Travellers to the UK and Europe may wonder which of the European low cost airlines gives best value for money. Three of the well-established British low cost companies are easyJet, Ryanair and Flybe.
Since 2001, I’ve used all three airlines extensively for flights within the UK and around Europe. My nearest airports (I live in France) are Avignon, Nimes and Marseille. These days I fly a bit less frequently and tend to fly mainly between France and the UK, usually opting to fly into London Gatwick, London Stansted, London Luton, or Southampton. I also fly to Edinburgh and Glasgow. When I occasionally fly to Holland it’s usually to Amsterdam’s vast and busy Schipol airport but sometimes to Eindhoven, which is quieter but inconveniently far from Amsterdam.
There’s been a lot of publicity in the UK recently about Americans and other nationalities booking trips to England in 2011 for the royal wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton. UK tourism, it seems, is going to get a boost from the royal pomp and ceremony. It’s a reasonable bet that many of the extra visitors to the UK will also want to see Scotland, Wales or Ireland while they’re over in England and gorgeous European destinations like Paris and Rome may beckon too. If you’re thinking of flying within the UK or Europe – for the royal wedding or any other reason – easyJet, Ryanair and Flybe are all reasonable options. On balance, at present, I’d say that easyJet offers the best overall value for money, taking into account price, flight times, flight frequencies, ease of booking online, luggage allowance, punctuality and service.
Of the three low cost airlines mentioned here, Ryanair seems to me to have become more expensive and more complicated to use over the last few years. When I first moved to France you could book Ryanair flights for as little as a couple of dollars. The astonishingly low flight prices edged up when the petrol price rose and the company also added booking charges and taxes. The website now lists all sorts of options and surcharges. In Europe we also increasingly hear stories about Ryanair passengers being surcharged for hand luggage that exceeds the size limit by a centimetre or two. On the other hand, Ryanair has a good punctuality rate with the vast majority of flights leaving and arriving on time. The turnaround time for planes at airports is supposed to be a few minutes, though personally I find it slightly worrying if an airline has rigid regulations that might overrule safety considerations.
On board, Ryanair feels pretty tatty. I’ve been on Ryanair flights where the planes were just not clean inside and felt a bit sleazy. Passenger reports in UK newspapers have complained about poor staff attitude and the company has often talked of charging passengers to use toilets on board. That’s a budget flight.
I looked for a return flight from Marseille to London in February 2011 on the Ryanair website and could only find flights at unearthly hours, around or before dawn, or coming up to midnight. At first sight, booking my return flight on the Ryanair site would have cost me 120 euros (around 160 dollars), but that increased to 180 euros with taxes and a charge for booking online.
Flybe is more expensive than Ryanair or easyJet in my experience. The service is pleasant though, if a bit impersonal, and the planes are usually scrupulously clean. The drawback for flights within Europe is that they’re often restricted to holiday seasons. I couldn’t book a return flight to the UK from Avignon in February and recently tried to book a flight for my mother to fly over from England in March – that wasn’t possible either.
Low cost airline easyJet went through a period some years ago when there were frequent delays to take off. Sometimes it seemed to me that almost any easyJet flight on a UK airport departure board had Delayed written beside it. Their website also became more complicated and rather frustrating to use. Instead of just being able to book a cheap return flight rapidly, passengers had to run a gauntlet of questions about seating options, speedy boarding, travel insurance, carrying skis, hiring cars, booking hotels and other options. Sometimes it was necessary to check what add-on services you were automatically signed up for and remove them if you didn’t want to buy them. Those problems seem to have receded though and my recent experience flying with them was very good value for money. Booking online was very straightforward. Bypassing all the offers of speedy boarding, taking skis on board and unwanted travel insurance was easy. Marking the option for hand-baggage-only was done in a second. Overall, easyJet has remained inexpensive and there are few awkward or rigid regulations. Even better, the flights were at reasonable times – mid-morning or early afternoon. I was able to book an easyJet return flight from Marseille to London Gatwick for just over 90 euros (around 120 dollars). The flights were at more convenient times than the Ryanair flights and considerably cheaper.
Importantly, there’s no weight restriction on hand luggage with easyJet. If, like me, you avoid putting luggage in the hold whenever you can, the hand luggage allowance becomes important. The fact that you just don’t have to worry about surcharges for the weight of a laptop, camera and books in your case is helpful when planning a trip.
On the outward flight, boarding went very smoothly and the plane was clean. The cabin crew were all neat, tidy and pleasant. They were, according to their name tags, Christine (the cabin manager), a young Eastern European girl Tereza, a young blonde girl whose name I didn’t notice and a young boy who didn’t appear to do much but was very chatty. When the plane was coming in to land he asked if I’d enjoyed my holiday. I explained I live in France and we got chatting. He told me about easyJet scheduling and the fact that cabin crew are given very different destinations every month. Their schedules almost always allow them to get home at night which is good for them and obviously cuts out the overhead cost of hotel accommodation for easyJet (and its passengers). The young steward told me that while English works for most destinations, easyJet pay a little extra to staff who have, or who learn, a second or third language. He also told me the company is planning to fly to more destinations during 2011 and 2012.
On the return flight, the Scottish cabin manager, Jason, led a crew of three young woman. They were all immaculately turned out, as were the crew on the outward flight. The manager was very cheerful and friendly and joked with his crew and passengers. The pilot came out from the flight deck at one point and was equally friendly (and suitably authoritative-looking!)
There was no hard-sell of food, drink, perfume and gadgets but all of that was offered and sold nevertheless. The staff seemed professional and competent and there was nothing really to indicate that this was a cheap flight. I’d flown to Edinburgh the previous week with British Midland and although the return flight was twice as expensive, the only difference I could really cite is that the seat upholstery was slightly more comfortable. On short European flights, that’s not critically important.
Overall, I’d say easyJet seem to be doing a pretty good job these days of selling very affordable flights with no frills but no big drawbacks. Flybe offers rather more expensive flights, with limited services to Europe. Ryanair flies all over the place but feels tatty and isn’t even the cheapest option. If you’re planning to book low cost flights in the UK or Europe, all three of these airline websites are worth checking but in my view, easyJet is cheap and cheerful, Flybe is cheerful but not too cheap and Ryanair is not too cheap and not very cheerful!
UK and European lowcost airlines (in alphabetical order):