The European Low Cost Airline Survival Guide

A Jeff stahler cartoon

For the past four years I’ve been experiencing all sorts of low cost airlines around Europe. I have flown on Ryanair almost every couple of months and in between these flights I have flown on Wizz Air, EasyJet, FlyBe, you name it. There have been lots of stories in the news recently about people falling foul of low cost airline’s extortionate fees and charges (mostly Ryanair). I really feel for those people and I think, like everyone else, that these charges are just an unfair tax on people’s mistakes. But I also believe that you can, as I have done the past three or four years, have an amazing time on low cost airlines if you just remember a few simple things. Some are obvious, like don’t try to get an overweight bag on the plane. Others are ones I have picked up through my own experiences.

Buying a ticket from these sorts of airlines is like walking down a dark alley in the dead of night in the bad part of town: it’s your own stupid fault for doing it, and you are likely to get jumped. But if you keep your head down, walk fast, keep your wits about you and do as you are told when they eventually mug you, you can make it unscathed.

  1. Always print your boarding pass

There is just no ifs, buts, maybes or bargains to be done with these sorts of airlines. Get your boarding pass printed. Ryanair check-in staff in particular are ruthless fee-charging maniacs and have no sympathy in this respect. You need your boarding pass to get on the plane and there are no two ways about that.

Wherever in Europe you may be, you are sure to find somewhere that can print things for you. If you aren’t at home or in a hostel with a printer then there are other places you can print things off: internet cafes, printer shops, local libraries, a hotel front desk, a friend’s house. If you offer a bit of money lots of places you would never have suspected can print things off for you.

2. Measure/weigh your carry on bag

I can’t count the amount of times I have seen people try to take on a hold-size bag as cabin luggage and get turned down. These are usually angry Brits on holiday who then spend the whole journey ranting about ‘bloody [insert airline name here], always trying to get you’.

Why do you try to cross them then? Play by their rules and you will be fine. Measure the case to ensure that it will fit in their little baskets. Weigh it before you go. You can use bathroom scales or buy a great little device similar to the one I bought a few years ago. I don’t know how I ever lived without it. It makes checking your bag’s weight so easy and it also has a handy retractable measuring tape that pops out of the side so that you can take your bag’s measurements.

I bought this one for a few euros from a homeware shop in France called Casa.

Now I’m not saying I have been a saint and turned up every time with an underweight, perfectly measured cabin bag. I have a rucksack that I used when travelling back and forth from university that I knew wouldn’t fit in the basket, but I was never asked to put it in. Why? They have a suspicion that everyone trying to take a suitcase on board has one that is too big and too heavy. They spend their time testing those people instead. Conversely they seem to think most bags that are on your back or easily slung over your shoulder couldn’t be heavy or big enough to trouble them. So if you think you might be a bit over then try it with a rucksack or a shoulder bag. *

*Disclaimer: sometimes at some airports they just simply check everyone’s bag no matter what it is. At Leeds airport I was asked to put my tiny (and I mean tiny) handbag into the basket and onto the scales. In Beziers you are asked to weigh your bag no matter how small. So be careful.

3a. How to stay in weight for carry-on

If you suspect you may be over slightly then tuck as many books, magazines, bottles of water and heavy items as you can into the pockets of the coat/jacket you carry on. You may be carrying 5kgs in your arms but you’re in the weight limit on the scales. It’s a perfect opportunity to use your flight as a weight training exercise.

3.b. Learn your airports

This is only a good tip if you know you are going to be flying to and from the same airports every time. When I started flying to and from France I learnt what the Ryanair staff at each would have in mind. For instance, London Stansted Ryanair staff always check the size of your bag. In Beziers they only check weight, although that’s rare as most French airports don’t care (same for most Spanish ones). London Luton are known for checking weight and Leeds are extremely officious and enjoy weighing and checking the size. If you know their game you can play them at it. EasyJet in general are less bothered although they do pull you aside if you have a ridiculously large bag, and when I flew Wizz Air to Belgrade no-one was checked.

4.     Weigh your hold luggage

Weighing beforehand is almost doubly important for your hold luggage. Never pack and just think ‘I’m sure that’ll be fine’, because once you get to the bag drop desk your pleas will be met with stony silence. If you are just a couple of kilos over that can eat up most of your holiday pocket money.

4.a. One thing to keep in mind with Ryanair at least (not sure about other airlines); they can only start charging you at 16kg. So even if you are 15.7kg you are fine. I once had a suitcase that weighed 15.91kg but since it didn’t hit 16kg the woman on the desk said nothing. That gives you a bit of wiggle room.

4.b. Needless to say, one great tip is to wear all of your heaviest items, e.g. your jeans, trainers, jumpers, coats. I once got onto the plane wearing a vest, a t-shirt, a cardigan, a jumper, a big knitted poncho-type jacket and a regular raincoat because I knew having those things in my check-in bag would push it over the limit. Just before I got to the gate to board I put as many items of outerwear as I could bare and breezed through with a smile (despite the fact I was actually sweating copiously).

5.     Many airlines don’t let you have an extra carrier bag or another bag

Yes it’s just a tiny purse bag or that carrier bag you got given at duty free, but it often isn’t allowed on. This is especially true of Ryanair (although not EasyJet, I have since realised). It must go inside the one cabin bag you are taking on. The signs all around airports and the boarding pass telling you this are not just to fill up space, they are genuine warnings. The best thing to do is to make sure you have room to squeeze your handbag or purchases into your cabin bag before bringing/buying. Or if you have bought a magazine and a bottle of water, hold it in your hands as you go in.

Don’t get caught out and end up having an argument with the officious staff member at the gate, because you will loose.

NB Some airports override the airline rules and insist that you are allowed a bag of duty free on. One example is East Midlands, but I am sure there are others.

6.     Don’t pay for priority boarding.

Unless you are elderly or in some way disabled, then don’t bother paying for the privilege of getting on the plane 10 seconds before other people. The first four rows on most Ryanair flights are usually closed off anyway (something to do with balancing the plane, I think? Or maybe they just like being awkward). Now they have started allowing people to book particular seats on Ryanair the ones you would normally want to nab as a priority passenger are now pre-booked. It’s an unnecessary expense and sometimes if people in the other queue walk fast enough (and boy some of them do), you can find yourself overtaken by 10 non-priority passengers and end up losing the seat you fancied anyway.

If you have small children then, to give them their due, most airlines will have a few seats reserved or will ask someone to move for you.

EasyJet have now started assigned seating, so it looks likely others will follow in the near future.

7.     Buy water and food beforehand

Food and water is, surprise surprise, morbidly expensive on the plane. Try to buy before you get on. Even better, bring a packed lunch. When I flew home from a recent long weekend in London my friend made me a lovely cheese, tomato and watercress sandwich and I felt every smug. The person next to me had to pay £5 for a chicken caesar sandwich that clearly never even been shown a picture of a chicken. If you can’t or don’t want to buy beforehand then you might want to starve on Ryanair, but most other airlines have decent enough food for the price if you are desperate. It’s just still more expensive than on the ground.

8.     Don’t respond to the trumpeting announcement that you have landed ‘on yet another on time Ryanair flight’ (this is an exclusive feature to Ryanair).

You just encourage them. They think it’s funny and it isn’t. Hopefully if we stop laughing at it then the jolly Irishman will stop saying it.

9.     Bring ear plugs or ear phones.

If you fancy getting some shut eye then these are a necessity no matter what cheap airline you take. Airlines believe that since they have you trapped in a confined space, they have to throw as many adverts at you as possible.

On an average Ryanair flight you can expect to hear; an advert telling you to buy a J20; an advert promptly taking a U-turn in encouraging you to buy some energy drink; an announcement that you are not allowed to smoke on the plane but never fear because Ryanair smell smokeless cigarettes (I have yet to see anyone buy a pack of these. If you can’t go two hours without smoking a pack of cigarettes then you have a serious problem); then an announcement about Ryanair charity scratch cards; an advert for The Times and Hello magazine being sold on the flight; an announcement listing every perfume on the duty free trolley; and finally after you touch down, a quick reminder that Hertz are Ryanair’s car rental partner.

If you read all of those and don’t fancy hearing them first hand on the plane, then get those ear plugs in the minute you get on board. Other flights do this as well. I remember waking up with a shock thinking some emergency announcement was being made on an EasyJet flight from Munich to London. It turned out that it was to let me know what was on the duty free trolley. I was not happy, as I couldn’t go back to sleep and had to spend the rest of the journey staring at the bright orange seat in front of me wishing I was somewhere else.

There are so many other ways you can cope with a European low cost airline, and the only way you will find what works for you is by having the experience first hand. But I hope I have helped to prepare you in some way.

Now go forth, young Skywalker, and learn to enjoy low cost air travel again. And don’t blame me if anything unfortunate befalls you despite or because of this advice; after all you are taking it from a complete stranger on the internet.

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6 thoughts on “The European Low Cost Airline Survival Guide

  1. These are all great tips. Budget airlines in Europe are definitely a learning process! I first flew Ryanair to Sardinia in college. Luckily I had read up on the bag limits and the boarding pass expenses so I could avoid those, but I can see how many wouldn’t. I also think it is worth comparing with all of the fees on these airlines and just regular carriers. Sometimes when you add in the price of a checked bag, regular airlines are a better deal.

    1. That’s definitely true! My Lufthansa flight from Manchester to Munich was much less expensive than an EasyJet one on the same route, that was mostly because Lufthansa were having a sale but it was only until I calculated in baggage costs etc that I saw it was cheaper. Definitely something to keep in mind before booking!

  2. Another gripe of mine that the carry-on bag measurements/weights vary so much from airline to airline. A bag that complies with Easyjet rules is too big for Ryanair!

    1. That’s very true! One airline’s ‘small carry bag’ is another airlines ‘must go in hold’ bag. I might even add a table of weights, measurements and fees on here to help make sure no-one gets caught out. Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

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