Author- SUSAN STELLIN Published: July 3, 2013 (in NYT)
I recently got an intensive course in fee forensics while researching fares between Dublin and Edinburgh, a route I flew two years ago, paying $61 for a one-way ticket on Aer Lingus (which is not always considered a budget carrier, but the distinctions are starting to blur).
Aer Lingus and most of its competitors, including Ryanair and easyJet, now charge baggage fees that vary depending on your route, when you’re traveling and whether you pay online or at the airport. They have strict size and weight limits for checked and carry-on bags. And their fee charts include a dizzying array of options (and penalties) that have not yet made it across the Atlantic.
For instance, the Spanish low-cost airline Vueling charges a 4 euro “baby change fee” (roughly $5 at $1.27 to the euro) — the price to change a lap child’s flight, not an airborne diaper service — a fee even Spirit Airlines hasn’t tried in the United States. On the plus side, the fee to change an adult ticket is only 45 euros (about $57) on Vueling and about the same on other European airlines, a bargain compared with the $200 now demanded by many American carriers.
So it’s not all bad news, but many of the fees may surprise infrequent visitors to Europe. Here’s what to watch out for to make sure your low-fare flight doesn’t end up costing a fortune.
I ruled out Ryanair for my trip once I saw that passengers are allowed only one carry-on, weighing up to 10 kilograms (22 pounds), an amount my bag often exceeds once it’s filled with a laptop, toiletries, chargers and other electronics.
The dimensions of that carry-on can’t be more than 55 by 40 by 20 centimeters (or 22 by 16 by 8 inches, similar to American size limits), but don’t assume there’s wiggle room for your slightly heavier or bigger bag, as there often is in the United States.“We have sizers at the gate to make sure it fits,” said Robin Kiely, a Ryanair spokesman, pointing out that the 80 million passengers who flew Ryanair last year accept the airline’s rules in exchange for lower fares. “People get used to traveling with us, and they understand the way things work.”
Ryanair’s fee for a checked bag ranges from 15 to 140 euros, depending on whether you’re flying in low or high season, the weight of your bag (15 or 20 kilograms) and whether you pay when you book your ticket (the cheapest option) or at the airport (the most expensive). If you pay for a 15-kilogram bag but it turns out to be heavier, you’ll pay a penalty of 20 euros per kilo at the airport.
Baggage fees in the United States tend to be more standardized: usually $25 for the first checked bag on a domestic flight. Other airlines, including Aer Lingus, easyJet, Air Berlin and the British discounter Flybe, take a similar approach, charging more for your checked bag if you wait to pay the fee at the airport, and less if you select this option when you book your ticket or pay online.
The airlines all tend to be strict about enforcing the one-carry-on rule, which means you can bring only a single bag — not a small rolling bag and a purse or a laptop bag, which is generally allowed in the United States. “Don’t assume that there’s going to be leniency,” said Tom Hall, the London-based director of digital editorial for Lonely Planet. “If you are caught, it is generally quite an expensive mistake.” (EasyJet charges £40, about $60, if you show up at the gate with two bags and one has to be checked.)
While size limits can vary by a few centimeters, many airlines have reduced the dimensions of carry-on bags. To encourage passengers to bring smaller bags, easyJet recently introduced a “cabin bag guarantee,” promising that any bag that was no bigger than 50 by 40 by 20 centimeters would fly in the cabin.
Still, if you’re not going to be traveling light, you may be better off flying British Airways or Lufthansa, which still allow passengers one free checked bag and have looser carry-on policies.
Another way visitors to Europe can get tripped up (and sometimes gouged) is by overlooking rules about the check-in process. Ryanair charges 70 euros if you don’t print your boarding pass and have to get one at the airport. That fee is per passenger, so a family of four would be charged 280 euros. In the United States, Spirit Airlines charges $10 a passenger if you need an agent to print your pass.
Ryanair does allow passengers to check in online starting 15 days before their flight, versus 24 hours ahead of time in the United States, but Mr. Kiely said the airline does not offer mobile boarding passes, and won’t waive the fee for customers who plead ignorance.
This spring, easyJet also adopted an online-only check-in policy, allowing passengers to check in as early as 30 days before their flight. But the airline is not charging a penalty if customers show up at the airport without a boarding pass, at least for now.
“In exceptional circumstances, the customer service desk can help them,” said Anna Knowles, an easyJet spokeswoman. EasyJet is testing mobile boarding passes, which will let travelers save their boarding pass on their phone instead of seeking out a printer. Flybe and Air Berlin already offer this option.
Also pay attention to check-in, bag drop and boarding time limits, which vary by airport and carrier. If you’re flying Ryanair, your bag has to be dropped off at least 40 minutes before departure (on British Airways, it’s typically 45 minutes); on easyJet, boarding closes 30 minutes before the flight’s scheduled departure.
Other fees to watch for include “administrative fees” to buy a ticket (5 euros on Vueling, 7 euros on the Hungarian discounter Wizz Air) and surcharges if you pay with a credit card (2.5 percent of your total ticket price on easyJet, 2 percent on Ryanair and 3 percent on Flybe). By using a debit card, you can usually avoid a fee.
You may also have to pay simply to call customer service: 10 pence a minute if you’re dialing easyJet or Flybe; to reach a human at Ryanair, prices vary depending on what country you’re calling from, but can be more than 1 euro a minute if you opt for “priority assistance.”
If you’re traveling with a lap child (under 2 years old), learn if you’ll have to pay an “infant fee,” typically about 30 euros a flight, a fee American carriers have not embraced. If you book a seat for your child and bring a car seat on board, Ryanair also charges an “infant equipment fee” (10 euros in advance, 20 at the airport).
Surcharges for seat reservations and priority boarding should be less surprising to American visitors, and may be lower than what United States airlines charge.
If all of this makes you decide to take the train or ferry instead (which is what I did, paying $68, about half of what it would have cost to fly from Dublin to Glasgow with bag fees), that just confirms the airline industry’s claim that à la carte pricing gives customers choices. And in Europe, many travelers still choose to fly.GO BACK TO HOMEPAGE Tweet