Consuming Issues: How to navigate through Ryanair's maze of charges

People say low-cost travel is easy, but travellers need stamina and guile to negotiate Ryanair's maze of charges.

John Fingleton, chief executive of the Office of Fair Trading, made this point when he described Ryanair's £5 credit card charge as "puerile" in an interview last week with The Independent.

That drew a furious response from Ryanair, which accused the OFT of singling it out while failing, allegedly, to tackle dodgy practices at more expensive airlines.

My personal view – stated here previously – is that, notwithstanding the environmental damage done by mass air travel, Ryanair is good value for travellers prepared to go down the no-frills route, especially when compared with the cost and unremarkable service of the old state carriers.

For the six months to 30 September, Ryanair's sales were £1.5bn from 36.4 million passengers – £43.40 per flight, the cost of a DVD box set. Yet customers paying fees or booking late pay much more. Here are 10 tips for finding the cheapest flight with Europe's biggest airline:

1. CHECK OUT THE AIRPORT

One reason Ryanair's fares are so low is because it uses airports miles from the headline destination. So Frankfurt Hahn is 75 miles from Frankfurt, and Stockholm-Vasteras is 68 miles from Stockholm. While that won't necessarily make the flight expensive, check the availability and cost of transport to your final destination.

2. BOOK MONTHS AHEAD

Flights can be booked 10 months in advance, but are usually cheapest between two months and two weeks before departure. Fares climb rapidly in the last few days. The cheapest flights are on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Saturday afternoon.

3. ENTER THE RIGHT DETAILS

Severe penalties apply for mis-spelling a passenger: amending a name costs £100 online and £150 at the airport. Always use the name on your passport. Changing a flight is £25 – £100 for a family of four, one-way.

4. MINIMISE LUGGAGE

Ryanair wants to fly quick passengers, not their cumbersome luggage which requires expensive baggage handlers and delays to flying time. Its website assumes passengers require a checked-in bag costing £15, with a maximum weight of 15 kilos, so select the no checked-in bag option if you don't need this much luggage. Remember all passengers can take onboard cabin baggage and adults can pile their belongings into their children's allowance. Cabin baggage should weigh no more than 10kg and measure less than 55cm by 40cm by 20cm. Every kilo over and above 15 kilos for checked-in baggage costs £20 per kilo.

5. AVOID BUYING INSURANCE

Ryanair invites passengers to select insurance. Year round travel insurance normally covers flights and tends to work out cheaper.

6. PAY BY MASTERCARD

Paying by plastic on Ryanair attracts an "administration fee" of £5 per person, per flight – £40 for a holidaying family of four. Owners of Electron cards have to pay this fee as well now. However it can be avoided by using a pre-paid Mastercard. The Mastercard Orion Clubcard costs £15.89 to set up and 50p for every transaction, saving money for anyone booking more than three Ryanair flights a year.

7. DON'T PAY FOR TEXT CONFIRMATION

Ticking the box for mobile phone text confirmation of a booking costs £1. These details are sent immediately – free of charge – to the email address provided at the time of booking.

8. CHECK-IN ONLINE

A £5 online check-in fee applies to fares. Check-in can be done between 15 days and four hours before take-off. Tickets must be printed out, or there is a £40 fee per passenger at the airport.

9. GET TO THE SEATS LAST

"Priority boarding" can be selected for £4 per passenger. Don't bother unless this is important: you won't arrive any sooner.

10. FAST ONBOARD

With such low advertised fares, Ryanair is keen to make margins from the sale of onboard drinks, snacks, duty-free and lottery cards. Having bagged a bargain you may wish to celebrate, but the money may be better spent elsewhere. Generally there's more fun to be had on your arrival than strapped into a seat on a pressurised plane.

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