How to make European discount airlines work for you

Back to the basics discount carriers, like Wizz Air, can save you a bundle of money when travelling in Europe. It’s important to know what to expect, however.

European discount airlines, the bottom feeders of customer satisfaction surveys, aren’t necessarily a bad option for making connections around the continent. A successful budget journey on a company like Ryanair, EasyJet or Wizz Air can cost you as little as $25 one-way, but coming away satisfied requires some know-how and planning.

Even though many customers struggle with strict baggage fee schedules and minimalistic cabin amenities, I have had plenty of fine travel experiences on some of the worlds cheapest air carriers.A successful budget journey on a company like EasyJet, Eurowings, Veuling or Wizz Air can cost you as little as $25 one-way, but coming away satisfied requires some knowledge of what you’re getting into.

  1. Check-in early

Discount airlines don’t cater to business travelers. Don’t expect to show up with to the airport 35 minutes before departure, passport in hand, and waltz through the terminal with Sky Priority swag.

Discount airlines are engineered save money, and that cost savings begins before passengers even arrive at the airport. These airlines don’t fully staff airport terminals in the way that legacy airlines do, and they shift many of the duties of those absent staff onto the passenger.

On Ryanair, EasyJet and Wizz Air, online check-in is the only free way to check in and can close to three hours before departure. Fail to check-in online, and you may be out that fare and whatever else you must pay to find alternative transport to your destination. Even requesting a printed boarding pass at the airport can cost fliers as much as $35.

Make sure you download your correct boarding pass ahead of time. Discount carriers will make you pay to print one at the airport.

On the flipside of this equation, discount carriers allow you to check in many days in advance (30 in the case of Wizzair), so you should have plenty of time to get ready.

2. Work the baggage game, don’t let it work you

Most of the horror stories I’ve heard about discount carriers involve some type of baggage calamity. BEWARE: baggage fees can double and even triple if you don’t pay before your departure date.Discount carriers prefer customers check their bags, as it speeds up boarding and disembarkation.

While Ryanair and Vueling allow customers two carron bags, fees to bring a second carryon aboard a Wizz Air or EasyJet flight are often the same or more than fees to check a bag, and European discount airlines have strictly enforced limits on baggage. Even if you pay up to carry-on your roll aboard, many airlines, including Wizz and Ryanair, still limit you to only one bag, and that will then exclude any purse or backpack you might be carrying.

Figure out exactly what you are bringing, and then do the math on how to get your luggage onboard most cheaply.

  1. Consider pacakged options and services

This can serve as a workaround to the previous tip. For example, Wizz air will sell you priority boarding for about $7. Not only does this service include access to the priority line at the gate, it also allows you to bring an additional carryon. That’s right, for the cost of a carry-on bag (about $25) and priority boarding, you get to carry your American size roll aboard and your hand bag onboard.

This strategy can also be used to avoid costly second checked bag fees, by carrying one luggage bag and your backpack/purse, and checking one other. I saved myself about $30 by doing this on a recent flight from Budapest to Nice.

Beyond the checked bag, priority boarding wasn’t entirely useless. It made this cattle-crowded boarding terminal much more bearable.

The lineup to board Wizz Air flights departing Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport.

Sometimes paying up can be worth it. If you know you’re going to need to check a bag, carry-on a roll aboard bag and want to pick your seat, it can sometimes be less expensive to choose one of the higher fare classes at booking than to purchase all these services separately. Figure out what you’re going to bring, look at the airlines website to calculate bag fees, and plan accordingly.

  1. Make contingent plans

If you’re flying Lufthansa across Europe, you’re paying for the airline to compensate for many of the contingencies associated with air travel, such as weather-related cancellations, mechanical problems and even the calamity of getting on the wrong train to the airport and missing your flight.

Discount carriers save money by eliminating the slack that major airlines use to adjust for contingencies, and often operate routes with less-than-daily frequencies. That means that if you miss your flight, you’re not going to be getting on another one, without buying a new ticket.

Similarly, there is little slack incorporated in discount carrier schedules when it comes to weather. Inclement circumstances typically lead to cancelled flights, and no, there won’t be another flight leaving in two hours, or perhaps even two days.

One way to mitigate potential problems is to book travel with a credit card that provides automatic travel insurance, like the Chase Sapphire, Citi Prestige or American Express Gold and Platinum cards.

If your discount airline cancels your one and only flight due to weather or other logistical trouble, this insurance can cover the cost of finding alternate transport to your route, and may even cover expenses like extra meals and hotel stays incurred due to the cancellation.

That said, discount airlines probably aren’t the best option when you’re planning on attending a wedding or important business meeting the day of your flight.

  1. Consider paying for a seat… and then don’t

Every single seat on a discount carrier is going to be uncomfortable. These airlines install seats to meet government-mandated minimums, and nothing more. It does not matter if you are sitting in the third row, or the thirtieth row, your seat on WizzAir is going to be hard, cramped and likely won’t recline.

Noteable exceptions are the exit row seats and bulkhead seats, which are available for fees similar to what you’d pay on a standard carrier. If you’re exceptionally tall or large, this might be worth it. Otherwise, just save your money. That’s the point of flying these carriers, isn’t it?

These seats are about as good as it gets on a discount carrier. Paying up isn’t likely to do you much good, unless you make it into an exit row.

If you’re travelling alone, the best way to avoid a middle seat is to check-in as soon as you buy the ticket. Your seat will be assigned at that time, when chances of scoring an aisle or window are highest. If you’re still unsatisfied after checking in, you can still pay to move.

  1. Be sure to print or download your most updated boarding pass 

To avoid a confrontation with airport staff that have a unique reputation for being confrontational, be sure you reprint (or for phone users, re-download) your boarding pass after adding any baggage, services or seat modification.

The boarding pass contains codes that convey your baggage allotment, special services like priority boarding and seat assignment. Remember, these airlines don’t staff gates and check-in counters like the big boys do, so If you use a boarding pass that doesn’t include the codes you paid for, you’re in for a complicated situation at the airport.

  1. Relax

Once onboard, I’ve found service on discount airlines to be just as attentive as what one might expect on a domestic flight in the United States. Expect to pay separately for anything on the menu – even water — but the prices are typically reasonable ($3.50 for beer or wine on my recent Wizzair flight).

Fliers pay for everything on discount airlines, but at least everything is cheap!

These carriers don’t offer the space that more traditional, full-priced carriers do, but they offer a great value on many routes that can be cheaper than ground transportation, and certainly much more expeditious.

Comments

  1. We just came back from a cruise and got an $80 flight from SAS for each of for Copenhagen to London. I bumped it up to SAS Plus for just a bit more so we could check our big bags for free. What I did not realize was we got SAS lounge access, a special security line, and sat in the front of the plane. It cost less to go SAS Plus than it would have to paid for 2 bags checked. You might want to consider the same in the future. I was just looking for cheap flights.

  2. I think the baggage information on Wizzair is misleading. They allow only handbag for the priority boarding, not the US size carry on. Here is the language:
    “Purchase a Priority Boarding option and take one small personal item onboard (such as a laptop bag or handbag)”

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