Budget airlines' prices miss out pricey 'extras' such as taking baggage and even checking in. Even so, learn to get over these hurdles and you can pay £30-ish per return.
Whether it’s Ryanair, Easyjet, Flybe or others, we've 20 tips to keep flying costs to a minimum. This guide will train you how to fly hand luggage only, beat check-in fees, wear your baggage and more.
01 Speedily find the cheapest tickets
Budget airlines take huge adverts out for £20 or half price sales, yet these flights are tough to find. Our Budget Airline FlightChecker is designed to crack this.
- Instantly find super-cheap flights. Tell it what you're willing to pay, and it finds when that's available. Sub-£30 returns can be possible, though this jumps in school hols.
- Try 'I'll go anywhere' for ideas. If you just want to get away cheaply, select 'I'll go anywhere' (or anywhere in Spain or Italy, etc) to reveal the winners.
- Includes baggage and payment fees. The tool also includes an estimate of budget airlines' added extras, so you can search with or without those.
Budget airlines sales are always for set times (eg, April only) and specific destinations, so if you see a sale you're interested in, restrict your search to those.
02 £30 returns are possible - if you know what you're doing
Budget airlines can sell flights for minuscule prices because that's all you're paying for: a flight. First check the price includes standard charges such as airport fees and air passenger duty. Most of them do, but never assume.
Then take on the add-ons. The airlines include a plethora of extra charges to claw back this cash. The key is to think of these charges as a hurdle race. Get over most without knocking them down and the prize is uber-cheap flights. So remember...
Learn the system and you can still sometimes fly for £15 each way in total
Quiz: What’s the cost of a £30 flight?
Get it wrong, and it could cost you big. Guess the total additional charges for a family of four on a Ryanair £15 each-way return flight.
They're flying in September, paying by debit card, taking two 15kg suitcases (not booked in advance) and forgot to check-in online.
Reveal the answer
The extras come to £480. That's £100 return for each suitcase in peak period (£200) and £70 for checking in at the airport (£280) when they leave. We hope they wouldn't make the same mistake coming back.
03Fly hand-luggage only
If you want to stow luggage in the hold, you can pay up to £150 per case return (more in extreme cases). Plus budget airlines' weight allowances for checked-in cases can be lower than elsewhere at 15kg to 20kg.
No airlines charge for basic hand luggage (though Wizz Air charges for certain sizes). Up 10kg is usually fine - Easyjet has no weight limit. Though always check size restrictions.
You can squeeze more into hand luggage than you think - here are some tips.
Stick to carry on rules
You must carry liquids and gels in individual, 100ml-maximum containers. All containers must be in one transparent, 20 x 20cm, resealable bag.
You're allowed to carry more than one 100ml container, so you could, say, decant sunscreen into two 100ml bottles. See the Government's full regulations.
Don't buy posh travel-size toiletries
Travel-size lotions and potions can be hugely pricey. So grab small transparent empty bottles, wash and dry them carefully, and fill 'em up from your everyday toiletries. Complementary mini-toiletry bottles from previous hotel stays are perfect.
Buy cheap, lightweight cases
More cases are now specifically built within budget airlines' limits, and buying them is often cheaper than baggage charges. The case doesn't have to be fancy - you can get small, light ones for £10 at local markets.
Weigh to go
Always weigh your case at home before you travel. Many pound stores sell natty travel scales that let you weigh your luggage before you fly - handy for the way back.
Take a soft case
You can usually stuff more into these than hard cases, as they have a little more give.
Take travel laundry wash
This means you'll be able to take a small capsule wardrobe and wash as you go. Plus you won't have to pay for a laundry service.
Leave space for your return
Many people jet home from a holiday with more than they took. If that's you, ensure you leave space in your luggage for some miniature clogs or an "I heart Rome" mug.
Remember your bag will need to pass the size test
It's not just about weight - size matters too. Always check size restrictions before flying, or you could be hit with a hefty fee if your bag's too big.
If cases don't fit airlines' cabin requirements, they can force you to pay up to £75 per item, per flight to put luggage in the hold at check-in. If you chance it at the boarding gate by checking in online and taking too-big baggage through security, fees can double.
This table shows what size hand luggage you can take on board, and how much airlines charge to put oversized cabin bags in the hold. For a full list of fees to stow cases in the hold, see baggage charges below.
|Max hand luggage sizes and fees (one way)|
|Max hand luggage size||
|Per bag booked in advance||At check-in||At gate|
|Ryanair||55 x 40 x 20cm (+ 1 bag up to 35x20x20)||10kg||From £15||£30-£75||£50|
|Easyjet||56 x 45 x 25cm (1)||No limit||From £11||£30||£45|
|Flybe||55 x 40 x 23cm||10kg||From £15||£40||£50|
|Jet2||56 x 45 x 25cm||10kg||From £10||£45||£45|
|Monarch||56 x 40 x 25cm||10kg||From £10||£25||£50|
|Thomson Airways||55 x 40 x 20cm||5kg||From £24||£48-£64||Unclear (2)|
|Wizz Air||56x45x25 (but fees charged over 42x32x25) (3)||No limit||From £9||£30||£30|
(1) Easyjet can only guarantee bags measuring max. 50 x 40 x 20cm including wheels and handles can be taken on board. If between the guaranteed size and the maximum, and they ask to check in baggage, there's NO fee. (2) A spokesman says there's no gate fee, but we're dubious given that's a no-risk licence to chance it. (3) Between 42x32x25 and 56x45x25, there are fees from £9 to £15 to take on board depending on when you booked online and how full the flight was at the time.
04Wear your baggage
Use your home scales. If you're near the hand luggage weight limit, stuff socks and undies in to your jacket, then stow it under your seat on the plane.
Then again, you could take it to the extreme. For an ITV Tonight programme, Martin wore a special US survivalist jacket on a Ryanair flight.
It contained a laptop, two books, a towel, passports, a T-shirt, socks, magazines and much more. Even though it was heavier than hand luggage, they don't have rules to stop it … yet.
Martin wore a 22-pocket Scottevest from the USA. It ain't cheap, so check your wardrobe or try a camping or army surplus store. One thing to look out for is a jacket with a poacher's pocket, a deep lower pocket at the back where hunters keep game.
£5 off 'pack-in-the-pocket' jackets
Another option is a Rufus Roo*, a specialist big-pocket jacket. Jackets normally start from £29.95 plus £3.95 delivery. But enter the code UKM5 and you get £5 off, bringing the total cost to £28.90, including postage. The offer is ongoing, while stocks last and some colours/sizes may be limited.
We asked forumites to road-test it. Typical feedback: "Fits in a lot of stuff, more than I expected. No hassle through check-in or security" and "It isn't the most stylish, but it's very lightweight". See more reviews and pictures in the forum.
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05Watch MSE Rose's top hand-luggage only packing tips
Above we explained budget airlines' hand luggage allowances. But to really push it to the max, watch this top packing tips video from our own MSE Rose, who has tons of experience flying on budget airlines.
Top packing tips for flying hand-luggage only
WITH MSE ROSE - Filmed on 23 July 2013
06 Always book hold luggage in advance
It’s much cheaper to book cases stowed in the hold online in advance rather than at the airport, so decent planning is important. Think carefully about minimising the number of cases you need to take.
Some key hold luggage rules:
More bags doesn’t always mean more weight
No matter how many bags you get, often your total weight allowance (usually 15kg-22kg) is fixed. Above that, you can pay up to a shocking £18 per kilo excess.
Always use the scales
Always weigh your baggage, never assume. If you've no scales, a cheeky trick is to nip over to any empty check-in desk and weigh the bag on its built-in scales - they should work whether the desk is open or not. Cram the excess into your hand luggage.
Overweight case at the airport? Consider whether it’s worth paying the excess or throwing things away. Many things cost less to rebuy than the £20/kg excess charge, so beach books and towels may be best left behind. Of course, there's an environmental aspect to bear in mind.
You can't share weight allowances
Family members often can’t pool allowances, so don’t assume one can take, for example, one 8kg and another 30kg. Infants often don't have a baggage allowance.
|Checked luggage fees and allowances|
Per bag each way
Per bag each way
(at the airport)
Per kg Excess
£15 - £45 (1)
£30 - £75 (2)
15kg - 20kg
£11 - £21
From £9 for 3 kilos
£15 - £19
£23 - £26 (3)
£10 - £25
£24 - £32
Varies by route
Varies by route
£9 - £30 (4)
Up to 32kg
Cannot exceed 32kg per bag (5)
(1) 15kg/20kg bags are usually £15/£25, or £25/£35 if you fly peak (4-27 Apr, 1 Jun-30 Sep and 21 Dec-4 Jan). Flights to Canary Islands & Greece cost more - £20/£30 in low season, £35/£45 in high season. See full charges list. (2) It's usually £30/£40, but £50/£55 if you fly peak (4-27 Apr, 1 Jun-30 Sep and 21 Dec-4 Jan). Second bags and flights to Canary Islands & Greece cost more at up to £75 - see full charges list. (3) £23 for first bag, £28 for second, £23 for third - airport check-in is £3 more with bags. (4) Depends on season and length of flight. Weight allowance is 32kg (5) Health and safety rules do not allow bags heavier than 32kg, however additional pieces of luggage can be purchased.
07 Beat check-in fees
It's usually free to check in online, but forget and you can be charged a fee of up to £140 per person, per return to do it at the airport.
If you check in online but arrive without your boarding pass, Ryanair charges £15 per flight to issue another. Jet2 and Wizzair charge up to £17.50 for the same mistake, though it's possible to cut this fee if you select airport check-in when booking.
If you don't have a printer, Easyjet, Flybe, Ryanair and Wizzair have handy apps that let you download your boarding pass to your mobile, but the service is only available at certain airports so check well in advance.
This chart shows how much you'll pay to check in.
08Don't assume budget airlines are cheapest
If you've specific dates in mind, are going further afield, or there's no budget airline sale, check for the cheapest flights via comparison websites. Our top picks are Skyscanner* for ease, TravelSupermarket* breadth and Kayak* gizmos. We've seen examples of cheaper flights when going through these sites so always double check a few and compare the prices against going direct.
For traditional resorts such as Majorca or Malaga, charter flights (extra seats on package operators' planes) can be cheaper. Try TravelSupermarket*, Avro* & Flights Direct*, which include them too. For far more tips - for example, Orlando packages can be cheaper than flight-only trips - see full Cheap Flights guide.
Don't discount package holidays either. In traditional tourist spots, especially for seven or 14 days, package holidays can win, especially if you haggle. Plus you get extra protection if things go wrong. Full step-by-step system in Cheap Package Holidays.
09 Think carefully about how you pay
You used to be able to tool up with niche payment cards to avoid some admin fees. Since the OFT announced that airlines must display debit card prices, admin fees are pretty similar however you pay.
The safest way for flights over £100 is on a credit card (fully repaid so there's no interest) - then you get Section 75 protection, meaning the card company's jointly liable if anything goes wrong. Yet airlines often charge a credit card fee (see the chart below), so you need to balance the risk versus the cost.
Debit card payments get some protection too
If you're paying by debit card, there's also valuable hidden protection that means you may be able to get your money back if something goes wrong. It's called 'chargeback', and applies to most debit and charge cards, as well as Visa, Mastercard and Amex credit cards - though it isn't a legal requirement. See the Chargeback guide for info.
10Take a plane picnic
Budget airlines make extra cash by flogging snacks to hungry flyers at sky-high prices. A splurge on airline snacks could easily undo the savings on your ticket.
Yet it's only liquids that you can't take through security. You can plan ahead and bring your own snacks and sarnies with you.
For example, £2 on a single airline muffin will often buy eight of 'em in the supermarket, making it nearly 90% cheaper to bring your own.
How to have a picnic at 30,000 feet
Packed meals don't need to be drab - you could even theme it around your holiday destination. Canny forumites have compiled a huge list of cheap and delicious packed lunch ideas, from Spanish frittatas to Greek salads.
One MoneySaver recommends taking smaller juice drinks in transparent bottles that are under the liquid allowance limit: "Regarding picnicking on the plane, we take these, they are only 85ml so are OK." - @ShedOnBeach, via Twitter.
If you're already at the airport, forumites report Boots meal deals can come in cheaper than plane equivalents. See the What to eat on a flight? discussion for more.
Check airline restrictions
Airlines and airports may have their own restrictions, so check first. Ryanair says passengers can take their own food and drink on board, but not hot drinks.
11 Beware budget airline baby fees
Baby on board? Budget airlines charge as much as £60 per return to take a tot under two on your lap. If that's you, it's worth comparing budget airline fees against other carriers to see if they'd be cheaper. See Cheap Flights for top pick flight comparisons.
Only babies under age two count as infants - you need to buy a ticket for other kids.
|Budget airline baby charges (per return)|
12% of the fare plus taxes
£35 short-haul/£79 long-haul
Charges are for babies under two-years-old. (1) If the return flight costs less than £42, you pay the flight price.
12 Watch for auto-insurance
Some airlines pre-tick an insurance box, automatically adding travel insurance. One to be careful of is Ryanair. It doesn't automatically include insurance, but you still need to be careful.
Instead, it asks you which country you live in for the purpose of buying insurance. From the drop-down menu it displays, make sure you click 'travel without insurance'. If you click United Kingdom, you'll be charged.
You can get far cheaper travel insurance elsewhere. See Cheap Travel Insurance.
13 Flight delayed in last six years? £100s in compensation possible
Whether the flight was last week, or six years ago, EU rules mean if you’re delayed over three hours or your flight is cancelled, you’re often entitled to £190-£480 per person in compensation.
See the Flight Delays Compensation guide for full step-by-step help.
14 Sit together without paying more
Budget airlines often charge to book specific seats or jump the queue at the gate so you board first. These are generally short-haul flights lasting a few hours, so unless you've kids, sitting separately's not the end of the world.
To boost your chances of sitting together:
- Turn up early. If seats are unassigned, arrive early and lurk by the boarding entrance to boost chances of grabbing a prime spot. If seats are assigned at check-in, do it online if possible, early.
- Find the best seats. Check the plane's layout on Seatguru, which shows the best and worst seats on different airlines' planes. If there's a choice of seats at check-in, you can pick the good 'uns.
- Consider if priority boarding's worth it. It simply means you'll be first on the plane to pick seats. While some MoneySavers with families say priority boarding's worth it, others reckon it's still a big free-for-all and priority boarders don't always get on first.
Some forumites pay for priority boarding for just the biggest, burliest member of their party, who then gets on and saves the seats for the others.
15 Hostels: Dirt-cheap, not dirty
For a budget room to go with your budget flight, hostels can offer massive savings over hotel prices. Don’t think dodgy smelly dorms. Many are clean, have private rooms available and breakfast.
To check out prices and availability, use Hostelbookers.com* and Hostelworld*, both of which give hostels a percentage rating, based on users' experiences.
Alternatively, spare room and apartment rental sites, such as Airbnb and Wimdu, offer cheap short-term stays in private homes worldwide. We found a room in Barcelona flat for £26/night, while a similar hotel was £61/night. See Cheap Hotels for more.
16Avoid a 70-mile trek into town
Budget flights can touch down in airports some distance from the city centre. "London" Southend airport is 40 miles from central London, Stockholm-Skavsta is 60 miles away from the Swedish capital and Oslo-Torp is 70 miles from the centre of Oslo.
So factor in the cost of getting to and from the airport. Take the time of day into account too – if the flight gets in at midnight, a taxi's cost could wipe out any savings if you can't take public transport.
17 Combine one-way budget flights with Avios
If you are an Avios (formerly Air Miles) collector, our 30 Avios Points Boosters can help you push it to the max.
One big advantage of Avios over the old Air Miles scheme is you can book one-way tickets – they simply cost half the number of points as a return flight.
This is a boon if you find a super-cheap budget airline flight for your outward journey, but can't find a cheapie on the way back.
Short-haul Avios flights are top value
Unlike the old Air Miles system, Avios charges passengers taxes and fees on flights, wiping some of the gain. These can be up to £100 for British Airways return flights within Europe.
Under its Reward Saver scheme, you pay a fixed £35 fee on most short-haul economy flights, as long as you earn at least one point in the year before you book.
18Treble-check details when booking
Typos, mistakes and wrong dates can cost large on budget airlines, so treble-check everything before submitting.
Ryanair charges £110 per return to change the named passenger (£160 at the airport). However, it can be sympathetic to innocent errors, for example, if you booked a Ryanair flight under the name Matt, rather than Matthew, as shown on your passport.
If you enter an incorrect nickname, typo or old maiden name, call its helpline and it will usually amend for a £10 admin fee.
However, if you want to a change a passenger, say, Ariel Hassle to Justin Credible, it charges the full fee. Ryanair's press office says this is to stop travel agents buying up the lowest priced seats and reselling them.
19Beware high cost helplines
Budget airlines' premium rate helplines can cost up to 77p per minute (Wizz Air). The website SayNoTo0870.com has a searchable alternative number database to help you work around the charges. See the full Say No To 0870 guide for more.
If you can't locate a cheap number, do as much as possible online, and call at quiet times to avoid long queues.
20 Never wait until the airport for foreign cash
You're a captive customer at an airport or ferry terminal, so you'll probably be lumbered with the worst rates. If you must get your travel cash from the airport, order for pick-up to get a better rate.
Use our TravelMoneyMax travel money comparison site to instantly uncover the best possible deal, including all fees and any commission. The tool lists all the big currencies, and also lets you see who's cheapest for exchanging unused currency back to pounds when you get back (if you've any left!)
21Check fees before bringing buggies and car seats
If you're doing a budget flight with young kids in tow, check how much equipment you're allowed to check in, as allowances vary.
On Ryanair, you can take one collapsable buggy per child for free, plus either a car seat, booster seat or travel cot. Additional pieces of child equipment can be taken at a cost of £10 each (£20 if paid for at the airport).
On Easyjet, for every child you can bring a combination of two of any of the above items for free.
Hire car seats at special airport shops
Child seats are compulsory in Europe for under-3s. Yet from £5/day, hiring child seats from car rental firms is expensive. Some airports, such as Malaga, have places where you can rent car seats at half the cost. See Cheap Car Hire for more.
22 Always book cheap airport parking
Airports often make more from parking and shopping than planes. Leave the car there without booking first and you risk sky-high rates, so don't just turn up. Booking first, even on the day, could save money. See the Cheap Airport Parking guide for the full technique, plus safety tips, how to grab hidden local discounts and more.
23 Free flights - if you play your cards right
Credit cards offer all sorts of free gifts to new cardholders, so it's possible to sign up for the card and grab the freebie. This is handy if you're travelling as there are loads available, including flights around Europe (excluding taxes), Eurostar returns and more.
The free flights aren't actually doled out on application or acceptance. To trigger the freebie gift, most providers require you to spend on the card. So spend as little as possible, and pay off the balance in full to ensure it's totally free. See the Credit Card Freebies guide for the full technique, plus the top freebies.