There's an aviation revolution going on in Europe, but unless you've been paying close attention, you might not know much about it. A growing crop of low-cost, no-frills, anti-establishment airlines are duking it out with the majors for supremacy in the skies. Their promise: cheap, hassle-free flights. Their inspiration: U.S.-based Southwest Airlines. And just as Southwest's formula has shaken up air travel in the States, these new carriers may eventually change the very nature of how we travel abroad.
"In 1991, Michael O'Leary was brought in as CEO to save our company," says Ryanair spokesperson Enda O'Toole. Serving 56 destinations in 13 countries, Dublin-based Ryanair is the oldest and largest of Europe's low-fare family. "He went over to America, met the messiah, Herb [Kelleher, Southwest's co-founder and chairman of the board], and adopted his principles."
These include using smaller, secondary airports; flying a fleet of efficient 737's; bypassing travel agents in favor of direct bookings; providing bare-bones in-flight service; and delivering consistently cheap prices. The plan worked: Ryanair traffic has grown by 25 percent every year since 1991. While Europe's big carriers are battling tough times—British Airways, for one, announced recently that it would drop 10 routes and cut more than 5,000 jobs—Ryanair saw a 50 percent rise in passengers for the month of January compared to the same period last year.
Ryanair isn't the only success story. Go, which flies to 25 cities from its London Stansted hub, posted traffic increases in December of 57 percent and has added flights from East Midlands Airport, near Nottingham. This summer, KLM-owned, London-based Buzz will launch four new routes in France, becoming the first budget airline to offer domestic service within a mainland European country. U.K. carrier EasyJet plans to add daily service between Paris and Switzerland.
The youngest, Bmibaby ("the airline with tiny fares"), an offshoot of British Midland, launched in late March, flying to nine destinations from East Midlands Airport. Fares to Prague, Barcelona, and Nice begin at an astonishly low $36. Virgin's low-cost upstart, Brussels-based Virgin Express, has flights to Copenhagen, Rome, and Madrid starting at $65 to $75.
Industry insiders applaud the budget carriers for creating an entirely new market of weekend leisure travelers while also making inroads into the lucrative business-travel sector. According to a recent survey by Barclay Card, the U.K. credit card company, 53 percent of British road warriors used a low-cost carrier in 2001.
What's the bottom line for Americans?Sometimes using a budget airline simply doesn't make sense: if you're traveling to a smaller European city that doesn't have direct flights from the United States, for example, transferring from a transatlantic flight on a major airline to a flight on a low-cost one often will not save you enough to compensate for the hassle of switching from one airport to another. Then there's the lack of perks: no frequent-flier miles, no airport lounges, no onboard amenities. And since these carriers have relatively small fleets, if a plane is grounded because of, say, mechanical problems, a replacement could be hard to come by, resulting in a cancellation or long delay.
But if you want to fly between multiple cities, take a side trip, or drive from one city to another on your next European vacation, using budget airlines can save you a bundle (see the maps on these pages). You'll need to buy your tickets directly from the airlines via their Web sites, since travel agents usually can't purchase them for you. Because all the carriers use e-tickets, there's no wait or shipping charges. Just be sure to check at an on-line travel site or with your agent for fares on major carriers, which may have equal or better prices. A recent search for a July trip from London to Bordeaux revealed a seat on British Airways for $5 less than a comparable ticket on Buzz. With the former, not only do you get to use a more convenient airport, but you'd probably even be served a meal on the plane.
With fewer Americans traveling to Europe, more Europeans staying close to home, and cruise ships being redeployed, traditional summer travel patterns have shifted. Here's where you can expect to find the most peace and quiet—and the best deals.
Where to Tour: Bookings by Americans are down 5 to 10 percent in the most popular cities—London, Paris, Rome, Florence—and destinations such as Greece, Scandinavia, Germany, and Switzerland are expected to be off by as much as 50 percent. While Europeans should compensate for the lack of Americans in some places—particularly the Mediterranean—this will be a good summer to visit northern and central Europe and, especially, the U.K. Traditionally packed locations, such as England's Lake District, are expected to be uncommonly quiet.
Where to Sail: Overall, fewer ships will be sailing this season. You'll find bargains in areas that have a higher concentration of ships than usual: the western Mediterranean and northern Europe. Of course, that also means more tourists at busy ports like Venice, Nice, and Lisbon. Most lines will be skipping the eastern Med entirely (Crystal and Windstar are notable exceptions), so this will be a great season to cruise Greece and Turkey.
—Stephen Whitlock, Kimberly Robinson
Low-Fare Carriers: When You Save | The Multi-City Trip
Want to visit a number of different European destinations?One-way flights on low-cost carriers offer an efficient alternative to trains, and massive savings compared to flying on the majors. Most flights begin or end in London or Brussels, but a handful of point-to-point flights between other cities make it possible to hop around the Continent without doubling back.
London (Stansted) --> Glasgow on Go = $96
Glasgow (Prestwick) --> Paris (Beauvais) on Ryanair = $45
Paris (De Gaulle) --> London (Stansted) on Buzz = $43
Best fare using major airlines: (British Midland and Air France)*: $795.78
*Prices for airlines, here and on the following maps, are from Europebyair.com.
Low-Fare Carriers: When You Save | The Side Trip
Low-cost carriers let you easily tack on a trip to a small city you might otherwise not have considered visiting. If you happen to be in London, for example, you could hop on a plane and spend a few days in France, Spain, Italy—or practically anywhere else on the Continent.
London (Stansted) to Graz, Austria, direct, on Ryanair = $137
Best fare using a major airline (Austrian): $378.43
Low-Fare Carriers: When You Save | Multi-City Trips With Driving
If you'd like to drive through the European countryside—flying into one airport and out of another—low-fare carriers let you do it without having to buy an expensive open-jaw ticket. When figuring costs, remember that crossing a border means higher drop-off charges for rental cars.
London (Stansted) --> Barcelona, direct, on Easyjet = $44.21
Drive to Málaga using rental car from Sixt* = $117.81
Málaga --> London (Gatwick), direct, on Easyjet = $41.44
Best price, including car rental, using a major airline (on Iberia, with an outbound stop in Barcelona): $307.72
*One-week rental, without optional insurance; price from Europebyair.com.