Winging Around Europe Cheaply

With a discount carrier, that $800 fare can be $80

Not long ago, I needed to fly one-way from Brussels to Barcelona. "We don't have one-way fares," snapped a salesman for Belgium's national airline, Sabena. For the 75-minute flight, he proposed a $400 round-trip ticket that required a Saturday night stay. A midweek round-trip? $800. So I called Virgin Express, Richard Branson's discount carrier. One way? No problem. How much? $80--and no restrictions. That was more like it.

Since Europe deregulated its airlines last year, a slew of low-cost carriers have followed the example of Southwest Airlines and other U.S. discounters and have taken aim at high-fare national carriers (table). Want to go from London to Edinburgh? On Britain's easyJet, fares start at $30. Indeed, the European Commission says deregulation has brought down 80% of Europe's air fares.

Most of the cheap carriers are targeting leisure travelers. But they are also getting increasing business from corporate road warriors. EasyJet, for example, offers flights in early morning and late afternoon, when competitors' fares tend to be highest.

Whether you're considering discount tickets for business or vacation, be aware that some drawbacks remain. Most low-fare carriers are based in Britain and fly to southern Europe. But be sure to ask where you'll take off and land, as many carriers use less convenient secondary airports. EasyJet has its hub at London's Luton Airport, which is 30 miles north of the British capital and an hour by bus to Heathrow or train to Gatwick. GO--British Airways' discounter--and Virgin Express use Rome's Ciampino airport, which has no trains, few taxis, and poor bus connections to the Italian capital. And when Ireland's Ryanair flies to Brussels, its planes land in Charleroi, 30 miles south of the Belgian capital. The 45-minute cab ride into town will set you back $125. The use of alternative airports makes it difficult to make connections with transatlantic lines, and you could be stranded if your flight is delayed or canceled.

"Low cost" can also mean different things. EasyJet, Ryanair, and Virgin Express do the bulk of their business through telephone sales or the Internet. Most travel agents in the U.S. don't sell their tickets, so a Web site visit or call to Europe may be required to make a reservation. Once you get to the airport, there are no seating assignments--and forget about free meals and roomy business-class seats. But other startups, such as AB Airlines, Debonair, and KLM UK, offer travel agent ticketing, seat assignments, meals, and even business class. Ian Hawkes, AB's marketing director, says his airline's "business class is comparable to British Airways', with newspapers and even champagne." AB's round-trip business-class fare between Berlin and Nice starts at around $600, compared with $775 for British Airways.

DOGFIGHT. Traditional airlines are fighting back to meet the competition. Lufthansa, Iberia, Alitalia, and KLM have started offering bargain excursion fares. After easyJet began flying from London to Amsterdam for $45, for example, KLM quickly matched the fare. But the discounters are expanding rapidly. Ryanair has ordered 25 Boeing 737s, Virgin Express has another four 737s on order, and Germany's Eurowings is replacing its turboprops with jets and building a European network.

As in the U.S., some of the startups could eventually fold. In the meantime, though, I intend to make the best of it. My Virgin Express flight to Barcelona went smoothly. The plane was clean and comfortable, and the cabin staff smiled. A free Coke refreshed me, and I didn't worry much about the missed airline meal. I arrived on time for a dinner far superior to anything I'd get even in the most costly carrier's first-class seat.

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