By: Elissa Richard
It's no surprise that spring and summer are peak travel season in Europe, but what you may not know is that visiting multiple European cities on a single itinerary no longer requires train trips and Eurail Passes. Indeed, the low-fare airlines boom in Europe has revolutionized travel overseas, bringing an end to the long-standing dictum that if you weren't knighted or descended from royalty, you could forget about affording air travel. Now, budget-savvy travelers can take to the skies, too – rather than schlep luggage on fatigue-inducing ten-hour train rides (however quaint in theory they might seem) – and complete the same journey in a quick hour-long plane ride, often at less cost than the train, to boot!
The major players in the low-fare European airlines sector, such as Ryanair, easyJet, and Air Berlin, have brought on a bold challenge to the traditional European carriers, such as Air France and British Airways, quite similar to what discount carriers like Southwest and Jet Blue have done in the U.S. Offering no-frills service at dramatically reduced prices, the new airlines have forced legacy airlines to slash their own fares considerably, creating a competitive and very consumer-friendly market overseas.
The success of premier European budget airlines has seen dozens of new smaller budget airlines emerge in recent years, resulting in a continuously expanding network of routes and a plethora of tempting air deals to go with them. We've grouped some 50-plus discount European carriers in countries from East to West to help you make the most of your next European adventure and get around cheaper, faster, and with less hassle than ever before.
Central Europe Airlines
This section covers airlines in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands – the best known airline in the region is Germany's Air Berlin.
Primary Hub: Berlin, Dusseldorf, and more cities in GERMANY
Air Berlin flies to major European cities, as well as to popular vacation destinations on the Mediterranean coast, in the Canary Islands, and in North Africa.
Primary Hub: Geneva, SWITZERLAND
Flights between Geneva and Florence, Ibiza, Nice, Prague, Venice, and more.
Primary Hub: Frankfurt and Munich, GERMANY
Flights from Germany to major European cities, as well as other international destinations, including U.S.
Primary Hub: Cologne/Bonn, Berlin, and more cities in GERMANY
Germanwings flies from Cologne/Bonn, Berlin, and Stuttgart to numerous European metropolises.
Primary Hub: Cologne/Bonn, Hanover, and more cities in GERMANY
Discount air travel within Germany, and from Germany to more than 30 destinations in 9 European countries.
Primary Hub: Zurich, SWITZERLAND
Flights between Zurich and nearly 20 European cities.
Primary Hub: Vienna, Salzburg, and more cities in AUSTRIA
Fly from Vienna and other Austrian cities to Greece, England, Italy, and more.
Primary Hub: Amsterdam, NETHERLANDS
Formally known as Basiq Air, Transavia operates from Holland and flies to some 70 cities in Europe.
Eastern Europe Airlines
There are a trioof airlines currently operating out of Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Hungary. The best established are SkyEurope and Wizz Air, both of which operate out of several hubs throughout Eastern Europe.
Primary Hub: Prague, CZECH REPUBLIC
SmartWings flies between Prague, and Denmark, France, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and more.
Primary Hub: Budapest, HUNGARY and Katowice, POLAND
Eastern European airlines operating between Hungary and Poland and major cities in Czech Republic, England, France, Greece, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden.
Airlines operating in Scandinavia have hubs in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. While a couple of these carriers offer short jaunts within the region, Norwegian Air Shuttle and Cimber Sterling provide a wider breadth of travel destinations throughout the whole of Europe.
Primary Hub: Helsinki, FINLAND
Fly within Finland, or from Helsinki to Nice, Barcelona, Málaga, Las Palmas, and more.
Primary Hub: Helsinki, FINLAND
Discount Helsinki-based airlines, offering flights within Scandinavia, and to Germany and the Netherlands.
Primary Hub: Copenhagen, DENMARK
Find cheap flights between Nordic countries and major European cities.
Norwegian Air Shuttle
Primary Hub: Oslo, NORWAY
Norwegian-based airlines operating within Norway and around Europe.
Southern Europe Airlines
Southern European airlines operate out of hubs in Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Carriers with the greatest scope of routes include Italy-based My Air and Spain-based Veuling Airlines.
Primary Hub: Barcelona, SPAIN
Budget airlines operating within Spain, as well as to European cities and the US.
Primary Hub: Catania and Palermo, SICILY
Discount airlines specializing in travel within Italy and Sicily.
UK & Ireland Airlines
The UK and Ireland offer the greatest concentration of low-cost carriers than any other European region – we've found 13 budget airlines with hubs in England, Scotland, or Ireland. England-based easyJet and BMI Baby, as well as Ireland's Ryanair are three of the most well-reputed budget carriers in not just the region, but in all of Europe.
Primary Hub: Dublin, IRELAND
This Ireland-based airline flies throughout Ireland and the UK, as well as to several destinations in France.
Primary Hub: Plymouth, ENGLAND
Discount flights within England and Ireland.
Primary Hub: Nottingham, ENGLAND and other cities in the UK
This spin-off of British Midland Airways, bills itself as the “airline with tiny fares,” featuring low fare flights to more than 20 European cities from 5 UK airports, including Nottingham, Cardiff, and Manchester.
Primary Hub: Dublin, IRELAND
Fly between Dublin and select cities in France and Spain.
Primary Hub: London-Luton, ENGLAND with secondary hubs in continental Europe
One of the major staples in Stelios Haji-Ioanno’s “easy” empire, the popular discount airlines operates a young fleet of planes, which fly 250+ routes across 70+ key European airports.
Primary Hub: Exeter and Southampton ENGLAND
Largely focused on travel within the UK, Flybe's network spans 40 airports in 7 countries.
Primary Hub: Leeds/Bradford, ENGLAND
Low-cost flights between England and continental Europe.
Primary Hub: Dublin, IRELAND with secondary hubs in continental Europe
The original low fares airline in Europe, Ryanair is the largest discount carrier operating on the continent, offering more than 300 routes across 120+ European countries.
Primary Hub: Coventry, ENGLAND
ThomsonFly flies from 20+ UK airports to over 80 destinations worldwide.
Booking & Ticketing
Most discount airlines sell tickets via their websites or by telephone.
If you’re interested in cross-referencing multiple discount airlines simultaneously, there are several sites which can help you find the best rate quotes and schedules. Here are a few of the best and most popular:
• The lowest-priced fares are often limited in supply or available only on certain dates. Book early for the widest selection of fare deals, which are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, and which usually increase in price as the travel date nears.
• The jaw-droppingly low fares quoted in attention-grabbing ads will have hidden costs, like taxes and fees. Prepare to see the original low fare doubled or even tripled in price by the time taxes and fees are applied.
• Many of these airlines offer low fares on one-way ticket purchase, allowing for flexibility in your travel plans. However, don't expect to receive any special discount for purchasing round-trip tickets, contrary to what legacy carriers offer.
• Most airlines will not refund tickets if travel plans need to be cancelled, except in certain extreme cases, such as a death of a family member. However, some carriers offer insurance at an additional cost, which allows for cancellations under specific conditions. Be prepared – once you buy it, you own it. Nearly all of the companies, though, will allow you to change the dates of your reservation for a fee.
• Be wary of booking too far in advance with discount airlines, except with the more established ones, such as easyJet, Ryanair, or BMI Baby. There's a lot of turnover in the volatile air industry, and if the company you've booked with happens to go belly up, you might not only be stranded, but you might also have a headache on your hands trying to get your fare refunded.
At the Airport
• Several no-frill airlines provide service to smaller airports in remote locations. Factor in additional travel time and ground transportation costs for these secondary airports.
• Most low-fare airlines offer non-stop, direct flights from their hubs to another city. Layovers are not usually incorporated into travel, and, as such, extended service may require you to collect and recheck your luggage for the second part of the flight.
• Luggage restrictions may be more restrictive than on larger legacy carriers. Be sure to check individual airline policies in advance, as you'll be charged for additional or overweight luggage.
• No-frills means just that. Expect to pay extra for food and beverages onboard.
• Several discount airlines don't issue seat assignments, so anticipate a bit of a free-for-all with fellow passengers when boarding the plane.
• Seating is infamously tight on many of these foreign planes, so be prepared to forego the legroom that you may be accustomed to on US airlines.