With a huge number of low-cost airlines operating within Europe, the UK and Ireland, at first glance there seems to be plenty of cheap fares to be had. Be warned, though - there can be lots of hidden extras that you hadn't planned for, leaving you out of pocket at the check-in counter.
Here are my top 5 tips to consider when booking your cheap flight with a budget airline:
1. Luggage allowances
Many budget airlines that fly within Europe have extremely strict luggage allowances. Some budget airline tickets do not include any checked baggage - if you plan on taking a suitcase or checking any luggage into the hold, additional fees can apply.
Hand luggage limits can also be much stricter than we are used to on long-haul flights. easyJet, for example, allows only one item of hand baggage into the cabin per person, with maximum dimensions of 56 x 45 x 25 cm. Hand bags, briefcases, laptops and laptop bags are all counted as one piece, so if you have a trolley bag and, for example, an additional hand bag or laptop bag, you'll be asked to put those items into your trolley bag.
If you can't fit all your hand luggage into one single bag, the excess items will be checked into the hold and you'll be charged extra. This can really catch international travellers out, particularly those travelling with small children and babies, so make sure you read the airline's terms and conditions before purchasing your ticket and weigh your luggage BEFORE you get to the airport.
2. Seat selection fees
Seat selection fees are often additional, so if you like to book your specific seat on the aircraft in advance, you'll likely be charged around 10 euros per person. The alternative is to wait until you check in at the airport and take the seat that's been assigned by the airline (ie. whatever's left after all those paying for seat selection have chosen their desired seats).
3. Food and drink
On shorter flights, having food and beverages included in the price of your airline ticket may not be such a big deal, but it's wise to be aware of whether or not your fare includes some kind of snack, particularly if travelling around meal times or with children.
4. Frequency of flights
Often budget airlines only offer limited services on their routes whereas full service airlines may give you the choice of two or three different services a day. Departure and arrival times should also be taken into account - is being at the airport at 5am a fair swap for the money you'll save on the flight ticket?
5. Credit card fees
Make sure you know what credit card fees apply to your online purchase. As a general rule, most budget airlines operating in the UK and Europe charge around 10 or 12 euros per booking for credit card fees. Your Australian bank is also likely to charge you an international transaction fee, too. Some online booking engines don't charge fees and you can pay in Australian dollars, so it's always worth comparing their price with the price on the airline's own website.
And one more tip ....
6. Which airport does the airline use?
Thanks to PKC54 (see comments below) for reminding me of this very important point which has prompted me to add number 6 to the list. Before booking your cheap flight with a budget airline be sure to check which airport they fly into.
Don't assume that in Paris the airline will fly into Roissy (also known as Charles de Gaulle) or Orly airports - Ryanair, for example, flies into Beauvais airport which is some distance from the centre of Paris with limited public transport options. The same can be said for airports used in some other cities.
Make sure you check the availability and cost of getting from the airport to your final destination before committing to the flight or the low airfare might not be such a bargain after all!
So, in summary, when researching your flight prices, make sure you compare apples with apples. A low cost carrier may initially appear cheaper but with extra costs for seat selection, baggage, food purchases on board, transport to and from the airport and credit card fees, they may actually work out more expensive than a full service carrier.
Have you flown with a low cost carrier in the UK or Europe? How would you rate the experience?