Saturday, 26 November 2011
Europe's Low Cost Budget Airlines - A (simple) Review
I have done a fair bit of travelling this year, my blog posts have been sporadic in 2011 for a reason. Yes, I have been film busy and also shuttling back and forth to the continent. This is my first year since 1997 that I have not ventured outside Europe and the first year I have not used Heathrow Airport.
And next year I have a hell of a lot of flights planned on Europe's low cost airlines, a variety of them. And as this mode of transport is so widespread, but so fraught with rumour and hearsay, I thought it was time to give a little guide to Europe's Low Cost travel trade. On particular, I will be concentrating on the three low cost airlines that connect London to the continent - Ryanair, Easyjet and Wizz. These three airlines are also handily distributed around the Capital. Stansted Airport is dominated by Ryanair, Easyjet's biggest base is Gatwick and Wizz is exclusively found at Luton.
There are loads of other airlines plying the European low cost trade like Norwegian, Air Lingus Blue, and BMI Baby to name a few, but they do not really use London as a base, rather as a single destination. So I have not been able to use them, and they will not be reviewed.
Let us start...
Booking the Flight:
Open your web browser and get going. You know, it is still a game with low cost airlines, but I think it runs like this. If you book something like six months plus in advance, you will get charged a fortune. If you book three months or two months in advance, you can pick up a bargain. Possibly, depends if the flight is full. Anything less than a month in advance, and the price pumps up. They all have card surcharges, and always, using a credit card will cost you more as opposed to a debit card.
These rules are not hard and fast.
Flights can get cancelled at a whim, so booking hotels in advance is a risky choice, unless you are travelling at a peak time, such as Xmas or Easter or in the height of summer. In essence, if your travel is straight forward, no strings attached, it is a great way to fly, and you can get to see some funky places. Trust me, I have been to a couple this year. If you are dependent on travelling across Europe, Budget Airlines are a great way to travel, but, there is always a but, do not rely on them too much...
Pack light, print out your boarding pass and make sure you head for the scrum that is the plane.
To be honest, compared to long haul travel where you have to wait on the plane while Business Class Passengers disembark first, Low Cost Airline are refreshingly free.
Plus, you do not heckled as much for food and drink. Come on, I am on a two hour shuttle. Sometimes I can spend longer stuck in traffic in London. I do not have to be continuously drip fed with nutrition. On low cost airlines, if you are dumb enough to want to nibble on the plane, then pay those sky-high charges.
Your fellow passengers:
This is surprising. Every flight is different. Young, old, this country, that country. Working, retired, holidaying, seeing family, random choices, going to work, catching up with friends. The reasons for getting on a plane, or for booking that flight are multiple. But there is no one class or or type of character of person on board. This is not coach travel. Like the London Underground or Hong Kong's Star Ferry, Europe's Low Cost Airlines are a great social leveller. They are used because common sense states so. Cheap, fast and convenient. There's a reason why I have used them half a dozen times this year, and have already booked three flights into next year...
Once you add in surcharges, cheeky winks and nods to the naughty, the price difference between the budget airlines are minor. The tickets always cost me around £70 return. Sometimes I can get a bargain (my lowest priced flight has been under £40) and sometimes I can pay a bit more (£80 for one flight next year) but on the whole, the price differences, despite the hoopla, are nominal.
The Low Cost airlines are significantly cheaper than the flag carriers, but (here is always a but), they leave from airports that are at the arse-end of civilisation, so factor in (sometimes costly) airport transfer fares. Plus they charge for hold luggage. Full fare airlines don't. Once you add up these costs, low cost airlines are not that low cost. Families normally get scuppered with these charges while singletons are at an advantage here.
One word - loads. It is the budget airlines that have done more for European Integration than the Euro, Schengen or anything else that the EU could have come up with.
If it is in Europe, then it probably has a budget airline serving it. You are probably no more than six hours travelling time from an airport with a link to London. That's including the badlands of Scandinavia or Romania/Bulgaria - those empty lands. Reduce that to three hours travelling time in a country with a descent population.
Lucky for us Londoners who fancy exotic holidays to places you cannot pronounce. Unlucky for the inhabitants of these places who suddenly get hordes of Jay-Walking Brits descending on their city.
So let us take a look at those airlines...
Europe's Largest Airline, and it probably has the worst reputation, with the press gleefully jumping on the comments made by its charismatic CEO.
But there is probably a reason why it is so big...
Ryanair does exactly what is says on the tin. It takes you from A to B. It has its peculiar revenue raising rules, but on the whole, it is not a bad airline. I was surprised by the amount of leg room (maybe my standards have dropped) the friendliness of their staff (okay, I have no standards left) and the fact that it does run on time (so you can spend longer to queue up at the UK Border).
To be honest, I have had no problem with Ryanair. They are not as bad as Lufthansa (bad experience, never again) and they fly to a lot of places in Europe. From a Londoner's point of view, Stansted Airport is Fort Ryanair, and its blue coloured planes dominate this part of the world (although they also have flights from Luton and Gatwick). But then, I am a single traveller, with no hold luggage. Ryanir is easy for me. I do not want on-board food or drink, so they are cheap. And yes, they really are on time. And their route network is extensive. Pretty much anywhere in Northern and Western Europe has a Ryanair flight connecting it to London.
There's a reason they are Europe's biggest airline. They do their job. Pretty efficiently. And I cannot complain about that.
If Ryanair is cold and steely, the Easyjet is warm and cuddly. Maybe it is becuase their founder was Sir Stelios. Maybe it is because its jets are painted in warm orange. Maybe it is because their attendants are ever-so-good-humoured. Whatever it is, Easyjet enjoys a very good reputation, but it is quite similar to other low-cost airlines with petty boarding pass rules etc.
But there is one major difference between Easyjet and the rest. Your hand luggage can weigh a ton, and they do not care. That's right, they are the only airline that does not have a weight limit for the stuff you can take on a plane (but like every airline, they do have a size limit). Fantastic, and very handy if you have a bunch of souvenirs to take back home.
Being based at Gatwick, they are the most convenient Budget Airline for a South Londoner such as myself to use. They also fly from Luton, Stansted and from next year, Southend Airport (so at a stroke introducing a sixth airport to London's busy skies).
Easyjet also fly to a lot of major destinations. While Ryanair is known for its two hour transfer journey to Krakow (from an airport in a different city - Katowice), Easyjet fly direct from Krakow airport. For around the same price. So overall, the cost of flying orange could well be cheaper then flying blue. Easyjet also dominate Southern Europe. The sunnier the destination, the more likely an Easyjet flight connects it to London.
However, Easyjet bug me in a couple of ways. Firstly, they really do have the hard sell. That tannoy is always buzzing, with them trying to sell toasted cheese sandwiches and the like. Secondly, they do run late. I have taken three return flights on Easyjet this year, and two of them have been delayed, annoyingly so. However, they fly from Gatwick, so in my opinion, that still gives them a lot of Kudos.
One thing of note to mention about Easyjet is that they allow Open Jaw flights. Something I took advantage of this year on my first trip to Poland, when I landed in Berlin and took off from Krakow. The other budget airlines make this hard, or force you into buying two singes instead of making it one seamless booking. Kudos again!
Wizz? What's that? Most Brits have not heard of this airline, as to be honest, they just do not advertise themselves in the UK. But if you are from Central or Eastern Europe, then your first sight of London was probably via the confines of Luton Airport. Poor you...
Technically, Wizz is not based in the UK, but Luton is the airline's busiest airport. You see, virtually all the destinations on their route map has a connection with London, almost always a daily one too. So by default (and by its huge size) London has a third budget airline serving it. As a result, its flights feel the wrong way round.
Let me explain.
On Easyjet and Ryanair, I normally depart London in the morning and arrive back here in the afternoon (or depart in the afternoon and arrive in the evening). As Wizz's planes are based on the continent, I will arrive at a ludicrously early time but leave at a more sane time. This makes it very handy for someone who works nights (me!), as this means I can go straight from work to the airport and on my arrival back to the UK, I can go straight to work, thereby getting an extra night in Europe.
Complicated? Mmm...well, flying purple (or pink, I really cannot make out the corporate colours) is simmilar to flying on Ryanair. Basic, on time and enforces those rules. Rather more harshly that Ryanair. You better make sure your bag is within weight (mine was 8kg) and it fits the dimensions.
More than any other airline, Wizz takes great glee in putting the punter's bag in the hold (and charging them a fortune for it, I am sure their man on the ground in Poznan Airport gets paid on commission). They also have the most annoying of the boarding pass rules. You have to print out two copies for them. They also have the worst leg room of all the airlines. I am six foot and normal BMI but I do struggle to fit into their seats.
But, they are really useful for Central and Eastern European destinations. Really useful. This is where they come into their own. I heard of Wizz from a Romanian friend and I have used them since. They are unparalleled for the former Eastern Bloc, even venturing into the Ukraine. Plus they are the airline that has provided me with my cheapest (and conversely my most expensive) tickets so far booked. Also, as they are all based in Central and Eastern Europe, their attendants are all tasty Slavic chicks! I might get in trouble for saying this, but if you like bright pink lipstick, a no-nonsense attitude and a foxy accent reminiscent of old James Bond Films from your women, this is the airline for you!
So there it is, El Director's exhaustive write up of Europe's Low Cost Airlines, well, at least the ones that really use London as a place to shuttle to and from. I do not want to see the word count from this blog post...
El Director (also known as the frisky one) is a somewhat dead beat film maker who writes very little about films (and has currently got writer's block) who has spent far too much time this year flying around Europe in order to destroy the Earth's atmosphere. In his spare time he also manages an online emporium of fine Potpourri. All right, that last statement is not serious....