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Dispatches: The World’s Best Bargain Airlines

4 Anyone asked to name a low-cost airline five years ago might have said JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, Song or Ted. But they wouldn’t name any of those airlines today. Not when JetBlue charged more than $450 for the two-and-a-half-hour flight from LaGuardia to West Palm Beach this winter. And with Southwest asking $339 from Salt Lake City to Orlando, that airline can no longer be described as consistently low cost. As for Song, it doesn’t exist, having been folded back into parent Delta Airlines. Ted continues flying, but everyone knows it is just United Airlines wearing bargain clothing and charging whatever the market will bear.
    In fact, the real low-cost action is taking place not in the U.S. but in Europe, where there’s a whole new generation of carriers with quizzical names such as Flybe, TUIfly, Air-Berlin and Transavia. These are among the airlines responsible for a startling statistic: 25% of the flights in Europe are made on low-cost carriers. Meanwhile, other bargain airlines have taken to the skies, offering values to travelers in Asia, Australia and the South Pacific.
    Assuming you live in the United States, why should you care? Simply put, if you’re flying to multiple destinations within Europe, Asia or the South Pacific, it’s often considerably cheaper to travel on a low-cost carrier within a continent rather than on your U.S.-based carrier or a major international airline. I mean big savings of 50% to 80% or more off the fares you might pay on well-established airlines. So here’s a look at how to find and book low-cost carriers, as well as a few tips on their advantages and disadvantages.

EUROPEAN CARRIERS
    Nearly 50 low-cost airlines serve more than 300 airports in dozens of European countries. Chances are you’ve never heard of any of them. There’s the Czech Republic-based Smart Wings, Dutch-owned Corendon and the Austrian airline InterSky. Helvetic is a Swiss-owned carrier based in Zurich, while the Italian carrier AlpiEagles has major hubs in Naples and Venice. Some airlines, such as the Swedish-owned Kullaflyg, fly to only a handful of airports within their own country. Others stake out a region, like Bratislava-based Sky Europe, which has hubs in Budapest, Prague, Krakow and Warsaw. And some airlines that serve Europe may actually be based elsewhere, such as the Moroccan Atlas Blue, which transports budget-minded Europeans to Marrakech.2
    Ryanair, with a home base in Ireland, essentially wrote the script for low-cost carriers in Europe, where it’s the largest such airline, with some 455 routes and fares that border on the absurd. For example, they often have round-trip fares for one pence, about two cents, plus taxes and fees of 23.50 pounds (approximately $46). These tickets are from London’s Stansted Airport to places like Brno, Czech Republic; Carcassonne, France; and Turin, Italy (destinations that were among the cities on offer in mid-March 2007).
    While a host of competitors have followed in Ryanair’s footsteps, only easyJet has come close to its size, with 258 routes. But this competition has driven Ryanair to offer seats that are almost free on some routes on certain days. Cutthroat? You bet, and that’s why it’s music to the ears of every budget-conscious flier. The best source for information on these low-cost European airlines is flycheapo.com, which keeps tabs on all these carriers and provides readers with direct links to their sites.
    If you want evidence of how good the European deals can be, just compare train prices and airfares. I happen to love traveling by rail in Europe, but the dirty little secret is that these trains have become very expensive. I recently checked Rail Europe and found that the cheapest second-class train fare from Paris to Vienna a 15-hour journey ran $437. But flying from Paris to Vienna on Niki, an Austrian low-fare carrier, cost 214 euros ($280) for a flight that lasts less than two hours.

AUSTRALIA, ASIA AND BEYOND
    Low-cost airlines have made inroads in other parts of the world as well: Jetstar in Australia and air2there in New Zealand are just two examples. In Asia, more than 40 low-cost carriers are making a big impact because regional flights there have traditionally been pricey.
    Airlines such as AirAsia, Bangkok Airways, Tiger Airways, Air Do, SpiceJet and IndiGo are quickly changing the face of Asian travel. Take AirAsia, the Malaysia-based carrier that leads the pack. A recent search turned up a round-trip fare from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital and the airline’s home base, to Bali costing 434 Malaysian ringgits (about $123). Considering that the best Expedia could do was a Malaysia Airlines flight for $629.91, it’s clear that the savings can be substantial. Visit attitudetravel.com to discover the best listing of Asian low-cost carriers, with links to their Web sites.
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SAVE $663.50 and 10 hours
    Because online travel agencies do business only with major U.S. and international carriers, you won’t find these cheap airlines and fares on Expedia, Orbitz or Travelocity. So say you wanted to fly from New York’s JFK to London and squeeze in a few days in Barcelona before returning to JFK. Expedia and the other online agencies can only provide fares from American, United, British Airways and other major airlines, whose routes are far from flexible.
    In fact, the best Expedia could come up with on our New York-London-Barcelona itinerary in April was a $1,346 fare that required connections in Washington, DC, Frankfurt and Dusseldorf. With all the connecting flights, you’d spend about 29 hours in the air plus waiting time, of course versus about 19 hours with the low-cost carrier.
    Until a few years ago, flying on major airlines was about the only way you could have completed such an itinerary. But 2007 is different. In lieu of the above, I could have booked a $576 round-trip flight on Air India from JFK to London on Expedia. Then I found a 53.98 pound ($106.50) round-trip nonstop fare from London to Barcelona on easyJet’s Web site. My hypothetical trip came to a grand total of $682.50, a savings of $663.50 and 10 hours in the air. Not to mention avoiding plane changes in three cities I didn’t want to travel to in the first place.
    Savings aside, what I like best about the low-cost carriers is that they allow you to be impetuous, to purchase fares at the last minute without any restrictions. During a weeklong stay in London, you can pretty much decide on a whim to fly to Nice for a night or two. Go to Lyons for lunch. Or spend a day shopping in Amsterdam. And you can do it without breaking the bank. Go to Ryanair (ryanair.com), for example, and you can book tickets for dozens of cities on flights leaving the next morning.

WHAT ABOUT SAFETY?
    When considering a flight on a small no-frills carrier, the first concern of passengers is usually safety. What planes do these airlines fly, how old are they, and what kind of safety record do they have?
    In fact, many of these companies are flying new planes. They buy one model, and that model has only coach seats. Period. Taking care of parts and maintenance for just one aircraft model, not 10 or 15 models like the big guys, is one significant way they keep costs down. Though there is a perception that these airlines cut corners, that just isn’t the case. According to the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation, there have been no safety issues with the current crop of budget carriers.
There are some caveats, however. For example, these airlines often depart from lesser-known airports, such as Stansted, north of London, or Treviso, 60 miles from Venice. Simply getting to some of these airports can involve a journey that might cost more than the air ticket itself. The smallest carriers may offer only a single flight a day to a destination, which can be a problem if weather or equipment issues arise. And speaking of equipment, bare-bones operations may not have a back-up jet available in case of mechanical problems.
    Sure, these are all considerations. But they shouldn’t prevent you from looking into a no-frills flight on your next trip abroad. Given the often absurdly low cost of a ticket, you can’t go wrong.

CLICK FOR SAVINGS
Visit the following Web sites for comprehensive airline information and links:

flycheapo.com (European).

attitudetravel.com (Asian and European).

This story first appeared in Diversion.

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