Ryanair, EasyJet, and Vueling are certainly cheap enough for building student itineraries. With diverse destinations, you can easily find your way to your favorite cities. But budget airlines are not magical business models that run on less money with same quality air service. These companies are set up to suck as much cash out of passengers as possible in penalties — so here are some ways to avoid getting yourself a budget airline red card!
- If you can check a bag, cough up the cash ahead of time. You may only be traveling for a weekend, but if you have enough friends to fill a small suitcase with clothes then seriously consider checking one bag for your group. Budget airlines have cages where they like to “check” the dimensions of your bag to make sure they meet the stated max dimensions for carry-ons. In the romantic world of European backpacking it is nice to imagine your belongings fitting into a cage that is smaller than your chihuahua. It is a disaster to arrive at the gate only to find that your bag is one inch too big. What happens if the gate attendants can’t shove your carry-on into the measuring cage? €60 in cash, or you are NOT getting on the plane…checking it in advance would have been cheaper. Read a few online forums about Ryanair gate disasters and you’ll want to check your toothbrush, for god’s sake.
- If you are going to carry on your bag, keep it microscopic. No matter how many times you study the “max dimensions” of your airline’s carry-on, it always seems that your bag just misses the cut. Murphy’s Law or scam? We don’t know. To be safe, do not purchase a carry-on piece of luggage unless it is at least an inch smaller on every side than what is “allowed.” Do not be fooled by luggage that is sold with a “guaranteed to fit most carry-on dimensions” tag. It might fit British Airways’ dimensions, but Ryanair and EasyJet? Think again!
- Double-check the location of the budget airport in each city. Airlines such as Ryanair do not usually fly into the main airports of major European cities [you'll be arriving at Stansted instead of Heathrow in London, and Girona instead of Prat in Barcelona]. These airports can be hours away from the city center, thus incurring more costs for transportation and more prior planning. Do not get caught without a train ticket to the city center upon arrival to a satellite airport. You may also find that the budget airline plus the cost of transportation to your final destination turns out to be more than if you simply flew into the city’s major airport on another airline.
- Arrive earlier than even your Mom would have forced you to arrive. Europeans have these budget airlines down to a science as far as arrival time to the airport goes. Unless you have “priority boarding” status, you will be dealing with first-come, first-serve seating. And the lines are long! Arrive as early as possible and sit at your gate [as close to the check-in desk as possible] to ensure that your group will be one of the first to board the plane. Otherwise, you’ll be enjoying the middle seat between two Italian tweens snickering at the Playboy they just bought. There are times when seating on these airlines becomes a free-for-all at check-in, and some passengers who are sent to the back of the line cry hysterically until they are allowed onto the plane early. Safeguard yourself and arrive earlier than ASAP.
- Bring cash. You never know what is going to happen at the gate with a budget airline. You never know what penalty will be imposed on you or someone you are traveling with that may commence a nightmare. Keep at least £60-£100 with you in cash if you can. This will safeguard against the possibility that you will be denied a flight if your girlfriend’s purse is a centimeter too big.
- Stay calm and fight back with respect. I’ve often wondered if gate managers of budget airlines receive a commission on what they can accrue in penalties. In short, some act like they are out to get you. The employees are also underpaid, overworked, and forced to wear obnoxious colors. If you should be stopped for any reason, avoid the at-the-gate meltdown that is extremely common (trust us, you’ll witness at least one). Ask a lot of questions, request an English speaker if you are having trouble understanding the situation, and calmly make your case. This is not the place to have guilty tourist syndrome; grow some cajones.