Let’s face it. Europe is great place to travel to, and a place where most Americans feel the most comfortable outside our own country. The fact is, right now, and for the foreseeable future, traveling within Europe is cheap. By flying no-frills carriers like Ryanair and Easyjet, traveling throughout Europe has never been easier or as inexpensive.
If you are young, don’t have unlimited funds, or you can put up with the less glamorous side of no-frills travel(waiting in lines, no assigned seats, possibly being up to an hour late), but still want to see Europe, than this article is for you. If you’re like me, like most Americans, you want to see a lot of Europe but you don’t necessarily have the two months it would take. Let’s say you have two weeks. With the proper planning, you can see up to five countries in two weeks and not feel slighted at all.
Ok, first thing is first. Getting to Europe. I won’t speak too much on booking flights from the United States to Europe(I’ll save that for another article). My recommendation is to, if possible, depart from New York City. Now if you want to see only one European city, like say Paris, or Rome, or London, then get a direct flight. But almost always the cheapest destination to fly to in Europe is London. Its also the perfect city to begin a jaunt across Europe.
So here we are, in London. There are four airports in the London area. But do not make the mistake and assume that they are close. The four largest airports associated with it are Stansted, Heathrow, Luton, and Gatwick.
Now the probability is that you will fly into Heathrow, the largest airport. Getting to and from these airports can be done by bus or taxi. The Bus between Stansted and Heathrow will charge 50GBP one way, and the trick is getting a round trip from Heathrow to your airport, because a round trip only costs an extra 5GBP. From Heathrow to Gatwick it takes about 70 minutes, but costs only 12GBP each way. Travel between the airports in London will range from $25-100 US dollars, so remember to figure bus fare into your overall travel expenses.
Onto the no-frills airlines. Ryanair flies just about everywhere in Europe. Ryanair has flights in every Western European country excluding Switzerland. Countries they travel to also include Sweden, Norway, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia. Its main airport of departures is London Stansted. A great number of flights also originate from Frankfurt Hahn, Barcelona Girona, Rome Ciampino, and Dublin.
Easyjet flies to all of Western Europe(including Switzerland), Finland, Sweden, Norway, Slovenia, Greece, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. Easyjet makes use of London’s Stansted, Gatwick and Luton, as well as Berlin Schoenefeld as major departure airports. As with both Ryanair and Easyjet, check their respective websites for listings of all their destinations.
Both websites post their fares for six months in advance, so it is possible to book early. Most of the time however, this is not necessary. Most travel plans should be made about a month to two months before the actual trip will take place.
Ryanair and Easyjet both use similar, if not the same jets as most domestic US flights, so have no fear about boarding one of their planes.
The fares are extremely inexpensive, for example they offer specials where some flights are FREE, and all you pay is the tax. There are a few reasons for this. The first is the most important. They fly out of the smaller, out of the way airports opposed to major airlines, which fly out of the major airports. For example, instead of flying out of Heathrow(which you most certainly flew in to), you would fly out of Luton, Stansted, or Gatwick. Another example can be seen in Rome, where one would fly out of Ciampino, the military airport, instead of the main larger airport, Leonardo da Vinci. Same thing in Paris. An important point to remember is that these smaller airports are usually farther away from the main city, and require public transport(buses or taxis) to reach.
The good news is that both Easyjet and Ryanair provide shuttle service from the airport to the city center and vice versa. The carriers pay less to fly out of these lesser used airports, and thus fares are significantly lower, too.
Another reason is that, like Southwest Airlines in the States, there are no assigned seating, as well as no paper tickets. If you’ve never flown Southwest, then compare boarding the flight to boarding a bus. No assigned seats, but if you arrive early, you can be first in the queue, or line. The higher you are in the queue, the priority you have in choosing your seat. So best not to take children under the ages of eight on these flights. But remember this is Europe, not the States, so people will be more accommodating if you want to sit with your party, traveling with children and so on.
A note about paper tickets; some people need to hold a physical copy of the actual ticket in their hand, and that is fine, just don’t expect it on these flights. Print a copy of your receipt(which should have the time of departure and arrival, as well as your name and conformation number) if needed. When you check in they will ask for your passport, and that’s it.
Another way they are able to charge such low fares is because they charge for luggage by the pound. On Easyjet and Ryanair both airlines allow you one piece of carry on luggage, and another piece of check-in luggage(up to 15Kg(33lbs) on Ryanair and 20Kg on Easyjet). Every Kg after that Easyjet charges 6 Euro and Ryanair 7 Euro each, so pack as light as possible. Check their respective websites for more specific luggage weight issues.
Also, no-frills means no frills. No drinks, no peanuts, no blankets, nothing. A seat is all you paid for, and that’s all you get(but you paid $20 for it!). The flight attendants will come around offering to sell soda, sandwiches, all laid out on a nice laminated menu. The portions are SMALL, and costly. If you can eat or get food at the airport before you board, do it. The expensive food and beverage costs are another reason that the flight is so inexpensive.
So now you know why the tickets are so cheap. Besides saving money, something else of note is that not every ticket is round trip. One-way allows you to bounce around cities across Europe. That sounds great, right? And it is. It’s just not as easy as it appears to be. Ryanair and Easyjet do not have flights between every city that they fly to. Meaning, it is possible one would have to fly back to London in order to travel to another city, because there is no direct route. But using a combination of Ryanair and Easyjet flights will work for most travelers. They are also adding more routes daily, so check there first.
But we don’t want to spend most of trip in the air, flying back to the same airport we’ve already been to just to get to another city. There are other options. Other carriers, such as Virgin Atlantic and national airlines(for example: Iberia in Spain, Alitalia in Italy, Lufthansa in Germany, British Airways in England, AerLingus in Ireland) may be viable options. Also, do not forget about the rail. It is true, the Eurorail pass is outdated and extremely expensive. But travel by rail between close cities is relatively easy. Tickets can be purchased the day of travel, and will be inexpensive. Just remember to allow enough time for a longer rail trip as opposed to a flight.
My two favorite options, if Ryanair and Easyjet can’t get you where you want to go, are Virgin Express and Europebyair.com.
Virgin Express travels throughout southern Europe, with their main point of origin being Brussels. It is possible to travel all throughout Spain, as well as Athens, Amsterdam, Rome, Milan and Berlin. Flights are not as inexpensive as Easyjet or Ryanair, but are usually cheaper than the national carriers.
Another possibility is to use a website called Europebyair.com. This website is for use by non-Europeans only. It charges $99 US dollars one-way between almost all the major cities in Europe. Europebyair.com uses reliable European airlines such as: Air One, Air Luxor, Virgin Express, so there’s no need to worry about the quality of flight. On the site you will be able to search for specific dates, flown by a major carrier. If you chose the flight, the website will ensure that there are available seats on the flight and Europebyair.com will issue vouchers. The vouchers will be left blank, because Europebyair.com gives you the option of changing your dates. The vouchers are good for 120 days after they are issued, so if for some reason you are delayed or want to spend another day somewhere, call their 800 number, and change your reservations. All for free!
The vouchers will be filled out by the airlines agent when you arrive at the airport. It worried me a little the first time I used them; I was in Croatia, but everything went fine. Important point to remember; the airport taxes are NOT included in the $99 price. Neither is the shipping, which is between $15-25 US per ticket. You pay the taxes when you get to the ticket agent, the website is clear about this. Airport taxes will more than likely run between $10-40 per person, so figure at the low end $125 a ticket, high end $165, not a bad option if you want to see cities not traveled to by the no-frills airlines.
All the above mentioned airlines and such have provided us with a beginning look at low cost travel in Europe but by no means a comprehensive view. But they do show us it is possible to do Europe(at least flight wise) for cheap. I know, I planned a trip in which my girlfriend and I in two weeks saw Amsterdam, Rome, Ljubljana, and Zagreb, used London as our hub, and spent less than $500 in airfare for the BOTH of us.
It can be done. Use the tools provided and any ones you find(let me know) and forget paying the travel agent. Here are my final words of advice.
Know the exchange rate of the country you are traveling. Most countries in Europe use the Euro, but not all. Bring some money in Traveler’s Cheques, but if you have an ATM card, use it. You get the best exchange rate of the day. Avoid taking out small amounts, its not worth the fees. Currency Exchanges are rip-offs every place I’ve been. Check exchange rates before you leave and during your stay at www.xe.com.
Be flexible! Not every plane, bus, train is going to be on time exactly. Give yourself enough time to do everything you want before heading toward the airport. Arrive at the airport as early as possible. Remember that getting lost isn’t the end of the world. On that trip I mentioned earlier, we were lost in Zagreb, it was raining, and it took us three hours to find our hotel. But it happens. Most places someone will speak your language, and you’ll get where you need to go. Remember, most of all, planning your trip is half the fun of actually going on the trip, so enjoy both.