The complete guide to No-Frills Flying

The cheap and cheerful flight is now an established alternative for travellers and the preferred option for some. It is not without its pitfalls however, and the wise will have all the facts before going for the cut-cost opportunity

Five years ago this month, the first proper "no-frills" air tickets went on sale. Or rather, they didn't. There were no tickets. Nowadays, ticketless flights are an established part of the travel landscape. From a couple of borrowed planes shuttling between Luton and Scotland, no-frills flying has evolved at a phenomenal rate. British travellers can now choose from around 100 no-frills routes, at fares usually lower than those charged by the "full service" airlines - so long as they don't mind getting the flight from Luton or Stansted. Europe has been opened up, but no-frills flying is not without its pitfalls. This Complete Guide gives you the inside story on how to make the most of the opportunities that are available - and what happens when things go wrong.

Five years ago this month, the first proper "no-frills" air tickets went on sale. Or rather, they didn't. There were no tickets. Nowadays, ticketless flights are an established part of the travel landscape. From a couple of borrowed planes shuttling between Luton and Scotland, no-frills flying has evolved at a phenomenal rate. British travellers can now choose from around 100 no-frills routes, at fares usually lower than those charged by the "full service" airlines - so long as they don't mind getting the flight from Luton or Stansted. Europe has been opened up, but no-frills flying is not without its pitfalls. This Complete Guide gives you the inside story on how to make the most of the opportunities that are available - and what happens when things go wrong.

What are these frills that i am surrendering? Not much that most travellers will notice: a "free" newspaper, snack and drink. You need not be an especially adroit shopper to buy all these things before you board the plane. Behind the scenes, you are giving up all kinds of expensive-to-provide services, from pre-assigned seating to baggage transfer systems. But if you regard being able to buy through a travel agent as a frill, you will probably lose that too.

One survey after another shows travellers value reliability next to safety. And, usually, no-frills flights are on time.

Why do they fly from small and inconvenient airports? An ideal airport for full-service airlines is somewhere like Heathrow, which can offer the traveller all the sophisticated facilities, such as city-centre check-in, fast access and executive lounges.

An ideal airport for no-frills airlines? A shed. A no-frills flight needs little more than a check-in desk, a trolley and an X-ray machine. So places like Lubeck in Germany and Lamezia Terme in Italy are perfect. They are cheap to run and cheap to fly to. Gatwick and Heathrow charge the airlines around £8 for each passenger, while Luton and Stansted charge less and, until no-frills flying really took off, had plenty of slots.

Why don't they fly to europe from other British airports? They do. Well, easyJet has an operation at Liverpool, and Ryanair serves a couple of continental destinations from Prestwick in southwest Scotland. But almost all the no-frills flights are concentrated in South-east England. That's partly because there's a big, affluent population base. It's also because London is where almost all inbound passengers want to fly.

How do the airlines compare for routes? Each airline has its own area of expertise: easyJet has strong links from Luton

to Spain (Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga, Palma), Switzerland (Geneva and Zurich), plus Amsterdam and Nice, and an excellent domestic network in the UK.

From Liverpool, you can reach Amsterdam, Barcelona, Belfast, Madrid, Malaga, Nice and Palma. Oh, and Luton.

Go, based at Stansted, operates a number of seasonal routes (Reykjavik in the summer for example, Lyon in the winter) It is about to strengthen its domestic network: Belfast and Glasgow are the latest, with Stansted-Edinburgh now flying eight times a day. Go also flies to Copenhagen and Munich and to popular cities in Italy, Bologna, Milan, Naples and Rome.

Ryanair is well on the way to becoming the top UK-Italy carrier, with flights from its Stansted hub to Genoa, Turin and a whole string of airports you may not have heard of. It also does well to quite obscure bits of France (Beauvais, Biarritz, Carcassonne, Dinard, Nimes, Perpignan and St Etienne), and some airports in Scandinavia that are vaguely convenient for big cities.Ryanair's biggest strength, though, remains links to Ireland from airports all over the UK.

Also from Stansted, Buzz specialises, in contrast, in flights to places you have heard of: Berlin, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Paris, Vienna, plus less frequent services to southern France. Virgin Express is based in Brussels, and offers connections from Heathrow and Stansted to a range of destinations. From Stansted, its main routes are to Shannon, Berlin and Brussels.

What are the new destinations most likely to be? If I knew the answer to that question, I wouldn't spend my days writing Complete Guides to No-frills Flying.

The only certainty is that there will be plenty of new services, because the Boeing factory in Seattle is turning out dozens of new 737s for the no-frills airlines. Some of these will be used to increase frequency on existing routes (Stelios told The Independent that he would like to fly between Luton and Glasgow 30 times a day). But there are bound to be more destinations.

The black art of choosing new routes depends on the size of the market at each end, the extent of existing and future competition, and the deal the airline can strike with the airport. In the UK, the Midlands, the North East, Wales and the West Country are notably absent from the no-frills schedules. My bet is that Bristol, East Midlands and Newcastle will soon see some no-frills action (but watch also for Cardiff, Birmingham and Teesside).

Across in Europe, the biggest market is Germany. So far the country has been under-served by no-frills airlines.

Stuttgart, Dresden and/or Leipzig are likely targets. In France, watch for the motley selection of Ajaccio (Corsica), Le Touquet, and Strasbourg. Thanks to Go and Ryanair, Italy looks pretty sewn up, though Sicily is an obvious omission and, since Debonair's demise, Perugia (Umbria) is available. On the Iberian peninsula, the gaps are mostly in the north: Oporto, Santiago and Vittoria. And Holland needs an alternative to congested Schiphol: the main candidates are Eindhoven and Maastricht (which, older readers may recall, was temporarily on the Virgin Atlantic flight map in the mid-Eighties).

Those are all in the European Union. Is that coincidence? No. Two reasons: EU competition rules mean anyone can fly anywhere they want in Europe, if slots are available (and that is a big "if"). It is tougher outside Europe, and Air Passenger Duty is twice as high.

Are no-frills flights always cheaper than the more traditional airlines? No. Everyone from British Airways to SAS has been hit by the competition, and they have struck back hard. Look for especially good deals on Alitalia to Italy, Lufthansa to Germany and British Midland's new routes from Heathrow to Barcelona, Madrid and Milan.

Charter airlines are trying to claw back some lost ground, too. One place to try if you want to see all possibilities is Thomson's new website, www.skydeals.co.uk, which claims to list availability on all scheduled, no-frills and charter flights.

Why can't I book no-frills flights through a high street travel agent? You can, but it will probably cost you more. An essential part of the low-cost proposition is that "distribution" - the business of selling someone an aircraft seat - is low. Overwhelmingly, they sell direct to the customer. There is little room for paying a third party a percentage on the deal. Ryanair sells through agents that are prepared to do the work for minuscule commission, while Go modestly rewards agents who book through its website.

There is nothing to stop an agent buying a no-frills flight on your behalf and adding its own charge - though, so far, few have shown much inclination to do so.

Why, with fares being advertised as cheap as "£5 plus taxes", am i being quoted £200-plus for the flights i really want? Two words: yield management, or squeezing the maximum you can out of every seat. For Luton-Amsterdam on a Monday morning, or Stansted-Barcelona on a Friday evening, that's a small fortune. At other times, such as a wet Wednesday in November, it's the square root of not much at all. To fill these so-called "dog flights", no-frills airlines sell at a pittance. But they keep a few seats back for last-minute sales to people who just have to be on a particular flight, and will pay for the privilege.

In general, the early booker catches the bargains - but that is not guaranteed.

Top marks for easyJet's website, which shows all the flights for a day either side of your travel date. Also, the length of stay can affect the price. All the airlines except easyJet and Virgin Atlantic penalise passengers who stay less than two nights.

Can it be a problem if i don't have a ticket? Not on a no-frills flight. A paper ticket starts to have advantages when you are on a complicated itinerary, or you wish to change airlines. With no frills, both are unlikely.

What about collecting frequent-flyer points? No chance. They cost too much. Debonair (which went bust a year ago) tried to offer these. The US carrier Frontier Airlines has a deal where customers get Continental OnePass miles, but Frontier isn't a real no-frills airline, and it doesn't go anywhere near Britain. The only other attempt here was by easyJet, which for a while gave a bottle of Scotch to anyone paying its top fare between Luton and Aberdeen - with the strict admonition that, if the passenger was travelling on business, the whisky had to be donated to the office party. Strangely, perhaps, you can redeem (but not earn) Air Miles on Go flights.

What happens if i change, cancel or even miss my flight? That often depends on how much you paid for your seat. The top prices on Buzz, Go or Ryanair will enable you to cancel without penalty (although Buzz or Go will issue a credit note rather than an actual cash refund), or change your departure.

At easyJet, you can switch flights for £10, but if the lowest fare on the new flight is higher then you must also pay the difference. For cheap fares on other airlines, you lose your money - or most of it. You are theoretically entitled to claim back Air Passenger Duty, but the last time I successfully did this was back in the days of Debonair; the airline went bust a week later.

What if my flight is late and i miss a connecting train or plane? Tough. Unfortunately for the majority of British travellers, no-frills flying is concentrated in the south-east of England. Many therefore use a connecting flight or train to catch a no-frills flight to the Continent. If a flight connection on the same airline goes adrift, for example easyJet via Luton or Ryanair, or Go via Stansted, they will probably allow you, in those circumstances, to switch to another flight. Otherwise, they have no liability at all, and all you can do to recoup the money you have spent is to claim on that annual travel insurance policy that you so wisely took out. But you'll definitely need a letter from the airline clearly confirming the delay.

Incidentally, easyRentacar specifically excludes any liability if your easyJet flight is late and you fail to pick up the car on time.

Can I bring food and drink on board? Food, yes (though for the sake of your fellow passengers and your own popularity, make sure that it's not too pungent, with very strong odours, or messy, offering a good chance of spilling it all over your neighbour).

Drink, both yes, and no: you can buy booze at the departure airport and bring it with you on board the plane, but you are not allowed to consume any alcohol while on the plane that is not served to you by a member of cabin crew.

That's a Civil Aviation Authority rule, not a cunning plan to boost profits (though with a small can of lager costing £2 on Go, the airlines are obviously able to cash in on it).

They almost all fly the same kind of plane. is that a deliberate policy? Yes, they all use the Boeing 737 (though Buzz also has a few BAe 146s handed over by KLM UK).

For airlines, having only one type of plane is essential for keeping costs as low as possible; maintenance is much cheaper, and all flying crew can then work on all flights.

The Boeing 737 has become the standard, partly because it is the right size (130-180 seats) for many no-frills routes, and partly because Southwest started with a couple of these jets in 1971.

It now has 332 of the Boeings, and has never flown anything else, while at the same time becoming the most successful airline in the world.

Does low-cost also mean low-safety? The law says "no": all airlines operating passenger flights from UK airports have to meet the same rigorous safety standards.

Mostly, and happily, the reality says "no", as well. None of the no-frills airlines flying from Britain has ever suffered a fatal accident.

Notoriously however, all 110 passengers and crew died when a DC-9 belonging to the no-frills airline ValuJet caught fire and plunged into the Florida Everglades in 1996.

In contrast, Southwest Airlines has never had a fatal crash.

Why aren't there no-frills flights to America, or elsewhere in the world?

Because they don't work for long-haul flights, where economy passengers have grown to expect frills - and lots of them, from decent meals - offering choices, to seat-back videos - enabling individual viewing. Laker Airways and PeopleXpress both tried and failed to offer cut cost travel across the Atlantic.

I do have another suggestion however. If you really want to experience long-haul, no-frills flying, allow me to recommend the Cuban national airline, Cubana (which also happens to be the most accident-prone airline in the world).

The present limit for no-frills airlines is about four hours, on the easyJet run to Athens and the new Go route to Tenerife.

How long will fares stay so low?

Forever, or until governments find an effective way of taxing air travel.

So how do I book? Ideally on the Internet, to save a few pounds on your flight. But the telephone works just fine, too.

Buzz: 0870 240 7070, www.buzzaway.com

easyJet: 0870 6 000 000, www.easyJet.com

Go: 0845 60 54321, www.go-fly.com

Ryanair: 08701 569 569, www.ryanair.com

Virgin Express: 0800 891199, www.virgin-express.com

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