Flying for Free, Almost

by SYDNEY McGRANE

Sometimes, saving $50 by taking a 12-hour bus ride just isn’t worth it. So take advantage of Europe’s burgeoning low-cost carrier market and fly instead.

If you see a low fare, book it! Prices can jump in just a few hours.  Also, if you’re traveling with friends, you should all buy at the same time as many airlines offer lower group rates. Pack a carry-on. It means no waiting at the luggage carousel and no baggage handling fees.  Be prepared to take a bus or train from your destination’s airport. Low-cost carriers typically operate out of tiny airports far away from downtown.

Ryanair

Although it may be the granddaddy of cheap airlines, Ryanair is certainly not the best. Take advantage of the popular €1 fare sales, but expect scrimped service in return: seats don’t recline, the lax security would probably take your fake ID, and poorly pressurized cabins make your popped eardrums feel like they’re bleeding. But hey, all in the name of saving a buck!

Overall rating: 

Best for: Flying to/from Dublin and London to just about anywhere

Tip: Find cheap St. Paddy’s Day flights to Dublin for spring break—but book early!

Skyeurope

Flying this Slovakian airline gives you an endearing mix of sketchiness and professionalism. The airplanes are clean and well cared for, but their small fleet means if just one flight is delayed, it throws off their whole network. Translation: don’t depend on them if you have ironclad travel plans, such as a connecting flight.

Overall rating: 

Best for: Eastern Europe, especially flying out of Prague, Bratislava, Vienna

Tip: Need a beach weekend? Find flights to Croatia’s coastal cities of Zadar, Dubrovnik, and Split—a cheap alternative to Italy.


Wizzair

With more than just a fun name, Wizzair also has a useful map on its Web site that illustraties all its routes. As Eastern Europe’s answer to the low-cost carriers that serve the western part of the continent, this Hungarian-owned airline is your best bet for exploring the less touristy (and cheaper) countries of the former Soviet bloc.

Overall rating: 

Best for: Flying from London, Budapest

Easyjet

Although Easyjet usually costs twice as much as other cheap airlines, it is still significantly cheaper than other carriers on the same routes. They make money with their less-than-easy online ticketing site: make sure to skip the travel insurance, do carry-on baggage, and check in online to avoid messy hidden fees. But then feel classy in Easyjet’s clean and spacious planes, and they have the friendliest staff to boot.

Overall rating: 

Best for: central Europe, especially departures from Berlin; departures from all over the UK

Tip: Ecoconscious? Easyjet lets you purchase carbon credits to offset your flight’s fuel mileage.

Bookmark the traveler’s bible for penny-pinching flights: skyscanner.net. Search by specific weekend dates, do month-by-month comparisons to find the cheapest time to fly, or compare multiple destinations at once.

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