The Little Jet Engines That Could
What if you could fly from one end of any given continent to the other for as little as $25? Welcome to the wonderful age of no-frills airlines. Here's how to use them.
Jetblue may be a cheap ticket, but the service is top-notch, including leather seats with plenty of leg room, and even your own personal DirectTV screen. That's more frills than you get with a legacy carrier.
The days of high plane fares are over, my friends, as are the days of having to spend two days on a train just to cross a continent cheaply.
Thanks to no-frills airlines and low cost carriers, you can often now hop a plane for considerably less than it costs than the train—and for bucketloads less than the former regular fare on most established airlines—while at the same time save dozens of hours on travel.
Cheaper, easier, faster—what more could you want? Well, how about making Europe more manageable? No-frills are also opening up the "corners" of Europe to travelers—Spain and Portugal, Scandinavia, Greece—turning what were once epic journeys of two or three days on trains and ferries into easy two- or three-hour flights.
In practical terms: Let's take a hypothetical trip from London to Venice:
- By train, 15 hours, $246.
- By traditional airline, 3 hours, $258.
- By no-frills airline, 3 hours, $48.
How can they do it? Well, "no-frills" means they cut a few corners—but not ones you'd really miss.
What Frills Are We Talking About Here, Exactly?
With some exceptions (JetBlue anyone?) these new airlines forgo such frills as meals, movies, and free booze (though the latter is nearly extinct on old-fashioned carriers anyway).
However, since almost all inter-European travel is short haul, who's going to care about getting a snack instead of a meal, or paying for your drinks, or missing in-flight entertainment? You're on the plane for two to three hours max—barely time to get to cruising altitude, munch on whatever cheap snack you brought onboard, and read a chapter or two of your novel.
Seating on a no-friller is generally a first-come, first-served free-for-all familiar to anyone who has flown Southwest. You're guaranteed a seat, of course; that's not an issue. But if you're particular about getting aisle/window, or want to be sure you and your companions get to sit together, show up early enough.
Most no-frills also shave costs on the end of operations that you don't really see (flying just one model of jet, so that maintenance and parts costs are easily contained, that sort of thing).
They also tend to fly at less popular hours, since those "slots" at the airports are cheaper (or, more frequently, those are the only slots the airports—long in the pockets of the major airlines—will grant them).
One of the big savings on no-frills balance books comes from the fact that they fly largely out of secondary airports at or near major cities (in London, out of Luton or Stansted rather than Heathrow or Gatwick). Is this a problem? Not to my mind. In fact, in some cases it can be a major benefit.
Major Benefits to Minor Airports
OK, almost all major airports are well outside town to begin with, and even with the ones that have special high-speed rail links into town, you're looking at anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes to get out there. So what's an extra 10 to 20 minutes to go all the way out to some secondary airport the no-friller uses when you're saving literally hundreds of dollars on the fare?
This can also be a godsend to folks with a quirky itinerary in mind, allowing you to make an otherwise inconvenient flight from, say, County Kerry in Ireland to London, or London to Ancona in Italy.
What's more, smaller airports are often more convenient. With its long lines, crowds, and sheer size, I have never gotten out of Heathrow in less than an hour and a half. However, on a no-frills flight from Barcelona to London's Luton airport, the plane taxied right up to the arrivals gate, I walked down the staircase, across 50 feet of tarmac, and through the doors.
I glided past the smiling passport clerk and waited at the luggage belt immediately beyond for but a few minutes before my bag trundled its way out on the belt. I checked my watch as I exited the airport and crossed the sidewalk to the bus that would take me to downtown London. Time from stepping off the plane to boarding the bus: 12 minutes.
Beat THAT Heathrow!
Connecting the Dots
Perhaps the best thing about no-frills airlines is that all tickets are priced one-way, all the time. That means you can easily hopscotch your way across the Continent without ever having to return to some central or origin airport first.
You could fly transatlantic into London, and then use cheap no-frills tickets on any of a variety of airlines (no need to be loyal to just one) to fly first down to Venice, from there amble over to Athens, then mosey on up to Munich, bop over to Barcelona, and finally lug all your souvenirs back to London for your flight home.
Connecting the dots thusly (by flying first into London—always the cheapest European gateway) is called the Big Ben Swithcheroo, and the strategies, secrets, and pitfalls involved are described in detail elsewhere on this site. For now, let's look at a few drawbacks to the no-frills phenomenon.
Pack Light...Real Light
Most no-frills have strict (on some, draconian) baggage weight limits and charge exorbitantly steep fees if you go over. Travel writers accumulate an obscene amount of research in the form of brochures and other heavy paper items, and I've ended up paying more at the check-in counter for my excess baggage than for my plane ticket!
But Are They Trustworthy?
Good question. If you've never heard of some of these carriers, would you fly with them? Well, I don't have all the answers, but I can tell you this: in the fall of 2006, I flew Eurofly (www.euroflyusa.com) and it was, in a word, and it was fantastic. I got good service, a comfy seat (well, as comfy as coach class ever gets), and even the latest in seat-back screen technology, allowing me to pick my own movies and other entertainment from a menu of options—all thgat a a flight direct from New York to Palermo, Sicily without having to change planes in Rome and for a mere $350 roundtrip plus taxes.
I do trust that each of the alternative airlines mentioned here are legitimate business, every bit as capable as a major airline is of getting you from point A (America) to point B (Europe) safely, and often far more inexpensively.
A lot of folks worry that a smaller airlines has a higher chance of going belly-up between the time you buy tickets and the day of the flight. That is a bit illogical. Frankly I'm more concerned about the future of all those major US carriers wallowing in, or flirting with, Chapter 11. Any airline, no matter how large or important, can go out of business overnight. Just ask anyone who once worked for such massive, standard-bearer, household-name airlines as Eastern, PanAm, or TWA.
I figure these scrappy little guys have just as much of a chance of staying in business as any airline these days. Keep in mind that only a few of these alternative airlines to Europe are actually recent start-ups. Most have been operating for years if not decades. It's just that they've been (heh) flying under the radar of public awareness.
In many cases, they've heretofore been serving as charter airlines whose names were known only to the travel agents and tour companies that booked them, or as regional carriers operating under a contract with (and under the name of) a more famous airline.
Traditional airlines have been forced into a price war with the low cost carriers. This British Airways ad from a London tube train shows how far the flagship carrier thas had to lower prices in order to compete with the low-cpost upstarts. The ad also takes a swipe at the "no-frills" part of no-frills airlines by reminding us of the benefits to flying a major carrier—"centrally located airports, frequent flights at civilised times, allocated seats, complimentary food and drink." It also makes a big deal out of all fares being "return" (British for "round-trip"), which is odd since the one-way pricing on an LCC offers far more flexibility.
Now that the no-frills are clearly here to stay in Europe, the traditional big airlines over there have finally come down off their high-fare horses, rolled up their sleeves, and started trying to stem the tidal wave of inter-Continental traffic away from their flag carriers.
What I mean is, the Big Boys have had to slash their fares to the bone to compete—in several cases after having failed miserably, and at great cost, in ill-guided attempts to beat the low-cost carriers at their own game by creating puppet low-cost subsidiaries. (Most of these sad offshoots of the majors went under within a year or two, their remains gobbled up by the true upstarts; Delta's "song" and United's "Ted" should take note of this).
This is good news all around, since now you might even be able to find a decent fare on an established airline. The no-frillers still tend to trounce them in the pricing war, but the options offerd by mroe airlines is nice. Also, as the snarky British Airways' ad from a London Tube train pictured above trumpets, if you do want to book with an old guard carrier (and pay a bit more), you will still get some of those frills that the cheapies are lacking.
A Bit o' Background
The 1990's deregulation and privatization of many national airlines in Europe opened the door to a slew of start-up competitors with names like easyJet, Ryan Air, and germanwings (similar to Southwest and JetBlue here in the States). Some are financed by major airlines or tourism-industry backers; some are true newbie entrepreneurs; some are old charter services that are revamping to fit the new "no-frills" model.
All of these young no-frills outfits are now feistily muscling their way into the business and travel sectors by offering cut rates on what were once laughably inflated ticket prices between European cities. Some compete as an alternative in their own national market; others are criss-crossing Europe from a central hub along a handful of useful and carefully selected routes.
Most are London-based, though the German, Scandinavian, and Eastern European markets are becoming the new frontier (and we're still waiting for the France market to heat up; its sole real no-frills, Air Liberté, went belly-up in 2003; an offshoot, Air Littoral, soldiered on until Feb 2004, then it, too, went bankrupt).
This is all fantastic news—except for the France bit. The page on resources for finding and booking no-frills airlines will help you track down the current crop of low-cost carriers.