Fly smart and cheap around Europe
Norwegian Air. Picture: Marian Lockhart

Air travel in Europe has gone through a major revolution in the past 15 years with the introduction of "open skies", essentially removing barriers, to allow any airline to cross the EU.

The move was a boon to new, low-cost airlines with significant fare reductions and today 43 per cent of air travellers in the EU fly on low-cost airlines.

But there is a sting for the unwary traveller - over the past three years, more than 35 of these new entrants and a few traditional airlines have collapsed, leaving passengers stranded as the downturn in Europe's economy and soaring fuel prices have hit home.

Research is the key to trouble-free flying in Europe.

A good guide is membership of the European Low Fare Airline Association, which includes giants such as EasyJet, Ryanair and Norwegian. It was set up in 2003 to represent and protect low-fare airlines and their customers.

The nine members of the ELFAA carried 190 million passengers last year but there are another 50 low- cost airlines in Europe.

One example of a major player not in the ELFAA is Air Berlin.

The proliferation of the low-cost airlines in Europe is only matched by the variety of options in booking and what each airline offers, from bare-bones Ryanair to optioned-up Air Berlin.

With some airlines you can buy seating, priority boarding, champagne and excellent-value meal packs, making the journey better than many legacy airlines.

Key to deciding which airline is best for your needs is where they fly.

Many - such as EasyJet and Ryanair - have multiple hubs but often those bases are not the traditional entry points such as London's Heathrow.

Others have only one home-base hub and all flights transit that hub with few, if any, direct flights.

A large part of the success of the new generation of low-cost airlines in Europe has been their operation into secondary regional airports that have clamoured to get this new breed of airlines to call their airport home.

Some of these operators also connect many of these regional centres with direct flights, thus saving the costly and lengthy flights in and out of an airline's home base to reach the final destination.

As in Australia, the deciding factor is the final price, not the headline price.

In many cases, airlines will get you hooked on their websites with a lead-in price that barely resembles the final, sobering cost that appears on your credit card statement a month later.

Also check carefully where your "low-cost" flight is going to land.

Unlike Australia, where virtually all destinations on the low-cost airline map are major airports, in Europe some are just a runway in a field of sunflowers with a tin shed for a terminal.

Whether there is car hire available or even a bus service to your destination becomes critical or your low-cost experience may become a nightmare.

Potential pitfalls aside, flying with airlines such as EasyJet is - as the name suggests - easy, enjoyable and cheap.

The West Australian

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