) pack as light as possible and carry on your luggage
In a coming post, I’ll discuss packing tricks and some ways to flaunt those luggage restrictions.
Perhaps I’ve put the cart ahead of the horse here. You’re not even sure that a low-cost carrier exists for the route you’re interested in (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). You can get a good overview of who flies where at Which Budget. The site lists a wide variety of low-cost carriers. Here the next rule:
3) be flexible
The more flexible you can be about where you’re flying from, where you’re flying to, when you schedule your trip or what time of day you take off or land, the cheaper your tickets will be. A certain amount of inconvenience must be figured in when you fly low-cost. In order to make our 1-cent flight from Brussels to Milan (Bergamo), my mother and I will have to take an airport bus leaving at 4:30 a.m. The flight I took from Hamburg (Lübeck) to Milan (Bergamo) this spring arrived at 23:30, getting me to my host’s apartment after midnight. Part of what makes these flights so cheap is that they take the slots in the schedule no other airline wants. Early-morning and late-night flights are quite typical. On routes with more frequent flights (for example, Dublin-London), the earliest and latest departures are almost always the cheapest.
By using Which Budget, you might see that there is a direct flight available from your location to Rome rather than Venice, or from a “nearby” airport to Venice direct. A quick look at the Trenitalia or your local transport website will tell you whether or not changing airports or your itinerary will save you money.
You may also have noticed that I have a lot of airport names in parentheses. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, low-cost carriers fly primarily to second-tier airports, where the competition for gates (and therefore prices) are lower. Most flagship airlines, for example, drop you off at London Heathrow airport, or sometimes London Gatwick. Low-cost carriers fly primarily to London Stansted or London Luton, with some flights from Gatwick. Sadly, the interwebs don’t seem to have a very good map showing all these airports and their locations in the London metro area, but you can generally assume that the low-cost airports (unless it’s a very small city) are quite a distance from your intended destination. Hamburg (Lübeck) is 1.5 hours from Hamburg; Frankfurt (Hahn) 2 hours from Frankfurt; Stockholm (Skavsta) a good 2 hours from Stockholm. When it is an hour or more, the airlines usually run a bus timed to the flights, costing between 6 and 15 euros, depending on location. Sometimes, but not always, these buses are cheaper and more convenient than public transportation to and from these locations.
This brings me to the fourth rule, namely:
4) watch all costs
As I noted above, when changing to less-serviced airports, you must figure in the additional cost of transportation to and from the airport (perhaps on both ends) as well as the time it takes to travel. You must consider luggage fees. If you’re getting in very late, you may have to book a hotel at your destination. If you’re leaving very early, you may have to take a more expensive cab to the airport or to the airport bus. These are all the “pitfalls” of low-cost flying which must also be reckoned before purchasing that “bargain” ticket. Some of the flagship airlines, such as Lufthansa, are competing as they can with the low-cost carriers by offering 99 euro round-trip fares to select European destinations. As major airports are more likely to be integrated into local transportation networks, this can save an extraneous bus fare or extra-long journey; at times with a big carrier you may break even AND earn frequent flier miles to boot. Like any purchase, it is important to be aware of all the options and all the potential costs before deciding.
One quick way to monitor whether the price you’re looking at for comparable routes is the cheapest is to check Sky Scanner. This website updates the latest prices for given routes from certain low-cost carriers and is a good way to make sure you haven’t overlooked a cheaper option.
Even when considering booking a trip across the pond, these low-cost airlines may save you quite a bit of cash. Generally the cheapest transatlantic fares are to be had from the East Coast (typically NYC) to London, Paris, or Frankfurt. As long as you adhere to Rule #2, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a low-cost carrier that will inexpensively connect you from one of those three destinations to your final destination. In today’s travel climate, you should probably give yourself at least six hours if not an overnight for such a connection. This must also be taken into your cost-benefit analysis before purchasing. You can look forward to later advice on ways to reduce the costs of necessary overnights.
RyanAir has announced plans to start up a transatlantic budget wing, perhaps as early as 2009. As a consumer, I look forward to a shake up in the long-haul market. Let’s just hope the seats recline on those 9-hour flights!
In this long-winded entry, I’ve tried to be as thorough as possible for the uninitiated; leave your questions or suggestions in the comments section. Glaring inaccuracies or exclusions will be addressed in another post.