I’ve never seen the tulips blooming in Holland. It seems that every time I’ve been in the land of chocolate and cheese I just missed them or I’m about to miss them. April is the month when the country explodes with spring colors and as I was pondering the mysteries of these magical flowers, I thought I’d look into a spring Europe trip. My usual MO is to fly to a major hub city such as Amsterdam or Paris, rent a car, and drive a predetermined loop that hits all the cities on my list and finishes where I started. Dropping off a car in another country isn’t the great deal it used to be so now I use the “circle” approach. Amsterdam was the seemingly best option, but with Paris only three hours away, it was also a possible solution.
Turkish Airlines has been my go-to-airline for most of my European travel lately. It’s got great service, good food, in-flight entertainment and I love the free stopover in Istanbul. The prices have been consistently lower than any other major carrier. In the past, I’ve been able to get to Paris from Houston for less than $800. Many of the other airlines start at $1200. However, when I plugged in my dates yesterday for April, Turkish was almost $1000 to Amsterdam. That might seem reasonable to many, but it was more than I had just paid a couple months ago and I really didn’t want to spend the extra time flying all the way to and from Turkey on this trip.I rolled up my sleeves and started exploring some other options.
It turns out WOW Airlines, assuming you have some flexibility, can get you to Amsterdam from Boston for around $450! Granted, I have to get to Boston to take advantage of that fare, but with Jet Blue or Spirit, a low fare shouldn’t be an issue if I play my cards right. Actually, I could have gotten that flight cheaper than $450, but I wanted a 2-day stopover in Iceland. Iceland is an amazing country that doesn’t seem to end up on many travel brochures. At the moment, you can actually fly to Iceland from Boston one way for $99! It costs more for me to drive to New Orleans!
When I find great deals like this and pass them along to my friends, the first question I get from them is Is it safe?, followed by questions about the quality of the plane, the safety record, et cetera. The deal seems too good to be true. Is it? In actuality, low-cost airlines are becoming a larger part of the travel industry at 23 percent market share. Why isn’t it if it’s so cheap? What’s wrong with these airlines that they don’t charge as much as everyone else? We live in a capitalist economy that makes most people suspicious if prices are too low. The truth is that these low cost airlines have “deconstructed” their prices. They have taken out all the extras to get the price as low as possible.
The meals are gone. If you want to eat something, you’ll have to pay for it. The seats might be closer together. You can pay for a bigger seat or leg room on many of these airlines. Spirit Airlines offers their “big chair” for $50 (no, you can’t sneak into it later, they’re watching). Forget the free international cocktails and bottles of wine. You will probably even have to pay for bottled water. Those fancy TVs that Turkish Airlines sports with a zillion movies? Bye Bye. You’re not gonna see any of that.
The ultimate deal killer for many is the luggage clause. If you want to check in a bag, it can cost anywhere from $40-75 each way. That can add up to an extra $225 to your ticket if you’re doing a stopover. If you want to talk to someone on the phone, there’s often a charge added to your ticket. Ryanair has been known to charge their passengers $75-150 to print out their boarding passes. Ryanair has also discussed plans to cut down the number of restrooms to make room for more seats. Other controversial discussions have included a charge to use the restroom, a “fat” fee for overweight customers or packing passengers in a standing position like sardines to make room for more people. Most of these things have never happened, but it shows that they’re willing to make a lot of compromises to cut fares.
What about airline safety? Aviation regulations require safety standards that all airlines must adhere to. Some of these budget airlines have some of the youngest fleets. Statistics indicate that you’re just as safe on a cheap flight as an expensive one. The difference is in the perks and comfort, not the safety. You get what you pay for. Nothing more.
It comes down to whether you’re willing to go a few hours without being coddled and entertained or not. If you know what you’re getting into and have a plan, you can use these airlines to your advantage. You can fly across Europe for $20 if you catch a good Ryanair sale. Try getting anywhere by taxi or train for that. Mediterranean islands such as Sardinia, Cyprus, Ibiza or Atlantic destinations such as Tenerife that have been prohibitively expensive in the past can often be reached in an hour or two for less than you’d pay for dinner. I’ve flown around Turkey with Pegasus for $22. That’s less money than renting a car and a lot faster!
More than likely, you won’t find these airlines popping up on Expedia or Cheapoair searches. I plugged my $450 itinerary into Cheapoair and the cost was $1300 with other airlines and the connections more inconvenient. Skyscanner will pull up some of these but its website doesn’t allow for multiple destinations. Prices on certain days of the week can make a huge difference too. Many websites now include a calendar with prices built into their site. With WOW, the difference between traveling on a Wednesday versus a Thursday could affect the price by over $100! The key is flexibility on travel dates and comparing multiple airlines to getting the best price. Changing the city you fly into can make a difference of hundreds of dollars. Recently, I booked a trip to Paris rather than Frankfurt because of the cost difference. I was going to an area of France that was between the two cities and Paris saved me $150 and I only had to drive an extra hour.
Should you try a budget airline? Bring something to entertain yourself, pack light and read the fine print. If it’s transatlantic, take the free stopover to stretch your legs and see a new country. If you sit in your budget airline seat with low expectations, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If you’re looking for champagne and caviar, you won’t be, but it’s cheap. If traveling on a budget is the only way you can travel or you want to save a little money to go on more adventures, then suck it up and enjoy the ride.
Check out a list of low-cost carriers here.