Here is what I learned from my experience:
Boarding Pass Drama
European low-cost airlines are crazy about the self-printing of boarding passes by passengers. Electronic boarding passes are not allowed (though this is often an airport regulation) and Ryanair charges an extortionate EUR 70 fee to simply print your boarding pass at the airport. Wizz Air charges a more reasonable EUR 30.
Both airlines allow you to check in up to 30 days before the flight, which remedies the situation a little. However, Ryanair is sneaky (no surprise there!) – the 30-day early check-in only works if you have a paid seat reservation, which costs $7 extra – otherwise you have to do it in the 7 days before the flight.
This policy is clearly not customer-friendly, but these airlines make no secret of hating their customers and still having full planes.
Low prices of European low-cost airlines are no myth, If you follow the rules exactly, low-cost airlines easily offer seats for under 5 cents per mile – often consistently – every day of the year on a given route. That is cheap – especially given the fact that many European legacy carriers have huge ticket prices for short-haul sectors. I remember Lufthansa charging ~$1,000 for the quick Frankfurt to Vienna hop.
No Free Water
Most US carriers serve food and drinks for purchase, but also serve free water. No such luxury with Ryanair or Wizz Air. You pay or you are thirsty.
Narrow Seat Pitch
The seat pitch is narrow – as narrow as it gets. I’m 6′ 4” and I can just about fit, but not move my knees. No issues for a one-hour flight, but for the four-hour Marrakech – London Stansted, this is bad!
For both of my sample flights, a high proportion of the flyers were young – I’d say most were under 30. This very young audience has lower opportunity costs and less requirements for luxury; there is a reason that ‘unbundled’ prices are popular in that age group.
For each flight I took, boarding was called and the gate started boarding when the plane was just landing from its inbound flight. While the plane was approaching the gate position, the new passengers were ‘parked’ on the staircases. Once the plane was ready, we were then allowed to walk across the apron into the plane.
There are no seat assignments, so if you want a decent seat you will have to wait standing in line at the gate and on the staircases for about 40-50 minutes. The stairs may or may not be heated or cooled. That can be quite taxing and somewhat unnecessary, but it seems the modus operandi. No other passenger seemed or looked surprised.
No Charge for Carry-on
Unlike in the US, ultra-low-cost carriers have no carry-on charges fees in effect. A Rollaboard and a small personal item are OK in Europe – this is quite generous for a low-cost airline.
Low-cost flying is popular and with these low fares, the planes are full – and by full I mean really full – no seats are usually left empty.
Constantly Changing Route Network
The route network is changing constantly so it’s not easy to keep track, especially if you plan on connecting.
Wegolo.com can be a great help, but a manual search is often better.
Some European airports like London Stansted and London Luton are really bare-bones – they are basically a couple of containers with a Pret a Manger and a customs unit. It’s amazing to see how simple and cheap it can be to build an airport.
List of European Low-Cost Operators
Here is a list of current low-cost airlines operating in Europe:
SmartWings (operated by Travel Service Airlines under the same IATA and ICAO code)
Blue Panorama Airlines
Norwegian Air Shuttle
Wizz Air Ukraine