Is Flying a Budget Airline to Europe Actually Worth It?
“$199 Flights to Europe.” You may have seen this headline, or one boasting an even lower fare, gracing your Facebook news feed.
And it’s true. You can find flights advertised on Wow Airlines and Norwegian that, in fact, get you across the Atlantic for this rock-bottom price.
But before you input your credit card details, please: Stop, think, and prepare for what will inevitably be a long flight.
Trust me, I know. I’ve written that headline, and I’ve purchased that fare. I was on Norwegian’s first flight from London to Los Angeles (I’ve still got the pin to prove it). And since then, I’ve been consistently flying budget airlines, most recently on my October flight to Athens, Greece (for the wonderful price of $268 USD one way).
Here’s what I’ve learned.
You’ll pay a ton for checked bags.
My goal on my Athens trip was to spend nearly four months in Europe with nothing but carry-on luggage. I did, in fact, bring everything I needed. But it involved some master packing.
Typically, the lowest advertised fare on any budget airline does not include the cost of checked baggage. Norwegian charges anywhere from $65-$130 for checked bags, which means if you require more than a duffel bag, the cost of the ticket just went up by that much.
You’ll need to pack that carry on really, really light.
While it’s possible to bring only a carry-on, keep in mind that the airline may set weight limits on carry-on luggage, forcing you to weigh bags before check-in.
Again, take Norwegian as an example. If the bag exceeds the weight limit, you will have to pay a fee or throw out the comforter you were trying to bring home from London.
(Fun fact: My comforter never made it back from London.)
Packing light is doable. I packed everything I needed for a four-month volunteer trip in a lightweight duffel bag and rolled each item to save space, layering rolled items on top of rolled items. Wrinkles aside, it worked.
Bring snacks. Bring Water. Bring everything you need to survive.
There is no meal included. There are no drinks included. If you want something you will have to purchase it, either onboard or during your long layover.
Since I personally tend to sleep the whole flight, and missing out on airplane food is in general not really the worst thing in the world, the lack of food was not a heartbreaker. Pack snacks and you’ll be fine.
But, as a tip, maybe don’t pack your grandmother’s homemade cereal mix, because it’s delicious and salty and may make you incredibly thirsty, which will lead to you having to buy a drink (In case you were wondering, my grandmother does indeed make delicious cereal mix).
The layovers are nothing like that Anthony Bourdain show.
Despite what Anthony Bourdain may lead you to believe, layovers are kind of terrible. Especially when they’re not quite long enough to allow you to actually do anything in the layover city, but too long to be waiting in an airport.
The three- to four-hour mark is the worst.
During the layover (which comes standard with most incredibly low fares), you’ll probably need 1) food (since you didn’t eat on that long haul flight), and 2) WiFi. The WiFi cost and the cost of that desperately-needed, overpriced turkey sandwich should also be factored into the net price you pay for that budget airline ticket. Factor in those priceless hours taken off your life as you wait at the gate while you’re at it, too.
No one wants to fly with you.
Yes, I just booked a $268 flight to Greece and a $206 flight from Berlin home to New York, but one was booked in October and the other in mid-January (aka “off-peak” times). If you see any headline advertising prices lower than $350, it’s most likely for fares during those months that no one wants to fly.
Again, this is not the end of the world, but it does mean that incredibly cheap fares are never going to line up with the Christmas vacation. So, get ready to use an awful lot of vacation days, and start celebrating Thanksgiving in October or Christmas in January. Or, fly on the holiday itself (as in Christmas Day), which tends to be cheaper.
Have you been doing the math?
Good, me neither.
The point is, that advertised $199 fare is as barebones as it gets. You must be prepared for hunger, thirst, living out of your tiny carry-on, and complete and utter exhaustion when you reach your final destination.
But hey, even knowing all this, I keep booking those budget flights. Why? Because at the end of the day, more leftover money means more funds for and time spent traveling, and that is — in the end — the only bullet point that really matters to me.