With one-way tickets that average $55 and flight times of only an hour or two, Europe's low-cost airlines make exploring more than one part of the Continent faster, easier, and cheaper than ever before. So pack your bags--keeping it light--and get ready to join the new, budget jet set.
Scrappy no-frills carriers such as Southwest and JetBlue are no longer limited to our side of the Pond. The past five years have seen the creation of dozens of insanely cheap airlines connecting hundreds of European destinations--primarily big cities, tourism hot spots, and Mediterranean beaches--with fares of roughly $40 to $70 each way, taxes and fees included.
Gone are the days when getting across Europe took 20 hours on a train or cost $900 in flights. Seats on no-frills carriers, like the train tickets they're replacing, are priced one way and can be used to hopscotch easily around the Continent. As a rule, the later you book a flight, the more it costs, but advance-purchase prices can be so low that the taxes often cost more than the fare. Ryanair, one of the most aggressive European upstart airlines, frequently puts seats on sale for 1p (that's less than 2¢), although typical taxes bring the final bill to a still affordable $25.
In exchange, passengers pay for food and drinks and make do without in-flight entertainment--not much of a burden on trips that last, at most, a few hours. Tight luggage rules are another trade-off: Travelers are allowed one checked bag between 33 and 44 pounds and one carry-on of 11 to 15 pounds. If the weight limits are exceeded, fees are punishing (around $3.40 per pound).
This is a young, constantly changing industry. New outfits start up--and die out--every month. Unfortunately, there is no European equivalent of Travelocity or Orbitz to reliably canvass the industry. Two search engines offer schedules, but not the ability to book, on a limited number of carriers: cheapflights.co.uk (departures from the United Kingdom and Ireland only; results mix no-frills, consolidators, and major carriers) and applefares.com (just 14 airlines, when around 50 are in business). OpenJet.com, a fledgling booking site, currently sells tickets on only seven carriers and tacks on egregious service fees of about $21.
Frustrated by the lack of resources, I eventually created a site, nofrillsair.com, to organize all of the carriers by country, list the destinations they serve, and link to each airline's website.
The center of Europe's no-frills universe is indisputably London, but new hubs have popped up in the English Midlands, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, and eastern Europe. The cut-rate airlines also tend to fly out of secondary airports: in London, from Luton or Stansted and not Heathrow; or from Frankfurt-Hahn instead of Frankfurt International. That means it may take an extra 15 to 30 minutes to transfer from a city to the right airport--but what's a half hour when you're saving hundreds of dollars?
To give you an idea of the sheer breadth of available flights, we've mapped the routes for three no-frills airlines from three transatlantic hubs. We'd have loved to show more, but there's simply too much, and it's changing way too fast.
What About Eurail?
Riding the rails does have a place in the age of no-frills--low-cost airlines don't fly everywhere, after all. Although the 17-country, unlimited-ride Eurailpass has priced itself into irrelevance ($946 for one month), rail passes can still be a great bargain--if you think small. For exploring the nooks and crannies of a region, it's cheaper and easier to hop a train.
The rail-pass industry has responded to this new reality by ratcheting up the number of regional and two-country passes. France-Italy and France-Spain are available in both second class ($259) and first class ($299). France-Switzerland ($299), Switzerland-Austria ($300), and Spain-Portugal ($249) come in first class only. All are good for four days of travel (three days for Spain-Portugal) within a two-month period; additional rail days run $27 to $36. The SelectPass lets you choose three, four, or five neighboring countries for five to 10 travel days--up to 15 if you pick five nations--within two months ($356 to $794).
Most passes offer discounted versions for folks under 26 or over 60, and "Saver" passes score any two adults traveling together 15 percent off each. 877/257-2887, raileurope.com.