You’re scrolling along, past the videos of the baby bunnies hopping for the first time, past the latest political thought piece, and BAM! Flights to Europe starting at $99, the advertisement reads. Relax in Dublin this fall! Your mind spins into a montage of your best self—laughing in loud pub corners, scanning grassy knolls, the clinking of glasses at gin-tastings, sighing in the midst of the most beautiful library on Earth.
Is this price real? Yes. (Kind of).*
Is it worth it? Yes. (Maybe). *
(Read on, dear reader).
Not only are more low-cost airlines been popping up recently, but more popular airlines are starting to offer basic economy price seats. Over the last eight years, I’ve flown quite a few of these cheap flights (Norwegian Air, Ryanair, Eurowings, Wow Air, etc.) and I’m here to give you some of my best advice before you go running to punch in your credit card info.
* What to ask yourself before booking that cheap flight:
How are you getting to and from the airports?
Especially when flying within Europe, flights with airlines such as Ryanair may appear to be your cheapest option, but often fly between less popular, smaller airports outside of the main cities. For instance, my local airport Frankfurt Hahn is a 1.5 hour drive away and a 16€ bus shuttle away from Frankfurt city center. In other cities, like London, the Ryanair hub London Stansted is an affordable entry point, but you need to take a train to the city center, which might mean booking a hotel the night before your flight out. Make sure to double check the airport locations and what kind of travel you need to account for to get downtown to see if it’s worth it.
What are you packing?
A major reason why these flights are cheaper is because they only give you bare-bones accommodations, including no checked bag. This works well if you are backpacking across the continent or usually travel light, but may not be worth it if you need to transport the contents of your walk-in closet.
Many of these low-cost airlines have tight regulations of what size your carryon can be. For the most part, your free, small bag must be able to fit under the seat in front of you.
When booking your flight, they will ask you multiple times about purchasing a checked bag. We recommend taking an honest look at your luggage and what you want to take with you so you can order a bag earlier in the process if you need it. Waiting until you get to the airport can occur more fees, and sometimes that extra cost can raise the overall price that might make taking a larger airline (like Delta) more worth it.
Are you okay with supplying your own food and drinks?
Another way airlines cut the price of the ticket is by nixing the complementary food and drink items. In my opinion, this is not that big of a deal. Pack snacks, pickup some fresh food at the airport, and bring a large water bottle to fill up before you board! Although some airport food can be pricey (the prices at the Reykjavik airport are astronomical), bringing your own food is ultimately tastier and more customizable. When booking this flight, make sure you account for the costs of supplying your own nutrients.
What are your comfort requirements?
Are you a wary flyer? Since the planes on some of the smaller airlines are smaller, they are more prone to turbulence. In my experience, a lot of low-cost international flights feel like domestic US flights, with tiny seats and no USB chargers, bells or whistles. If you are someone that needs the reclining chairs, the entertainment studio, and extra leg room—you might be better off going with a larger commercial airline.
Has the airline been doing well in the news?
A quick Google search will give you an overview of whether a certain budget airline is at risk. Some airlines like Wow Air have closed operations unexpectedly (leaving passengers stranded in Iceland), which wasn’t too much of a surprise since they had been cutting down on routes leading up to the closure. Keeping on top of the news can keep you safe from air travel pandemonium.
How much is your time worth?
This is the big money question I take into account when I’m looking at cheap flights.
Since I usually save money by packing light, packing snacks, and can literally get comfortable to sleep anywhere, the place where I lose when taking a cheaper airline is often the time. Low-cost flights often fly at uncommon hours on specific days of the week, so it can be difficult to get that picture-perfect Friday-Monday weekend getaway. Also, the time it takes to get to and from the airport can cut into your potential time at your destination, and spending a whole weekday traveling can knock out another of your precious vacation days.
If your schedule is flexible enough that you can organize your vacation around these flights, awesome! But sometimes that extra $100 for a flight to the central airport or for a better take-off time can be invaluable.
Here’s some examples of recent flights I’ve taken with budget airlines and how you can make it work:
All Flights Lead to Rome:
I recently traveled back to Rome to meet a friend who was traveling through with family. Although Rome is “close” on the map, it’s often difficult to fly down there because the flights average anywhere around 140€-250€ round-trip. I made it work by:
- Having a flexible schedule—Ryanair only offered flights Sunday and Thursday, so I stayed an extra day for the cheaper 40€ flight. This meant I needed to account for the cost of booking another night at an AirBnB, but got more time and pasta! (And still saved $$$)
- Packing light—Ryanair just tightened their luggage restrictions again. I fit five outfits, some chargers, my Kindle, a foldable drawstring bag for walking around the city, and toiletries into my IKEA backpack.
East Coast Tour:
Last year Lisa and I traveled to the US for a three week vacation during our semester break. We had plans to visit family in Delaware, D.C., NYC, and Boston. It was summer, which is prime time for the expensive international flights, butwe made it work by:
- Planning our vacation around the flight—when we started planning, we made a list of places we were hoping to visit and looked for flights between Germany an any of those cities. We ended up finding a great deal between Dusseldorf and NYC which meant some additional travel but was totally worth it.
- Taking advantage of domestic transportation—our trip wouldn’t have been possible without Megabus. We bussed from NYC to DC, DC to NYC, NYC to Boston, and back. Booking these busses ahead of time kept the costs down to a minimum—we only spent around $80 per person on the additional travel.
Breaking the Package Deal:
For our honeymoon, Lisa and I snagged a last minute cruise with AIDA for seven days through the Canary Islands. If you have ever gone on a cruise or booked a vacation through a resort, you know how they’ll help you select flights and transportation. Although we had saved enough for the whole package, we’re always looking for the cheaper options. We made it work by:
- Booking our own flights!—we did some research and found another flight with (you guessed it) Ryanair that got us to the islands a few days early. With the price we would’ve spent on the packaged flights AIDA had offered, we got three extra days and a hotel room with money to spare! (And spend on paella!) Having the extra days also gave us the peace of mind of accidentally missing our flight and the boat entirely.