Dear Savvy Traveller: 

The airfares for budget airlines in Europe look too good to be true. Are they real? What’s the catch? —Renee Rosen

Dear Renee,

I appreciate your doubt—it’s a great asset that will serve you will in many areas, including travel. I bet you’re a firm believer that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and you’re very rarely going to be proven wrong there. But today is an exception.

Yes, European budget airfares really are exceptionally low, and the short answer is that they certainly are real and can be an excellent choice for saving a ton of money. I’ll also bet you noticed I said they can be an excellent option, and that’s because there are catches. Sorta.

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The airlines aren’t doing anything sneaky, and you generally won’t be slammed with hidden fees and surprise upcharges, but there are plenty of differences between these flights and the more expensive ones you’re used to, and you should acquaint yourself with them before flying so you don’t feel blindsided.

If you’re also travelling light (no checked bags) and you haven’t filled your itinerary to the brim with minute-to-minute agenda items, you’re a good candidate for budget airline use. If you don’t care where you sit on a plane, you can do without a drink for an hour or two, and you’re good at following directions, you’re a perfect candidate.

Take a look at some of these major differences between traditional flights and budget flights, and you should be able to determine fairly easily if these are right for you.

1. Baggage fees. By now, we’re all used to paying fees for bags that were free in the good old days, and many of us have learned to travel without checking bags at all. When we do need a checked bag, we typically pay a flat fee for a baggage allowance. Not so with budget airlines. In many cases, baggage is paid at a per-kilo rate, and these costs can quickly escalate to soaring sums. This is likely to be your largest upcharge if you fly budget, so it should be your number one consideration.

If you can fly with just a carry-on, budget is still a great fit for you. (And don’t try to cheat the system by bringing an oversize bag as “carry on,” or even by cramming a heavy load into a suitably sized bag, because budget airlines DO check by measuring and/or weighing your carry-on bags, and they’ll nail you for violations here, even at the gate, long after you’ve cleared the check-in counter and thought you were safe.

2. Airport location. Most budget airlines do not fly to the international hubs you’re used to. Instead of London’s Heathrow, you’ll end up at Gatwick. Instead of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle, you’ll end up at Beauvais. These airports are typically far from the city center and some people complain about having to pay for a transfer into the city, but this is just silly. The familiar airports are also far from their respective cities, and one always has to find a way into the city anyway.

In fact, budget airports often have budget shuttle services that are considerably cheaper than the taxis or trains you might take from the more common airports, so flying budget will also save you in this area. I see this one as a total win for the budget airlines, but it is important to realize this logistical difference when arranging your schedule and your transfers—be aware of which airports you’re actually using so you plan correctly.

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3. Snacks and drinks. You’re not going to get these for free on a budget airline. Selling food and beverage is a prime area of income for budget airlines, and not being equipped for hot meal service provides them additional structural and logistical savings. Snacks and beverages will be available, but some airlines only accept cash while others will only take cards, so check ahead for your specific flight and be prepared if you’ll feel the need to eat or drink. Remember, these flights are generally short and you can bring your own snacks, but you’re not getting a water bottle past security so you may end up springing for a drink.

4. Seat assignment. Most European budget airlines treat seating the way buses treat seating: first come, first served. If you need to sit by the window or along the aisle, this may not be a great option for you. In some cases, you can opt to pay for an assigned seat, but not always, so check ahead if this is a serious concern for you. Otherwise, just arrive early enough to be toward the front of the line at the gate, and you’ll still have your pick of seats. (Plenty of major airlines are slowly adopting similar, though not as extreme, policies, so this “difference” may soon be a non-issue.)

5. Details! OK, Renee, I know I said that there aren’t any surprise fees associated with the surprisingly low fares advertised by European budget airlines, but there are published fees that may catch you off guard if you don’t read your agreements and tickets carefully. If a fare is advertised for 25 Euros, it really is 25 Euros. Like other airlines, there are taxes and sometimes government surcharges that still need to be paid, but because your base fare is incredibly low, so too are your taxes and other fees, because much of this is percentage-based. Your final purchase price is still going to be dramatically lower than a traditional airline’s ticket price.

But pay attention to the rules issued on your ticket confirmation, because some airlines require you to do seemingly silly things, like print your ticket in advance of arriving at the airport (or they’ll charge you 15 Euros to print it for you, and mobile boarding passes are not accepted even if they were issued), or presenting your passport for document screening at the check-in counter before arriving at the gate, whether you needed to go to that counter otherwise or not.

When you don’t follow these rules, fines can be steep, and you can even be denied boarding (especially for that document-screening blunder). The good news is that it’s easy to follow the rules if you read them first, so read them.

I personally love the budget airlines of Europe not just because they are truly less expensive and quicker than train travel, but also because they force us to be better travellers. If you’ve read any of my previous Savvy Traveller columns, you know I believe in packing light, and having an open mind while travelling.  This is also the simple recipe for budget airline success.

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