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A Web of low European airfares

August 03, 2003|James Gilden | Special to The Times

Low-fare European carriers are waging a battle for supremacy in the skies over Britain and the Continent, and bargain shoppers are the early winners. Dozens of these airlines have made it cheaper than ever to book intra-European flights. Once accessible largely to Europeans, these fares are now available to anyone, thanks to the Internet.

The competition is intense among these carriers. Ryanair, a low-fare airline based in Dublin, Ireland, in July offered 100,000 seats at about 56 cents, plus taxes and fees. Airlines are even giving away seats (plus taxes and fees) on hotly contested or slow-selling routes.

"We use the announcements [of promotional fares] to annoy our competitors," said John Rowley, spokesman for Ryanair, who called his company the "Southwest Airlines of Europe."

Here's the catch, though: Those promotional fares are one-way, and the company makes up some revenue on the return flight, he said.

Of the dozens of low-fare airlines listed on such travel Web sites as, Ryanair and London-based easyJet are two of the largest. They carried more than 3.5 million passengers in June; Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, whose low-fare business model they are emulating, carried 5.9 million passengers in the same month.

Such low fares are possible partly because of the high percentage of reservations made on the Web. In June, 90% of easyJet's and 94% of Ryanair's bookings were through their Web sites. (Almost half of Southwest's 2002 revenue was generated through its Web site.) Like Southwest, the European carriers make tickets available only through their own Web sites.

Consumers reap the savings in sales commissions and fees the carriers otherwise would have to pay to third parties. (These airlines maintain phone reservation lines, but the lowest fares are available only online.)

The growing popularity of low-fare European airlines translates to good news if you are using the Internet to plan a European vacation. One-way airfares, once prohibitively expensive, are now competitive with European train fares.

Cheap isn't always convenient, some travelers find. London's Stansted Airport, for example, is well served by the low-fare airlines but is about 40 miles from the city center, and its public transportation links aren't as good as Heathrow's.

"There are certainly bargains to be had," says Ian Eastment of London, who travels frequently around Europe on business and to his vacation home near Malaga, in southern Spain. "I've managed to get [round-trip] fares from Stansted to Malaga for under [$80], but you've got to be flexible and be prepared to travel at unsocial hours."

Like their American cousin, these airlines don't offer frills such as assigned seats or meals.

"All in-flight drinks and food [are] charged, and the selection is poor and fairly expensive," Eastment says. "Fine on a short hop but tedious on a two- to three-hour flight."

Those airlines also use smaller regional airports; think Burbank or Ontario versus LAX. But the small inconveniences can add up to big savings.

Both easyJet and Ryanair use a simple fare structure. All fares quoted on their Web sites are one way, and Saturday night stays or round-trip purchases are not required to qualify for the lowest fare. Prices usually increase as seats are sold.

British Midland, or BMI, has introduced a similar fare structure. Unlike some low-fare airlines, it has assigned seats and free soft drinks and snacks. (BMI has launched to compete directly with the low-fare airlines.)

I compared five airfares and one train fare from London to Paris (see chart). The lowest one-way fare was easyJet's -- a third less than the fare on BMI, its nearest competitor. Expedia offered a reasonable one-way fare on BMI, but it was $35 more than the same fare booked on BMI's site.

Even if your European vacation has only two destinations, you can save money if you book your transatlantic flight separately from your intra-Europe flights.

For example, a trip from Los Angeles to London for four days and Paris for three days, booked for late September on Orbitz, cost $823 in airfare. Booking a round-trip flight from Los Angeles to London on Orbitz ($654) plus a round-trip London-to-Paris flight on easyJet ($62 for the dates selected) could save $107. (These fares may no longer be available.)

With a little patience, you can design a good itinerary for a good price. I tried a London-Amsterdam-Barcelona-Paris-London itinerary in late September, and the total for all four flights came to about $225 on easyJet. These fares are better than an adult Eurail Selectpass Saver train ticket, which starts at $304.

A similar itinerary on BMI was $350. An Expedia search for the same dates and itinerary showed a fare of $2,253 on KLM.

Here are some tips for finding the best deals:

* Many low-fare airlines' Web sites let you sign up for e-mail notification of special fares. As with almost any site, the best fares disappear first, so book early.

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