By the time I made my way through Amsterdam's massive Schiphol International last fall, the fourth European airport I'd visited in as many days, I had the system down. Arrive an hour early. Ask where the EasyJet counter was. Check in. Find coffee.
For me, it was a new routine, as my experience with cheap travel in Europe had always involved train stations, rail passes and long hauls over land. But with EasyJet, Britain's answer to budget-minded Southwest Airlines, I could start a trip in London and bounce around to five other European cities -- for less than the cost of a round-trip, second-class train ticket from London to Paris.
Budget airlines have been going strong in Europe for the past decade and, as with their counterparts in the States, no-frills carriers like EasyJet, Ryanair and Virgin Express continue to buck the industry's downward trends, especially since 9/11. While larger airlines continue to report declines in passenger numbers, the London consulting firm Accenture estimates that the budget players will carry more than 40 million passengers annually by 2010.
EasyJet, which began operations in 1995 (with two planes flying between London and Glasgow), saw a 49 percent increase in passengers last year. In 2002, it flew 11 million people to 36 destinations on 64 aircraft, while offering passengers an average ticket price of $73 for a one-way trip.
That actually seems high. When I was planning my trip, a flight from London to Paris cost about $8. London to Athens: $25.
I'm a skeptical traveler. When I see deals like these, I assume the worst and start looking for the catch. And yet, Europeans rave about EasyJet. I wanted to find out for myself what it was like to fly on one of these cheapo upstarts.
I booked a weeklong, six-leg itinerary in the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands. The six flights cost me $194.77. Total.
How They Do It
Today, more than 20 budget airlines serve most major capitals in Western and Central Europe, among other cities. Many of them -- including EasyJet and Air Berlin -- began independently, while others, such as Virgin Express and BMI Baby, are offshoots of larger carriers.
In the mid-'90s, British Airways and KLM launched their own low-cost carriers in a failed effort for a share of the no-frills pie. In the summer of 2002, B.A.'s Go was sold to EasyJet. Then, late last month, Ryanair announced that it was buying KLM'S Buzz, restructuring its schedule and starting it back up in early May.
Travelers familiar with Southwest's operation no doubt see the similarities in its European counterparts:
* While you can usually book trips by phone, passengers are encouraged to make reservations online. This allows the airline to save on the costs associated with mailing paper tickets, though many tack on an extra fee ($5 or $10) if you book off-line.
* Fleets are composed of a single aircraft type, mostly Boeing 737s or Airbus A319s. This makes plane maintenance easier and cheaper.
* Routes are usually short, allowing the airlines to schedule faster turnaround times and more flights between destinations each day.
* The carriers frequently use secondary airports in many markets, avoiding the high costs of major hubs. Most of EasyJet's and Ryanair's flights to London serve the city from two regional airports: Luton and Stansted, both less than an hour away by commuter train (EasyJet also flies to London's Gatwick). Other airlines, like Mytravel Lite and LowFare Jet, serve Paris by an airport in Beauvais instead of Charles de Gaulle.
* Amenities are few. Forget about in-flight movies, music and other services. EasyJet, for instance, does not offer meals and charges passengers for beverages. If you want a cup of coffee or tea, it'll cost you $2.25.
David Newkirk, who specializes in the travel industry at the McLean consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, says European budget airlines have stumbled upon a low-cost marketing model that appeals to a wide swath of travelers.
The formula, says Newkirk, "is the same as Southwest's. It's cheap to buy a plane these days, and provided that they are operating out of low-cost airports and they turn the airplanes over pretty quickly, they can operate at a low cost."
There's no disputing its effectiveness: For the quarter ending Dec. 31, Ryanair reported that its net income rose 50 percent from a year earlier. Meanwhile, EasyJet reported a 44 percent increase in passenger numbers last month compared with February 2002.
The EasyJet Experience
So what's it like flying EasyJet? In London last November, I found myself on a train leaving Kings Cross station, bound for Luton and an EasyJet flight to Paris. In subsequent days, I'd also fly to Nice, Amsterdam, Glasgow and Belfast before returning to London.
Luton, about 50 minutes by train from London, has been an EasyJet hub since 1995. It was empty when I arrived early on a Monday, and I found the airline desk without much trouble (a feat that would prove harder as the trip progressed). In less than a minute I had a boarding pass.
Like Southwest, there are no assigned seats, each boarding card has a number, and passengers enplane in groups of 30. We took off on schedule and landed on time, without incident. Better yet, we flew into Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport (in all of my EasyJet travels, I never landed more than a short train or bus ride from a city center).
With few exceptions, check-ins for the rest of my trip were efficient, rarely lasting more than two minutes. Flights were mostly punctual, and crews were invariably pleasant and attentive.
The only real difficulty was finding the airline's check-in counter. At Charles de Gaulle, for example, EasyJet flies out of a seemingly empty terminal far removed from the airport's din. I searched for 15 minutes for the counter at Amsterdam's Schiphol, only to find it at the extreme end of a series of four check-in areas.
Of the six flights I took, I experienced only one significant delay: an extended hold-up in Belfast due to "mechanical difficulties." What started as a two-hour delay steadily increased, with little explanation for the continued postponement. However, we were given $7.50 meal vouchers and, as with all EasyJet flights, it was possible to hop onto another plane for a nominal fee (about $15).
Getting the Best Deals
The best deals on Europe's no-frills carriers come from booking early and being willing to fly at "non-social" hours, says Alex Bank, a 24-year-old from Ipswitch, England, who has flown on EasyJet more than 100 times in the past four years.
Most of the airlines release their tickets in blocs of several months two or three times a year. Seats start out cheap but go up as they sell out and the departure date nears. So book a flight as early as two months before you want to fly. I booked the tickets for my November trip in late August.
Many carriers also offer discounted promotional fares that can make cheap flights ridiculously cheap. But sometimes you have to look hard for the deals: EasyJet doesn't highlight its promotional fares on its Web site. Passengers are often tipped off by one of the airline's European billboards.
In contrast, airlines like Ryanair and BMI Baby, an offshoot of British Midlands, regularly spotlight specials on their Web pages. Ryanair lists all of its promotional fares on its home page, where you can click on a city to find out how you can book the price advertised. BMI Baby advertises its promotions via large headlines on its home page.
Unfortunately, the airlines don't offer frequent-flier programs. But you can register at many of their Web sites to receive e-mails on the latest deals. EasyJet even allows travelers to tailor their registration so they are only notified of promotions to the spots they travel to the most.
And if you're worried that these airlines are jacking up their prices for the summer, don't be. According to a recent Web search, the trip I took in November would not cost me much more than if I booked it this August.
Then, the six legs would cost $259.73, only $64.96 more than I paid last fall -- and still cheaper than most train tickets from London to Paris.
Jeffrey White is a reporter at the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass.