A Guide to Europe's Budget Airlines

Even to seasoned travelers who regularly fly with low-cost carriers, the process of figuring out the best fare can be quite an ordeal. Choosing when to book, what add-ons you need, and most importantly, which airline has the best deal can be confusing at best. To help you navigate the often turbulent landscape of budget air travel, we've broken down seven of Europe's main low-cost carriers into easily digestible chunks of pricing, fees, baggage policy, and travel routes. 

Ryanair

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Between changing its carry-on bag policy and pledging to go plastic-free, Ryanair is no stranger to the news headlines. Rarely out of the press, this Irish low-cost airline has risen to become one of the most successful carriers in Europe.

Pricing

When it comes to low prices, few airlines can compete with Ryanair. Flash sales often offer one-way tickets starting as low as €3 (or $4). You do have to move fast for these attention-grabbing fares, but if you miss them, chances are Ryanair will still be undercutting its competitors. Expect sharp increases, however, as flights fill up. 

Fees

With low fares come hefty charges for extras. Expect a fee for pretty much everything, from choosing your preferred seats to carrying lap infants. There's even a nominal fee for randomly allocated seating. Airport check-in is particularly steep at €55 (or $68), so be sure to do that online. Flight time and name-change fees also cost a pretty penny, usually eclipsing the original fare. Credit card payments are charged at two percent.

Baggage Policy

Ryanair recently announced a policy that shook up its carry-on bag rules. Base fare flyers are allowed to bring one small personal bag into the cabin, while their larger carry-on bag must be checked at the gate. Those who have purchased a "Priority & 2 Cabin Bags" ticket or a Plus/Flexi ticket will still be able to bring two approved carry-on bags into the cabin, free of charge. (The Priority ticket costs five pounds if you select the fare at the time of booking, and six pounds if you upgrade up to 40 minutes before your flight.) They have also lowered the price of checked bags (to €25, or $30), though this can increase at "peak times" to certain locations. Non-standard pieces, like musical instruments, can incur stiff charges of up to €65 (or $80) each way.  

Travel Routes

Ryanair offers an impressive range of routes -- 185 covering 33 countries around Europe and North Africa, to be exact. Its two major hubs are London Stansted Airport and Dublin Airport, with many others scattered around the continent. However, keep in mind that Ryanair often chooses secondary airports to reduce costs, which can be a long distance from the final destination. 

EasyJet

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With its distinctive orange font, EasyJet was one of the first to blaze the trail for no-frills European air travel. The U.K.-based airline continues to be one of the major players -- the fifth-largest in Europe -- and offers an experience you'd be hard-pressed to distinguish from a regular, full-priced carrier. 

Pricing

While EasyJet offers competitive fares compared to regular airlines, you'll have a tough time finding rock-bottom prices. Early-bird fares from the U.K. to continental resorts average around €20 (or 30) each way, for example. Their site does feature a nifty low fare finder tool, though.

Fees

Picking your seat can cost up to €34 (or $42) for the first row with extra legroom, but those who choose random seating are not charged. Like Ryanair, an airport check-in fee is punitive (€55, or $68), though it costs less for name or flight changes, especially if it's done more than 60 days before the flight. EasyJet doesn't charge extra for credit card payments.  

Baggage Policy

EasyJet has maintained its long-standing policy of allowing passengers just one free cabin bag. EasyJet Plus cardholders and premium fare passengers can also bring a small carry-on bag to fit under the seat. Checked baggage fees vary depending on flight (domestic or international) and weight (there are three weight categories), though it can cost up to €40 (or $50) per bag.

Travel Routes

The airline connects to 124 destinations across 30 countries, covering the vast majority of Europe, plus Turkey, Morocco, and Israel. Unlike rival Ryanair, it tends to use more conveniently-positioned primary airports. Its main hubs include London (Gatwick, Stansted, Luton), Milan, Berlin, and Paris (Charles de Gaulle, Orly).

Vueling

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Vueling has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a two-plane fleet back in 2004. These days, it's not only Spain's largest low-cost airline, but it also poses a serious challenge to the country's flag carrier, Iberia.

Pricing

Vueling prices tend toward good value over super-cheap, with the best deals offered on their domestic flights. You can also get reasonable international fares around Europe starting around the €100 (or $125) mark. The occasional flash sale slashes prices in half, plus there's an on-site tool that tells you where you can fly on your budget. 

Fees

Fees for picking your own seat range from €4 ($5) to €19 ($23), depending on destination (and amount of legroom). Changing the flight date, time, or passenger name incurs a set fee of €50 (or $62). Credit card payments are charged at two percent.

Baggage Policy

Checked luggage fees start at a modest €10 (or $12), but can reach a giddy €90 (or $110) for extra cases. Each passenger can carry on one piece of hand luggage (55 x 40 x 20 cm.) as well as another smaller bag or case (no more than 35 x 20 x 20 cm.) for no extra charge. 

Travel Routes

Vueling has two main hubs -- Barcelona–El Prat Airport and Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport in Rome -- plus 13 others around the continent. In total, they service an impressive 163 destinations, covering Europe and beyond (Moscow, Beirut, Tel Aviv, among others).

Norwegian Air Shuttle

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Norwegian Air Shuttle, more commonly known as Norwegian, is the third-largest low-cost airline in Europe and the largest carrier in Scandinavia. It has been voted Europe's best low-cost airline by passengers in the Skytrax Awards, though it has also received a number of complaints from Norwegian customers.

Pricing

Prices are certainly competitive, with some short-haul routes starting as low as €27 (or $33) one-way. Note that bargains are in short supply over the summer. However, it's the incredible fares for long-haul flights (like this stunning $49 deal from the U.S. to the Caribbean) that have been making headlines as of late. Their website also features a low fare calendar to help hone in on the cheaper flights with flexible dates.

Fees

The LowFare option means seating is automatically allocated unless you pay between €9 and €19 (or $11-23) -- higher prices apply for the first five rows and extra legroom. Name or flight time changes incur a fee of €55 (or $68). There is a two percent charge for certain credit cards (and a three percent fee for corporate cards). 

Baggage Policy

Each passenger can bring one carry-on bag and personal item for no extra charge, though there is a weight limit of 10 kilograms (22 pounds). Norwegian has a particularly complicated system for checked baggage fees, ranging from as little as €9 (or $11) in the low season to €80 (or $99) during the high season for long-haul flights.

Travel Routes

Norwegian's main bases are Oslo and London Gatwick, but the airline flies to more than 150 destinations throughout Europe and beyond -- including Singapore. There's even a new direct flight between London and Buenos Aires. It's the first low-cost flight from the U.K. to South America and is already triggering a price war with other trans-Atlantic carriers. What's more, Norwegian is the only European low-cost carrier with free Wi-Fi on most routes, plus Video On Demand service (for a fee).

Wizz Air

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Though it's not the country's flag carrier, Wizz Air has the largest fleet of any Hungarian airline. It is also the fourth-biggest low-cost carrier in Europe, servicing around 20 million passengers per year. 

Pricing

There are certainly bargains to be had on international flights, mostly in and out of Hungary. One-way fares bottom out at around €25 (or $31) for flights to Barcelona and Budapest. Last year saw a 24-hour flash sale offering 20 percent off, shaving a good slice off already cheap fares.

Fees

Assigned seats can cost as little as €1, going up to €31(or $38) for extra legroom and front-row placement. Fees for changing the flight date and time are fairly reasonable -- €30 to €40 (or $37 to $49) -- as is the charge for checking in at the airport (€10, or $12). Plus, there are no obligatory extras.

Baggage Policy

Wizz Air allows all passengers to travel with one carry-on suitcase. During the low season, checked luggage fees start at €16 (or $20) per piece, if you plan on paying online; fees jump if you pay at the airport, especially for heavier items.

Travel Routes

Wizz Air has bases at London Luton, Budapest, and other airports throughout the continent (mostly in Central and Eastern Europe). It connects to 134 destinations across 40 countries, with more far-flung locales including Morocco, Israel, Russia, and Kazakhstan. 

Eurowings

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A fully owned subsidiary of Lufthansa, Eurowings is a German low-cost airline. It has offered domestic and international connections across Europe and beyond since 2014. However, the airline has been plagued by delay issues, especially on its long-haul services. 

Pricing

Basic, Smart, and Best pricing tiers are available, but even with the stripped-down option, real bargains are in short supply.  For example, one-way tickets from Berlin to Barcelona start at €50 (or $56), and these cheaper fares don't last long. For the more adventurous, the Blind Booking tool offers cheap return fares (from €66, or $82) to a "themed" destination only revealed after booking. 

Fees

Fees for preferred seating on short-haul flights start at €5 (or $6), €10 (or $12) for aisle or window spots, and up to €17 (or $20) for more legroom -- though this also includes a snack and drink. 

Baggage Policy

All passengers can travel with one carry-on bag plus a small personal item for no extra charge. Checked baggage fees start at €8 (or $10), depending on the route. For a second bag, it costs an eye-watering €75 (or $84).

Travel Routes

Most of Eurowings bases are found in Germany, with a couple in Austria and one in Mallorca. Services connect directly to over 160 destinations throughout Europe, plus some low-cost long-haul routes to the U.S., Caribbean, and Thailand. 

Wow Air

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While not one of the largest in terms of passenger numbers, the Icelandic low-cost carrier WOW Air has been making headlines with some rock-bottom trans-Atlantic offers. 

Pricing

Few of WOW Air's short-haul flights are going to get the pulse racing, with one-way fares from the U.K. to Iceland starting around the €40 (or $50) mark. Move quick enough on their routes between Europe and the U.S., however, and you can bag a real bargain. Lead-in rates for one-way tickets have started as low as €55 (or $69), though the return flight costs a lot more, plus fares are limited. Long-haul flights also always involves a layover in Reykjavik.

Fees

For trans-Atlantic flights, choosing a seat starts at €6 (or $8) for standard, up to €42 (or $52) for more legroom, and a whopping €240 (or $297) extra for a "Big Seat" at the front of the plane. These drop between €4 (or $5) and €80 (or $99) for short-haul flights. However, remember trans-Atlantic flights involve two flights, which means two charges. Flight and name change fees are high (€75 or $93), plus all flights incur a €9 (or $11) booking charge. In-flight meals can be booked in advance. 

Baggage Policy

WOW Air's baggage policy is certainly one of the tighter (and pricier) ones, with only one small personal item allowed as a carry-on free of charge. A small carry-on suitcase will cost at least €20 (or $25), and €32 (or $39) for checked-in luggage. If a bag weighs more than 20 kilograms (44 pounds), they'll also hit you hard for each kilo you go over.

Travel Routes

WOW Air operates services to more than 30 destinations in Europe, the U.S., Canada, and the Middle East from its one base at Keflavík International Airport. Its range of U.S. cities is particularly impressive for a low-cost carrier (it covers 12 in all from Boston to Washington D.C.). The airline also makes the most of its stopover in Iceland, giving you the chance to break up the journey with a mini-vacation.

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