Larry David always asks “what’s not to love?” whenever someone seems to be surprised that they actually like him. So, I wanted to find out, literally, what “we” as a collective audience don’t love about European low cost carriers, like EasyJet, Ryanair, WizzAir, Jet2 and others.

It’s a simple question: what’s not to love?

I ask this, because in reality, I think much of the “hate” directed at low-cost airlines is totally misplaced, either as a result of misinformation, stubbornness or very dated experiences. 

For some people it’s historically been the airports, for others the (lack of) service, and for plenty of readers, missing loyalty points or perks are often mentioned. There are plenty of reasons someone could pass on European “LCC’s” as they’re known in the biz, but also so many reasons why they tend to offer superior value. 

I’m genuinely curious to hear what people think, and share some of my thoughts. We’ll get to that below.

I Actually Fly European Low Cost Carriers

I’ve actually had great experiences on low cost carriers, particularly when legacy airline pricing was astronomically off base at the time.

Booking

When you grab a €5 fare and pay €20 for a front row seat that includes the “priority boarding” or whatever the heck it is these days, the value is hard to argue with. I’m just not going to pay €75 or more for the same flight, provided times work, when I might not even get to choose seats at that price on a legacy airline.

I’ve never found low cost airline sites more difficult to operate than legacy airlines, so I’d be curious to know if anyone feels otherwise. It all seems pretty clear, and with the assumption that you get what you pay for, it’s relatively easy to plan the pain points.

I use seat maps to see if the flight I’m interested in has seats in the first row, and if it does, I tend to book them. If it doesn’t, I might check another airline. Are budget airline call centers as good as legacy airlines? That’s a fair question.

I also often find that low cost airlines have more direct flights to the “leisure” places I want to go, than legacy airlines, which historically focused on operations onto business routes rather than holiday markets. Traveling often with our little girl now, “direct or bust” is usually the mantra.

That then raises the issue of: but which airport do they fly into? It’s not always the “best” airport, but it’s also not always the worst, or one any different to the rest of airlines. I actually think, in more European cities than not, you end up in the same airport.

Airport Experience

I know there’s another side to the coin of the budget airline experience, such as delays, pesky airport staff and more, but I just haven’t had the “bad” experiences yet. I know they exist though, and they’re certainly not exclusive to budget airlines.

My good luck is probably down to sample size, because realistically, I only end up on a low cost carrier a couple times a year, at most. I often wonder if things would be better or worse if I was a frequent customer.

I also tend to end up on the first flight of the day, when the aircraft *should* already be parked at the gate and ready to roll. And — I’ve never checked a bag on a low cost airline in Europe before, which has to help the experience quite a lot.

But as people increasingly master the art of packing light, European low cost carriers are becoming increasingly hard to argue with, particularly with leisure travel en vogue right now. For a weekend break, what do you really need?

In Flight Experience

It’s been a fascinating decade, which many in the industry call a “race to the bottom”. In times of record success, legacy airlines tend remove every “free” amenity they can, to try and maximize profits. To some extent, low cost airlines did too, but much of the race was the legacy “full service” airlines copying the a la carte of budget carriers.

Yet here we are. In down times, all of a sudden, people become “people” again, and the amenities like food and water tend to come back on full service airlines. How much value can you put on a bottle of water on board?

I find the European low-cost experience to be pretty fair, particularly since most flights are relatively short. I can go two hours without eating. I’m not going to die. Others say they can’t even fathom not getting a free meal on a plane. I guess everyone has their own opinion here?

One angle which is funny to look at, is seat dimensions.

As legacy airlines became more and more aggressive during the mega years of the last decade, they actually went to smaller seat margins than some low cost airlines on new planes, like A320neos.

Yes, fact: In many cases, there’s zero difference between the margins on a budget seat and a legacy airline. Padding might be another issue, but after my last few flights, I’m not even sure!

Basically, this is another place where I feel the “hate” might not be earned.

What is it about the in flight experience that’s so unattractive, if the seat dimensions are the same and it’s actually easier to select a primo seat, such as first row, or exit row, without the need to be an “elite” frequent flyer?

If I Could Play CEO For A Day

One of my favorite games is to play fantasy CEO. It’s so easy to spit out general sentiment about an airline or hotel, but what would you actually improve, if you had a day at the reins?

For me, I think I’d focus on customer service.

These low cost airlines tend to be great during “normal” operations, but not exactly the most joyful during system meltdowns, overnight delays and other issues.

I, personally, would probably try to add better ways to get in touch, and try to get airport teams to be more compassionate. I would also love a “real” loyalty program, but that’s for another day.

So, What’s Not To Love?

I’d like to think I’m fairly level headed when it comes to travel booking decisions, and ultimately that often comes down to money. I know how much I monetarily value little things like lounge access, priority security or speedy boarding on a journey.

I also know that before a 6AM flight, they’re all basically pointless, since I want to spend as little time in the airport as possible. For people that don’t have any perks with any airlines, the decision is much easier: and generally comes down to price, airports or flight times.

But even then, I feel like once a passenger has had a terrible experience, they often do actually pay up, just to fly any other airline than the one that wronged them.

So, over to you GSTP readers. I would love to hear your thoughts on European low cost “budget” airlines. What do you love? What could they do better? What’s been a total nightmare experience etc? Is the “hate” deserved?

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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11 Comments

  1. I don’t mind LCC, and pleased to see Vuelling starting from Glasgow to Paris shortly.

    I have one issue with Ryanair, the random seating allocation, they purposefully seat you apart to grab additional seat revenue, I caved on the way to Alicante and paid fo my wife to be in the seat next to me. On the way back from Spain tonight we are both aisle seats at opposite ends of the plane with seats next to us occupied. Loads of open rows on the seat map. Would not say this policy is Covid friendly and is a money grab if ever I saw one! When I’ve done random with EasyJet and Jet2 they’ve sat us together.

  2. I think the true leveller with the Low Cost airlines came by the forcing of their arm by the EU in the form of legislation protecting and compensating european flyers when flights were significantly delayed or cancelled (EU261).

    I can remember prior to this legislation being introduced, being at Limgoes Airport in France due to fly home on Ryanair. The aircraft due to take us back had had a technical issue back at Stansted and my flight home was cancelled at short notice. The response of Ryanair – ‘here’s your £8.99 refunded. Now get your own way home’. And they were fully within their rights to do that.

    And that was the biggest difference then between a loco and, say BA. Even BA wasn’t legislated to do so back then, they’d re-book you onto an alternative flight, pay for overnight accommodation etc. Nowadays, Ryanair has to provide exactly the same rights and compensation as the likes of BA.

  3. I’m not sure if I’d call Condor a LCC carrier or not but they sure act like it. Currently on a one day delay for a flight to TFS. Got to the gate 10 minutes before boarding was to start. 2 minutes after arriving the gate agent announced a flight delay due to the arriving flight having gone mechanical in Italy. Then said he was leaving his post and another colleague would be coming shortly. 1/2 later no other agent. 35 minutes later emails about delays started arriving. Agent at next gate finally did something and called someone. Said to exit the gate area and go to check in desk xxx. Got to check in desk xxx, desk supervisor looked on in horror as 100+ people joined his check in line for the US departure. Demanded we all step aside. Someone asked “then what?”.. he just walked away. The next condor employee had everyone shuffle over to another desk, then had everyone shuffle to the middle of the hall. In the smallest voice ever, announced we could pick up a voucher and we would be accommodated overnight at an airport hotel. Picked up the voucher which was refused by the restaurants as it was not dated or signed by Condor…, the saga continues.

  4. I agree with you; the European LCCs are quite good. I think the only ‘issues’ I worry about, esp. as an American who doesn’t fly with them often, are:
    – Did I miss something that I didn’t think about? (I’ve never flown Ryanair but the infamous document check stamp is something I heard about only because I was on exchange in the UK before, and it caught my friend by surprise.)
    – In case of irrops, you are probably going to have limited options. LCCs are great when things go well; when things unravel though it is a nightmare. But that is also something you can mitigate by adjusting your schedule.

    European LCCs in Europe are also quite reliable, unlike some of our counterparts here in the US.

  5. Easy jets website for booking flights is confusing misleading. If you make a mistake says you booked an extra hold case and try to cancel this later, no chance. Staff are unfriendly and some even rude

  6. On the service front I like Asian LCC’s/ULCC’s best but EU261 makes for a huge plus in Europe. On flights for only a couple of hours I’d fly a European LCC without a second thought although with Brexit having made EC261 not applicable for flights from there, I’d avoid originating in GB.

  7. For me, two things hinder me from using LCCs in Europe: one is how they treat employees and the other is inflexible routing.

    Routing first: In Norway we have a term called “Kjos-fast”/”Kjos-stuck”, from the director of Norwegian, Kjos. They had a lot of trouble with Dreamliners and other things, and due to them flying one trip each week to a destination and refusal of rebooking on other flights, many people got stuck in 2018. One person I know was stuck in Bangkok for a week.

    When things go fine, LCCs are.. fine. But my experience is that legacy airlines are a lot better when flights are delayed or cancelled.

    Then, employees.
    I switched from LCCs in Europe to legacy carriers after reading about how they treat employees. Wizz air is probably among the worst, selecting to shut down bases in order to stop a labour union from getting started. And they withdrew from Norway after a couple of months due to a lot of pressure from politicians including the prime minister to respect unions.

    Ryanair and several others also known for having terrible labour regulations.

    For me – it’s partly a practical choice and partly ethical – I won’t fly LCCs if I can choose any other airline. Even though many legacy airlines have their issues as well, and I really don’t like SAS’ handling of SAS Ireland staff during the reconstruction now.

  8. LCC’s have very very few empty seats. Legacies usually have plenty in off season and it’s easy to get a row or 2 seats to yourself. I’m older and large and that matters. Being sandwiched in a middle or window LCC seat is torture.

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