The reality of budget airlines and why I took the bus to Prague

For a lover of travel, the best thing Europe has to offer is having a completely different culture nearly at your fingertips…traveling from country to country in Europe requires less financial investment and often less time than traveling from state to state in the United States.

More affordable European travel is mostly due to a fairly robust train system, and incredibly low-cost airlines (low-cost as in, flying to Paris from Milan for $20). Airfares from low-cost airlines such as EasyJet, RyanAir, and WizzAir are, at face value, a traveler’s dream, made possible by the groundbreaking  “Open-Skies Treaty” in 1992, removing government restrictions on airspace.

The chance to fly throughout Europe at discount prices offers a lot of opportunity for the seasoned traveler with energy, patience, and time to spare. But the reality for the rest of us is that there’s a lot of expense, time, and effort that is in excess to the advertised discount airfares, which can be especially aggravating to the inexperienced traveler.

RyanAir, the king of low-cost airlines, topped Zagat’s list as the #1 worst airline in the world, receiving a measly score of 4.16 out of 30 possible points in customer feedback surveys. On the bright side, at least you’ve been forewarned. As a British expat said to me recently, “Well, at least RyanAir is number one in something.”

IMG_7507All that being said, on a recent opportunity to meet a friend in Prague and faced with the choice of a 125 euro round-trip RyanAir flight to Prague from a small airport 3 hours by train or car from where I live in Bologna, or a 15 hour bus ride, I chose the bus.

Here’s why:

1. Hidden airline fees

While baggage, beverage, and snack fees have become an industry wide standard, discount airlines take these fees to another level. 

  • BAGGAGE FEES
    Easyjet, for example, allows one carry-on and only one, so ladies, that means you either save room in your carry-on for your purse, or you’re going to be charged a baggage fee.  While RyanAir seems to be “generous” with their carry-on policy permitting a small bag as well as a regular carry-on, they instead search for other, more unexpected ways to extract money out of you.  For instance, if you don’t pay for your baggage online in advance of getting to the airport, they charge you a much higher baggage fee (I paid 100 euro for my bag when flying on RyanAir from Milan to Stockholm).
  • “PRINT YOUR TICKET AT HOME” POLICY
    RyanAir’s infamous “print your ticket at home” requirement has bitten me in the butt twice. Once on my way back home to Bologna from a trip to Paris, I lost my return ticket I had printed before leaving on the trip and had to pay the 10 euro fee to print my ticket at the printing kiosk at Beauvais. I was lucky they had a printing kiosk, as many airports don’t and the fee is even higher if you have to print it at the check-in desk.
  • SMART PHONES DON’T HELP
    With the advent of airline smart phone applications, I thought I had finally overcome this most annoying aspect of flying via RyanAir by being able to use my smartphone e-boarding pass, only to find out at the airport that RyanAir doesn’t permit non-EU citizens to use e-boarding passes, another predatory procedure aimed at tricking you out of your money, as the procedure is not clear via the app, and is not related to government policy (EasyJet, for instance, permits the use of e-boarding passes by non-EU citizens) and is instead taking advantage of travelers who are never originating from their home city and therefore with fewer resources for printing their tickets.

2. Extra ground transport time and fees

When you are visiting larger European cities, the low-cost carrier airports are often located further away from the cities, and require more time, creativity, and money to get to and from the airports, which ultimately cuts into your vacation time.

  • DISTANT AIRPORTS, SPARSE TRANSPORTATION OPTIONS
    Luckily in smaller cities like Bologna, the low-cost airlines share the same airport with the major carriers. But in most major cities this isn’t the case.

    For example, Beauvais is the low-cost carrier airport serving Paris. It takes about an hour to travel by bus to Paris from the airport. But the real challenge is getting back – the buses don’t run often and the bus company knows the airport schedule. If you arrive at the bus station – which is outside the center of Paris and requires a bit of time on the metro to reach – less than three and a half hours before your flight, the bus will have already departed for the airport and you’ll get stuck sharing the 125 euro cab fare with a few strangers in order to make it to the airport in time. Don’t worry though, the cabs wait by the bus station for unfortunate souls like us, so you’ll have no problem finding a cab (yes, unfortunately, I’m speaking from experience).

  • GROUND TRANSPORT CAN RUN INFREQUENTLY WITH DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND SCHEDULES
    Take it from me – make a mental note to learn the bus schedule of (often) the only method of transport to and from the airport serving your low-cost flight as in advance as possible, as sometimes this is no easy task when traveling in a non-English speaking country.

    Yes, along with my eventful experience in Paris, I’m also referencing my nail-biting wait in line with my nearly indecipherable general admittance bus ticket behind several hundred other anxious budget travelers at Stockholm’s bus station in the wee hours of New Year’s Day, as (luckily) the bus company called a sleepy bus driver to come in on short notice to accommodate the especially numerous tourists that morning. If I had been able to read the schedule better and had done my research in advance, I would have arrived at the bus station earlier. Which brings me to the next important point:

  • BUY YOUR TICKET IN ADVANCE / WIKITRAVEL IS (always) YOUR BEST FRIEND
    Always check (the life-saving) Wikitravel before you leave on your trip and see if you can buy your bus ticket online.  This will save you the inevitable wait in line behind everyone else on your plane to buy your bus ticket.

    In airports like Brussels South Charleroi Airport, your ticket bought in advance online could save you hours, as the electronic kiosks to buy your bus ticket at this airport are iffy at best,* and the majority of travelers whose ATM/credit cards are not accepted by the kiosk must wait in line to buy their ticket from the one in-person attendant available, who tends to take lunch during peak arrival times. I eventually wizened up and payed a local returning home in cash to put my ticket on his card at the kiosk and was able to get on a bus to Brussels without an really significant delay.

    I’ll never forget pulling away from the curb and seeing the hundred people (including many from my plane) camped out in line for their bus ticket in front of the “gone for lunch” sign at the attendant’s empty window. Take it from me (and all the people waiting in that line), read Wikitravel for the city you’re visiting before you get there! The Brussels entry had explicitly warned travelers about this problem, but unfortunately I didn’t read the entry until I was on my to the airport, so it was too late to buy my bus ticket in advance online.

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My happy friend Chris who met me at the Brussels bus station after I narrowly escaped the drama of the airport.

3. Additional accommodation fees, taxi fees, and/or major loss of sleep

Budget flights do not run as regularly between the destinations they serve as regular carriers do, and the flights often take place at less desirable times of day, like very early or very late. 

This could mean that you’ll arrive at your destination late at night, or that you’ll take off very early in the morning. And remember, most major cities do not run their public transportation 24 hours per day.

  • TOO LATE/TOO EARLY FLIGHTS
    It is easy not to consider enough just how much your flight time affects the way your organize your trip. For instance, if you wanted to head out on your vacation on a Saturday morning, but there are no morning flights offered and you are left with the choice of leaving a day earlier and paying an extra night of hotel stay, or leaving twelve hours later and losing most of a day of vacation, what do you do? An extra night of hotel is not a budget option. If you added the hotel stay to what you paid for the flight, you could probably afford a non-budget flight leaving at a more comfortable time of day.
  • MISSING YOUR FLIGHT BECAUSE THE METRO WASN’T OPEN YET
    Early morning flights can infamously depart sooner than it is possible to arrive at the airport via ground transport, or sooner than the metro that brings you to the ground transport starts to run.

    My friend Lauren missed her EasyJet flight out of London for just this reason – she had afforded enough to time to get to the airport, not considering that she might have to wait for the metro to start running in the morning. Wikitravel’s London page actually has a section describing how to sleep at London Stansted airport, as so many people riding EasyJet and RyanAir have encountered this problem over the years.

    With no public transport options early in the morning, your choice is to sleep for free on a bench at the airport, pay to sleep at an airport hotel, or pay for expensive door-to-door ground transport. Honestly, I don’t know about you but none of these options sound so great to me.

4. Lots of time and attention needed to meet stricter baggage and liquid requirements

If you’re flying low-cost, that probably means you don’t want to spend the money to check your bags. But take it from me – check them, and do it as in advance as possible. 

Check your bags when you originally book your ticket, as that’s when you’ll be offered the biggest discount for the checked bags. You can also check them when you check-in online for less of a discount. Do not check your bags spontaneously at the airport, as they will charge you a crazy fee.

Checking your bags saves you the stress of packing. And stressing/wasting time on packing is never worth it – that and the lack of stuff you’ll have access to for your trip (because checked baggage allotments are so minimal) can quickly negate any of the positive benefits you’re deriving from your trip.

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Arriving in Bologna on my first RyanAir flight.

  • STRICTER LIQUID POLICIES
    Discount airlines are often stricter about their baggage and liquid policies in airports only serving low-cost carriers. There is no customer service mandate that prevents them from caring about making you feel like a criminal because you forgot you had Chapstick buried in the bottom of your purse, so security lines at low-cost airports are often longer and more stressful than security lines at other airports. Save yourself this stress and worry by tossing all your liquids in your checked baggage. Then you can stand in the security line worry-free (as long as you arrive early enough for your flight!).
  • DON’T FORGET ABOUT WINTER AND SOUVENIRS
    Getting to your destination is one thing, but weathering long days being a tourist outside in winter without enough warm, heavy clothes to keep you warm because you weren’t able to fit enough in your carry-on is absolutely no fun. Also, layering is only fashionable to a point. I spent a freezing May in London pretty much wearing everything I had fit in my carry-on every day. I think the last time I was so perpetually unfashionable was in 1993.  Fortunately I’m not a souvenir gal, but I know many of you are. I can assure you there won’t be space in your bag for it, and forget bringing back a bottle of wine or heaven forbid some olive oil. But if you are flying low-cost there is still a way around it.  If you go crazy souvenir shopping, add a souvenir tote bag to your shopping list which will afford you more space to dump all your (non-liquid) souvenirs in the tote to carry-on, and then check your luggage in when you check-in online.

5. When you count out all the hours that go into all of the effort to take a budget airline, sometimes a bus or a train is actually a faster way to go. 

If I had flown to Prague instead of taking the 14 hour bus, I would have had to take a bus to the train, to another bus, to a plane, and then to another bus.

The view as we crossed Austria on my way home from Prague.

 

Including all connections, airport time, and flight, it would have cost 200 euro (train and bus tickets add up quickly) and would have taken about 11 hours. Instead, for 100 euro round-trip, I got to relax on a comfortable – albeit non-luxurious – bus with phone service the whole way, frequent pit stops, super friendly drivers who gave us free water and cookies, and as much luggage and liquid as I wanted to bring. All this without a stress or worry. No delayed flights, no standing in line, great view.  Loved it.

I’m making a habit out of this actually. In January I took a train from Milan to Paris, and tomorrow I’m taking the train to Munich. Another great alternative to discount airlines. You can find timetables for train travel across Europe on the German website, Bahn.

But if you really still want to fly, I understand. Just please, all I ask is remember these tips so you don’t have to suffer quite as much as me and my friends have…;)

* Kiosks may now be working better, as this occurred in 2012.

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19 responses to “The reality of budget airlines and why I took the bus to Prague

  1. I have to say that I find your assessment rather harsh. My advice is read the rules and comply and you won’t have any trouble. This is not difficult. It makes me mad when passengers stand at the departure desk complaining about something they have got wrong. Only take a carry on bag, your paragraph on liquids is inaccurate, everyone goes through security regardless of airline.
    If it wasn’t for Ryanair shaking up the airline and the whole of the travel industry then we wouldn’t have these low cost travel opportunities in the first place.
    It isn’t so easy to travel to Europe by train or bus from the UK.
    I unashamedly defend Ryanair.

    • Hi Andrew, I’m glad to hear you haven’t had a challenging experience yet flying low-cost. This post was meant to alert travelers to the issues with traveling low-cost that are not in the fine print, like the metro won’t be open in time to get you to your flight, or the buses that serve the remote airport run sporadically, or non-EU citizens can’t use mobile boarding passes. These are important considerations that can have costly repercussions, and are unfortunately not in the fine print. I apologize that my paragraph on liquids was confusing – I wasn’t meaning that you don’t have to go through security with non-low cost carriers. I was alerting people that baggage requirements are much stricter with low-cost, and when you are going through security in an airport strictly serving low-cost, often they are much harsher in enforcing liquid and size regulations. Thanks for your comment and hope your travels continue to be good. 🙂

  2. Travel seems to have only become worse instead of better, and is not for the faint of heart! I am glad I travelled when I was younger and had more energy, even though I had little money. If I decide to travel to Europe ever again, I think you will be the first person I contact! 🙂

    • Yes I’m always here to help! I love it when my friends ask me for help – if I can save them some of the stress I’ve gone through in figuring out all of this random stuff, then it will make it worthwhile for something at least! 😉 Thanks for your thoughts, as always. Glad to hear you were smart and did so much traveling when you were younger…I get it, I’m already running out of steam!

      • 😀 One of my more forward thinking moves! 😉 So glad I did because I cannot imagine my knees, etc. being okay with the miles I trekked back then!

  3. As Andrew says, flying budget doesn’t *necessarily* guarantee a bad experience — but not knowing/understanding the rules will *absolutely* result in a bad experience. The big advantage I’d stress to taking a train or bus is that you have a bit more control over your luggage. I learned this the hard way a few years ago with Vueling in Rome: For 14 hours they told us the flight was “delayed,” and I was forced to wait (instead of just abandoning my ticket and hopping a train) because they said they couldn’t return my luggage once I’d checked it. On the plus side in favor of flying, though, is that you get to see the lay of the land. This is especially cool if you’re flying into a city like Venice, or over an amazing natural wonder such as the Alps. Anyway, you’ve done a great service to budget travelers everywhere with this informative and helpful post. Thank you!

    • Thanks for your comment. 🙂 Yes, your point about the baggage is a great one and is a good argument in favor of not checking bags (to check or not to check…). As far as vantage points, I guess that also depends on personality…a fellow blogger just posted about seeing Yosemite from above which sounded amazing. But most of the time I love the thrill of winding through the think of the forest and around the curves of the mountains in the Dolomites (where we are at the moment actually!). But that’s just my personality…I like being in the thick of things. 😉 Plenty of people love that high vantage point, for which there is no better remedy than a $20 RyanAir flight…

  4. An extremely helpful post for those who are low-cost novices. I’ve only flown Ryanair once. Had no problems, because I know their game, but I felt like I needed a shower afterwards. I actually paid fifty euros more to fly AerLingus to Dublin rather than take them again. I’ve taken Wizzair several times with no problem. I know many people who’ve had serious issues, though: lost luggage (Vueling), ridiculous hidden costs (Ryanair), unbelievable delays (Wizzair). Your calculations about trains and buses (time and money) are spot on. I always look for these alternatives, too. It’s amazing how much time is spent getting to and from these airports!

    • Thanks for your comment, and I’m really happy to hear you were smarter than them and flew problem free. 🙂 Yes, totally, the time is the issue, and the wildcard about whatever bus company provides the ground transport. Milan Malpensa, for instance, has such a great bus company they are faster than the train! But how can you ever really know in advance…and even then the time still adds up. Even if RyanAir had five star service I would still take the train in favor of saving time and arriving at my destination in the center of town…Anyway thanks again and happy travels!

  5. I find there’s something pleasing about arriving in a place by land that is absent when you hop in by air. Some sense of the place, and where it is. Plus, you get to meet people on the bus. And reason #6: the Ryanair people are a’holes.
    So basically, I agree, let’s take the bus. (Or better yet, the train.)

    • Ha! Thanks for your comment!! So sorry to be so ridiculously late replying. I do a lot of contract work to save up to take off for travel, so when I’m not traveling I’m working, and I never seem to be able to find time for the blog lately, boo. I totally agree…arriving by land gives you that gradual, psychological introduction to the new place that isn’t there arriving by air, like arriving by air you understand practically where you’ve arrived, but it all feels so abstract and slightly surreal. I was remiss on reason #6, thanks for filling that in. :))) Yay for trains!

  6. I laugh at some of your experiences because I’ve been in the same boat. Last summer my friends and I backpacked Ireland, Edinburgh and parts of England. We had a blast but the stress of transportation was all too real.

    • Glad it made you laugh! 🙂 Blogging is very cathartic – ideally in the end I’m hoping to make myself laugh too, ha! Transportation is always the wild card, isn’t it? Glad the rest of your trip was a success though! Appreciate your comment!

  7. This post made me laugh because it’s so true. I had some close calls with these budget airlines too, and the key continues to be PACK LIGHT. It’s the best way to beat the system and the stupid policies they have in place. I hate flying altogether, but I admit that if you do pack light and know what to expect with these budget airlines, they can be a bearable experience. My Ryan Air and Easy Jet experiences beat most of mine with the major American airlines if I go in prepared.

    • Agreed! The problem is they all have different policies, so if you get used to RyanAir’s policy of letting you have a personal item along with your carry-on, you are in trouble when you get on EasyJet and realize no personal items are allowed. You have to do your homework to be prepared. I have no problem with doing my homework, it is just the infamous “best laid plans…”. When you are traveling, you always “mean” to do things, and you lose track of time, and before you know it you find yourself sitting on the floor in the airport check-in terminal, putting on five layers of clothes from your luggage so you can fit your personal item in your carry-on. Ha! 🙂 Thanks for your comment.

  8. Pingback: My secret travel packing tips. | Gracefully Global Blog·

  9. Beginning my travel plans for this summer…so I’ll definitely be reading your travel tips portion of the blog a lot in the coming weeks/months!!! Hopefully you’ll be in Europe (somewhere that I’ll be) and we can meet up when I’m there. 🙂

    I actually thought about taking discount planes to travel a little but I think I’ll stick with the slightly more expensive trains, which I might ask you about later.

    Btw, I picked up the Pimsleur Italian discs to start learning the language more. Hopefully I won’t embarrass myself too much while in Italy this summer!

    Miss you!!!!!

    • Hey Mark!! You’re the best…:) Thanks so much for staying in touch, I love it!! Yes, miss you too! It has been weird being in Italy without 16 friends around at all times. 😉 Feel free to contact me whenever you want, and yes, check out the travel tips. I’ve learned all of them from a lot of trail and tribulation and I hope to save you from the same. 🙂 Budget airlines are fine, you just have to be wise and experienced to use them well. So do read this post if you read anything because it will help prepare you if you do end up flying budget. But yes, I definitely prefer trains…;) Bravo for studying Italian. You won’t embarrass yourself – it is great to try and everyone appreciates it! :))

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