Budget Airlines Fail Price Tests

Europe's low-cost carriers, led by Ryanair, are hugely popular, but a new consumer test reveals they may not be such a bargain

The prices are hard to resist. Round-trip tickets to Mallorca for just €88 ($120), a weekend in Paris for €38, London for €20. Germans are certainly fans: A quarter of the country's air travel is on so-called discount airlines, budget-conscious carriers that sometimes skimp on service but promise better prices.

According to the German consumer reporting agency Stiftung Warentest, though, most of Europe's budget airlines fail the bargain test. The agency measured six budget airlines, including Germanwings, Condor, Air Berlin, Ryanair and Easyjet, against five traditional carriers. Their conclusion? Only three -- Ryanair, Easyjet and Germanwings -- offered significantly lower prices than the major carriers. And even the best deals came at a cost, as passengers were hit with charges for everything from coffee to baggage.

Stiftung Warentest priced one-way tickets to six popular European destinations -- Berlin, London, Paris, Palma de Mallorca, Madrid and Rome -- over the course of four months, then averaged the ticket prices. Ryanair's prices came out on the bottom: just €101, compared to €246 to fly Lufthansa. Easyjet and Germanwings took second and third place, with averages of €116 and €158 respectively.

Other discount airlines didn't do as well. Since the budget boom in 2005, some have failed to keep their prices from rising. Air Berlin, Condor and TUIfly are almost twice as expensive as the test's low-cost leaders. Condor couldn't even beat Lufthansa prices. Air France was the most expensive airline tested. At €345, it was more than triple Ryanair's average ticket price.

The low-cost strategy isn't much of a secret. Passengers walk themselves to the plane, rain or shine, saving the airline money on frills like buses and jetways. Pack a lunch, because food and drinks aren't free. Unreserved seating keeps things simple for the airline, and legroom is nonexistent. And the budget carriers favor out-of-the-way airports that are difficult to get to, eating up savings on tickets for taxis and buses.

And Warentest warns that more than a few vacationers have been surprised at the gate by baggage fees. Ryanair gives you a 10-kilo carry-on for free. But then the gouging begins: Checked bags under 15 kilos cost €15 apiece, and €8 per kilo after that. Off to London with a 20-kilo bag? That'll be €20 for the ticket, €104 for the suitcase.

The test agency's conclusion: You get what you pay for, and sometimes a lot less. Besides, in today's greenhouse gas-conscious age the airlines may be the worst culprits of all: short-hop flights pump tons of carbon dioxide into the upper atmosphere, where it has an outsized effect on global warming.

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