The rumors are true: traveling around Europe is much more convenient than it is in U.S., and most importantly cheaper. I spent many hours surfing the websites of the budget European airlines, namely Ryanair, EasyJet, Aer Lingus, and Vueling to name a few. Ultimately, Ryanair almost always comes out on top, or should I say down low, when it comes to cheap flights. But as they say, everything comes with a price, and Ryanair is in the business to try to charge you with as many fees as they can.
At the beginning of the semester I had no idea what I was doing in terms of booking flights. Besides booking my trans-Atlantic flight to Rome, I had little experience with booking flights. It sounds like it should be easy enough, but there is a science to getting the right price. Certain days are better to book a flight than others. I heard rumors that Tuesday or Wednesday were the best days to get the best price for Ryanair, but prices are constantly fluctuating. You could refresh the page 5 minutes after first arriving at it and you see a more expensive price with the “1 seat left at this price” phrase meant to scare you into purchasing a seat immediately. The flight times are often at less than ideal times, such as early in the morning or very late at night, but with a stroke of luck you could find a flight at a reasonable hour.
Generally, the closer a destination is from your departure city, the cheaper the flight. For example, a flight from Rome to Athens would be less expensive than a flight from Rome to Stockholm. A flight from Rome to Athens round trip could be as little as 20 euro (about $30 give or take) and a flight from Rome to Stockholm could be as much as 200 euro (about $260). And, like in the states, flight prices go up during holidays. But as you can see, flights are generally reasonably priced, and sometimes a steal, if you book at the right time.
But sadly, the process of boarding a Ryanair flight is anything but reasonable. Boarding the aircraft begins before you even arrive at Rome Ciampino Airport, the smaller of the two airports that service Rome (the larger airport is Rome Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci Airport). Both airports are located about 20 miles outside of the city center near the coast. Ryanair only flies out of Ciampino which has only one terminal.
Based in Ireland, Ryanair is all about trying to get every last euro that they can from you given that their flights are so cheap. All Ryanair passengers must print out their boarding passes starting from 15 days before their flight up until four hours prior to departure. You check-in online and must go through an array of steps, which include somewhat ridiculous questions asking you if you want to purchase Ryanair Talk or a rental car at your destination, whether you want to pay more for priority boarding, and whether you want to pay to check a bag. That’s right, bags DO NOT fly free on Ryanair. You are allowed one piece of carry-on baggage that must fit within a container that is at the boarding gate.
When you arrive at the airport, you must still wait in the standard check-in line to get your boarding pass stamped, which makes printing the boarding pass ahead of time pointless. After proceeding through security and passport control, you make your way to the gate and hope that you are closest to the front of the line as possible (especially if you are traveling with other people). Seats are not assigned on Ryanair, so it is basically a free-for-all to get seats together with your friends and family, which causes a mad dash once boarding begins to get on the plane as fast as possible. Boarding a Ryanair flight is usually done from outside the terminal walking up steps either in front or in back of the aircraft right on the runway.
Once on the aircraft, you begin to understand what you may have heard about the tight quarters. There are about 30 rows of three seats on the left and three seats on the right. Taking off can sometimes leave you feeling on edge, even more so than take off on another airline. It is common to drop unexpectedly as well as ascend rapidly without any notice. And if turbulence hits, which it often does because of the small size of the aircraft, make sure your seat belt is fastened because its going to be a “bumpy ride.”
Once cruising altitude has been reached, the food and beverage service commences, but beware, these are not included in your ticket. Not even a cup of water. Next smokeless, yes, smokeless, cigarettes are sold and can be smoked aboard the flight. Then lotto tickets are sold (Europe’s version of the lottery). And after you are asked if you want to donate to a U.K. charity or buy something from the on-flight catalog. Through all of this, the crew is serving food or beverages and walking up or down the aisle while the plane is experiencing nerve-racking turbulence, and I was left wondering how much training they receive to prepare them for this. To top it all off (and this still amazes me) a Ryanair pilot need not be licensed in order to fly an aircraft.
At the end of the flight, after the plane has made somewhat of a rocky landing and has begun taxiing, the traditional horn sounds that signals that “You have arrived on yet another on time Ryanair flight.” Ryanair claims to beat every other European airline in on time arrivals by 90%. But once you take a flight or two you realize why this is: the airline often over-estimates the flight time so that the flight always beats its own scheduled arrival and its nearly impossible to arrive late.
In recent years Ryanair has been having major financial problems given that Ireland’s economy is essentially in a recession. It’s reputation in Europe is mixed but it is known for its low prices and anyone looking to travel for business or a weekend getaway is at their mercy because other airlines virtually cannot compete. I was a passenger on six Ryanair flights during my time abroad and it definitely played a significant role in my experience. It made me appreciate other airlines and especially my flight back to Boston on Lufthansa so much more (not to mention that take off and landing actually felt strange because they were so SMOOTH!).
A Ryanair flight is an experience unlike any other flight you are likely to take in your lifetime. No study abroad student’s semester is complete without at least one flight aboard this budget airline. I was left with lots of laughs and memories from these flights despite my review of the airline sounding extremely negative. A college student is in the business to save money, and Ryanair generally makes traveling more affordable while in Europe.