The budget airlines that can leave you out of pocket

Published by Nathalie Bonney on 26 August 2010.
Last updated on 31 May 2011

flight cabin

At the start of April 2010, Ryanair announced that it's considering charging customers £1 to use the on-board toilets.

However, while it's likely this is just another marketing stunt by the airline, it's casting further doubt over whether budget airlines are truly budget.

There's no doubt that the likes of easyJet, bmibaby and Ryanair have to make their money from somewhere, but have these airlines gone too far with the charges and are there instances when it would be cheaper or more convenient to upgrade your level of flight carrier?

Advertised flights have to include taxes, but what the airlines are doing is adding on extras that don't have to be shown within the 'total cost'.

"Until you go through the booking process, you won't know the true cost," says Tom Hall, travel editor for travel specialists Lonely Planet.

"For those who don't know about all the extras I worry that they will end up paying roughly the same price as a standard flight."

Baggage fees

One of the biggest – and most unavoidable charges – is baggage fees. Traditionally, passengers are allowed to check in one piece of luggage at no extra cost – as British Airways and Thomson still allow.

However, cheaper carriers often charge extra for this – in the case of Ryanair, it's a whopping £30, and nearly £26 for a return flight with both Jet2 and bmibaby.

Luggage limits also tend to be lower than the mainstream airlines. For example, British Airways passengers have a 23kg weight allowance per bag, compared with 15kg with Ryanair and 18kg with bmibaby.

Going over these limits will also cost the passenger dearly, as one Moneywise reader recounts on our website.

"My wife and I were 4kg overweight on hold luggage when we turned up to fly with easyJet from Blackpool to Tenerife," he writes. "We were given no option but to repack or dump the extra – and I ended up paying £40."

For short trips, one way round this is to only take carry-on hand luggage – but again there are limitations.

"Passengers might assume that as well as hand luggage you can carry on a handbag, and maybe a duty-free bag too, but when the airlines say 'one piece' they mean just one bag, plus a coat and umbrella," says Bob Atkinson, travel expert for

Weight limits apply here too, so check these with your carrier. Thomson only allows a meagre 5kg, compared with unlimited allowances with BA and easyJet.

"You can fill your hand luggage with bricks if you like, as long as you can lift it unaided into the overhead hold," says Atkinson.

Families are at a significant disadvantage: it's no use only bringing hand luggage or checking in fewer bags when you have at least four people to pack for. Hall has a young family himself and prefers flying with BA for this reason.

"As a family you're slightly beholden to some of the extra charges such as preferential boarding and booking seats together," he says.

In addition, aside from bmibaby, none of the main budget airlines provide any infant baggage allowance. That means if you're bringing a baby on board, you'll need to include the nappies and toys in your hand luggage allowance.

The premise behind this is that if the infant isn't taking up a seat, the designated space for hand luggage is also not applicable.

"All airlines allow children under two years old to fly for free or for a nominal fee of about £20. After this, most airlines will charge the full fare: from the airline's point of view a seat is still a seat," says Simon White, general manager of online travel agent

Families at least don't have to pay extra or face any restrictions with carrying on buggies, and there's no need to check these in in advance.

While savvy travellers may get away with avoiding some of the extra charges, there are others that are simply unavoidable. Most airlines don't charge a card fee on Electron cards; however, there are few Electron cards available on the market.

A quick search finds just one basic bank account – the easycash account with Halifax – that offers an Electron card. Ryanair and Thomson also waive fees on Mastercard pre-paid for the former and Mastercard debit for the latter.

Check-in charges are one cost most passengers can avoid by booking in online, although Ryanair, bmibaby and Jet2 all charge for this as well.

Avoidable extras

Other extras that are more easily avoidable are priority boarding, text alerts and giving the food on the plane a miss. Even British Airways only provides free breakfasts and drinks and snacks on its short-haul flights. Airlines have no legal obligation to serve customers water for free.

"Of course, if someone is ill during the flight, then airlines will give the passenger whatever is needed, but otherwise they don't legally have to give you anything," says Atkinson.

Parents wanting to keep their little ones quiet during the flight are faced with yet more exorbitant prices. A small tube of Pringles, for example, costs £2 on a Monarch flight, which is 74p more than at the supermarket.

Ultimately, though, while these little add-ons are irritating, flights can still work out cheaper with the low-cost carriers.

For all of Ryanair's perceived penny-pinching, the total for a return to Malaga, including taxes, one checked-in bag and credit card fee, is £186.50 – which is still lower than BA's total of £246.

Critics, of course, will argue the difference isn't enough to warrant the hassle and reduced comfort of flying with a budget carrier, but fans counter that every little helps.

As another Moneywise reader writes: "My wife and I have a small cottage in the south of France. The basic Gatwick-Marseille fare was around £500 return, so flying was completely out of the question at first. Now there are flights to Marseille, Nimes and Avignon from all over.

"I believe it's worth the sales patter and non-reclining seats for what is little more than a 90-minute bus ride."

Hall suggests travellers forget the romantic aura that surrounded flying in the past: "There's an expectation that flying is glamorous – but these guys aren't interested in that.

They're essentially getting people from A to B, then picking up a new load of passengers as quickly as possible."

That's not to criticise the back-to-basics approach, but the new way of doing things won't match some fliers' expectations.

If you can accept your holiday doesn't start until you can stretch your legs in arrivals, the no-frills approach may irritate you less, but if you miss your complementary tomato juice and extra legroom then budget airlines may not be for you.

I'm flying to where???

There has been an explosion in flights to and from small airports across Europe. Even with airlines shutting down some routes in recent years, the number of airports to fly to is still impressive compared with just 10 years ago.

However, when working out your total cost also check where the airport is -– some are a significant distance from the place their airport name suggests.

For example, some passengers fly to Västerås airport believing it to be in Stockholm, but it's actually a separate town over an hour's drive away.

So look at the overall cost of your journey, taking into account additional transport as well as the flight. Also bear in mind that while budget airlines might have cheaper tickets on sale for the early-bird flights, you have to be able to get to the airport.

With a 6am flight, holidaymakers would need to arrive at the airport at least an hour beforehand, and in most cases that would limit public transport options and make a pricey taxi ride necessary.

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