Comparing Europe’s top 4 low-cost carriers: Ryanair, EasyJet, Jet2 and Wizz Air
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Between limited legroom, complex baggage rules and fees galore, it can be easy to be intimidated by Europe’s low-cost carriers — but those cheap prices on nonstop flights can be hard to resist for a bank holiday weekend.
Irish carrier Ryanair serves more than 200 destinations in more than 30 countries, with over 1,700 routes in total. British airline EasyJet also flies to several popular destinations in Europe, including Paris, Rome, Barcelona and more. Wizz Air is based in Budapest, though has recently opened bases in the U.K. and operates flights mainly to and from Eastern Europe, while Jet2, a British airline, also flies all around Europe from many airports within the U.K.
While each airline offers low fares, not every flight experience will be the same. Next time you’re looking to book that ultra-cheap ticket, make sure to consult this guide first.
|Check-in Requirements||Travellers should check in online, print their boarding pass or download a mobile pass (when available). You can also download the airline’s app, available for both iOS and Android. Otherwise, it costs either £/€55 to check in at the airport or £/€20 to print a boarding card at the airport. Those who’ve paid extra for seat selection can check in online 60 days in advance and up to two hours before the flight. Those with unreserved seats can check in between 48 hours and two hours before the flight. Non-EU/EEA citizens must have their travel documents checked and stamped at the Ryanair Visa/Document Check Desk before certain flights.||No charge for checking in at the airport or printing a boarding pass, but it’s best to check in and print a boarding pass ahead of time — or use the EasyJet app. Web check in is available between 30 days and two hours before the flight.||Check in online is allowed between 30 days and three hours before the flight. If travellers don’t print their boarding pass before arriving or download a mobile pass when available, they must pay between €10 and €30 (or £9 to £27) at the airport, except at select airports where it’s free to check in, including Corfu, Palma de Mallorca, Zaragoza, Moscow, Marrakessh, and both Dubai and Tirana when flying to Budapest.||When booking, travellers must select between web and mobile check in or airport check in. If you choose to check in at the airport, you’ll be charged a fee starting at £12. Web check in is available 28 days in advance of the flight.|
|Carry-on Baggage Allowance||One bag under the seat with a maximum size of 40x20x25 centimetres. Priority passengers (from £/€6 and up), can take one bag under the seat with a maximum size of 40x20x25cm, plus an additional bag with a maximum size of 10 kilograms and 55x40x20 centimetres. The extra service also includes priority boarding.||One bag with a maximum size of 56x45x25 centimetres with no weight limit. Starting 10 February 2021, travellers can only bring one bag that must fit under the seat with a maximum size of 45x36x20. Those who paid for an upfront or extra legroom seat can also bring one bag to fit in the overhead bin with a maximum size of 56x45x25cm.||One bag with a maximum size of 10 kilograms and 40x30x20 centimetres can be placed under the seat. Travellers with Wizz Priority service can bring one carry-on bag with a maximum size of 40x30x20 centimetres and an extra trolley bag with a maximum size of 55x40x23 centimetres.||One bag with a maximum weight of 10 kilograms and maximum size of 56x45x25 centimetres, including any wheels and handles, plus one personal item (such as a handbag or laptop bag) as long as it fits underneath the seat in front. If the flight is full, your 10-kilogram bag may be put in the hold, but for an extra £2.50, you can guarantee that it stays with you in the cabin.|
|Seat Width and Pitch||43.2 centimetres (17 inches) and 76.2 centimetres (or 30 inches). No recline.||44 centimetres (17.5 inches) and 72.5 centimetres (29 inches). No recline.||45.72 centimetres (18 inches). Wizz Air claims its seat pitch is actually 76.2 centimetres (30 inches) but in TPG U.K.’s experience, we measured it as 73.7 centimetres (29 inches). No recline.||41.1 to 44.7 centimetres (or between 16.2 and 17.6 inches) and 71.2 to 78.7 centimetres (or 28 to 31 inches). No recline.|
|Hold Baggage||Each traveller can bring three bags weighing 20 kilograms each. Each 20-kilogram bag costs £/€25 if purchased during the initial flight booking or £/€40 if added online afterward. Rates at the airport desk are higher and vary based on route and season. Bags weighing more than 20 kilograms cost £/€11 per kilo (or local currency equivalent per kilo), capped at 32 kilograms. A new option to check a 10-kilogram bag (starting at £/€10) is now available. Customers travelling on the same reservation can pool their baggage allowance.||Each traveller can bring three hold bags at either 15 kilograms, 23 kilograms or 32 kilograms. Prices range from £6.99 to £42.49 for 15 and 23 kilogram bags if purchased online. An extra £12 for every 3 kilograms of weight is added until 32 kilograms. Prices to check bags at the airport start at £45 and up.||Each traveller can bring up to six hold bags. Rates are based on date of travel and if you paid online or at the airport. Rates range from €9 (£8) online for a 10-kilogram bag on off-peak travel dates to €109 (about £98) for a 32-kilogram bag checked at the airport.||Each traveller can bring three hold bags at 22 kilograms each. 22-kilogram bags start at £25.50. Additional weight is charged at £12 per kilogram up to 32 kilograms.|
|Seat Allocation||Standard seat selection starts at £/€3, and extra legroom or front seats start at £/€7. Children under 12 get reserved seats for free, but accompanying adults must pay. Plus or Flexi Plus have seat selection included.||Prices for seat selection range from £0.99 for standard seats to £39.99 for front, extra legroom or overwing seats. FLEXI fares or EasyJet Plus have seat selection included.||Seat selection prices range from €4 to €50 (or £3.60 to £45) depending on seat, season and route. Wizz Go and Wizz Plus fares have seat selection included.||When booking, special deal prices may be offered (think: 15% off seat selection and one hold bag). Standard seat selection runs from £7 to £18.|
|Priority Boarding||Prices start at £/€6 and up. The service includes extra carry-on luggage and allows you to board first in a special line. Priority boarding is capped at 95 customers per flight. Flexi Plus fares have this service included.||Speedy boarding is available to travellers with an EasyJet Plus card, FLEXI ticket or an up-front or extra-leg-room seat.||If booked online, priority boarding is available for between €5 and €35 (or £4.50 to £31.50) depending on season and route. If booked at the airport, it’s €20 (about £18). This fare is also included with Wizz Go and Wizz Plus as well as Wizz Air Privilege.||Jet2 doesn’t offer priority boarding.|
|Fare Classes||Plus fares include free standard seat selection, free airport check in and one hold bag. Flexi Plus fares come with seat selection, priority boarding, free airport check-in, flexible ticket changes and one hold bag. Ryanair also has special family fares.||FLEXI fares allow changes to flight dates and times, plus a free 23 kilogram hold bag, dedicated bag drop, speedy boarding, Fast Track security at selected airports, a seat at the front of the aeroplane, an under-seat bag in addition to your cabin bag and a £7.50 (or currency equivalent) bistro voucher to spend onboard.||Wizz Go fares allow a carry-on bag with a maximum size of 40x30x20 centimetres plus an additional bag with a maximum size of 55x40x23 centimetres, a 20 kilogram checked bag, seat selection, free airport and online check-in, priority boarding and priority check-in. Wizz Plus fares allow a carry on bag with a maximum size of 40x30x20 centimetres plus an additional bag with a maximum size of 55x40x23 centimetres, a 32 kilogram checked bag, premium seat selection, flexible changes and refund options, free airport and online check-in, priority boarding and priority/auto check-in.||Jet2 doesn’t have special fares, but it does have instant deals, where the cost of seat selection and hold baggage is bundled together with a 15% discount or the cost of seats, meals and hold baggage for a 25% discount. Travellers can take advantage of these deals during the online booking process.|
|Loyalty Programme||It’s still unclear how the myRyanair programme will reward travellers.||EasyJet Plus costs £215 per year and includes allocated seating every time you fly, dedicated bag-drop desks, Fast Track security at select airports, speedy boarding, an additional cabin bag and more.||Wizz Air Privilege Pass costs €199 (£170) per year and includes seat selection, priority boarding, an extra cabin bag with a maximum size of 55x40x23 centimetres in addition to the other cabin bag with a maximum size of 40x 30×20 centimetres.||MyJet2 scheme is a free membership programme where you can receive special deals and offers by email.|
|Fleet||Ryanair operates a fleet of more than 450 737-800s.||EasyJet primarily uses the Airbus A319-100, the A320-200 and A321-200.||WizzAir operates Airbus A320 and Airbus A321 aircraft.||Jet2 uses mainly 737-800s.|
Obviously, the clear winner here is EasyJet, as the airline doesn’t charge for airport check in. In general, the best way to avoid paying extra is to check in online ahead of time, either by printing your pass or using a mobile pass whenever possible.
Since many of these airlines offer check in options several days or even weeks in advance, you can do this before leaving for your holiday, as well as your return flight. With Ryanair, always confirm if you need or don’t need the stamp if you’re a non-EU/EEA citizen, just to be safe.
Although Jet2 wins here for having the largest free carry-on bag plus an included personal item, the most important takeaway from this section is to measure (and weigh, depending on the airline) your carry-on baggage ahead of time to avoid issues at the airport. Unfortunately, EasyJet is following in Ryanair’s footsteps in February 2021 and lowering its cabin baggage allowance (another one bites the dust).
Planning ahead, organizing what bags you’ll need and purchasing whatever carry-on bags (and hold baggage) you need during booking can help you avoid unwanted additional charges later. If you’re planning on getting a new carry-on, we recommend taking your airline’s carry-on measurements along with you so ensure it meets the requirements. That way, you won’t have to pay extra in the long run. If carry on baggage, hold baggage and seat selection is important to you, do the math. Buying a fare class that bulks these options together may be worth it than adding all the extras in at the end.
Seat size and allocation
These carriers don’t feature business-class seats or economy seats that recline, so if you’re extra tall, booking a seat with added legroom or a standard aisle seat is going to be your best bet. The airline with the smallest and largest seats is Jet2, and the size depends on the aircraft you’re flying. You can always check SeatGuru before purchasing your ticket, using your flight number and flying date to determine which aircraft and which size seats you’ll have. This may be a deciding factor on whether or not you choose to pay extra to select your seat.
Obviously, some of the lowest rates for seat selection don’t sound like a massive investment, but who wants to pay extra to reserve a middle seat in the back? This may be an area worth the splurge, especially if want to sit next to friends and family during your trip or need extra space.
Hold baggage very much depends on the route and season you’re flying with some of these carriers. Our best advice is to decide what luggage you’re planning to bring along, and reserve it as soon as you book. None of these low-cost carriers include a free hold bag, and fees depend on both the weight of your luggage as well as the rate or season you’re flying — so there’s no clear winner here.
The most important thing to do is weigh your bags before flying to avoid having to pay extra at the check-in desk if your bag is overweight. You don’t want to get to the airport and be surprised or caught off guard. Carrying a small luggage scale with you is also a good idea for your return trip, especially if you plan to shop during your holiday.
Although Ryanair’s priority line is sometimes longer than the regular boarding line, its priority-boarding-plus-carry-on package is one of the better deals. With this policy, the price includes the extra carry-on baggage as well as a chance to board first. Just remember, this is capped at the first 95 people to book it, so make sure to reserve it upon booking your ticket to ensure you’re one of the lucky 95.
If you’re a fan of priority boarding, Jet2 isn’t the right airline for you, as it doesn’t offer it.
Each of these airlines seems to bundle some of the extras together, so it may actually be cheaper to buy the next-highest fare class instead of the lower one, and then having to pay to check a bag and reserve a seat. You should always check the costs carefully when booking to see which fare on which airline gives you what you want, but also makes sense for your budget. Sometimes, the extras can end up costing more than the ticket itself.
None of these carriers belong to a true loyalty programme that allows you to earn and redeem miles. However, if you find yourself regularly flying on either Wizz Air or EasyJet, especially for business, you should look into joining their membership programmes. Doing so may save you money in the long run, despite the annual fee.
While true AVGeeks could argue their preference for the A320 family or the 737 for various reasons, for the everyday traveller, it often comes down to what’s inside the aircraft. All four of these European low-cost carriers arrange their cabins in an all-economy and 3-3 seating configuration, so it’s best to consider pitch and seat width if you’re looking to fly in comfort.
Well, as much comfort as you can find on a low-cost carrier. Bring that neck pillow along!
There’s no winner in the realm of low-cost carriers. As each airline has such specific fees and rules and those often vary by route or season, it’s hard to select one superior airline. Plus, if hold baggage doesn’t apply to you, or you don’t care about seat width, then your favourite low-cost carrier may be quite different from your neighbour’s. The main point is to decide what’s important to you (such as a larger carry-on, an extra personal item, free airport check in, cheap seat allocation) and pick the airline that offers you the most.
Whatever airline you choose, read the fine print ahead of time and know exactly what your fare covers (or, more likely, doesn’t) and what parameters are attached to your ticket. After all, you don’t want to have to pay a fee to print your boarding pass that costs more than the price of your seat. And you don’t want to be denied boarding just because you’re missing a stamp, either.
And before you book, always make sure to check all of your options — including a comparison with a traditional full-service carrier. One of the reasons low-cost airlines are so enticing is the lure of extremely cheap fares. But they’re not always the better deal when you factor in all the extras.
Featured photo via Getty Images.
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