In the last few years, a number of cheap air carriers have blossomed in Europe. Book far enough in advance, and bargain flights might cost much less than train transportation. Travel times are far shorter. What's not to like?
Wait a sec, there are hitches, especially for the tourist.
Travel times in compact Europe are indeed short when jets are involved. However, Air travel is highly inefficient in getting you from city center to city center--and that's where tourists usually want to be.
The anatomy of a short-distance flight on a bargain carrier
Let's consider a one hour flight. We'll add a half hour to get to the airport via taxi or rail connection (remember to add the costs!) They'll want you to be there well in advance of take-off, let's say an hour minimum. You've already doubled the travel time, and you're not even close to your destination.
Then consider that it takes a half hour to get your bags and get to the front of the airport to survey the options to get you into town. Choosing a taxi, you might be lucky to get to the city center and your hotel in a half hour. Add another hour in total to your travel time.
So now we're at 3.5 hours for a "one-hour" flight. And if the plane isn't on time...
Other budget airline considerations:
- Budget airlines often operate out of Europe's smaller airports. You'll have to consider this when you wish to use a bargain carrier to connect your international flight to your final destination. For example, most international flights arrive at London's Heathrow airport. Bargain carriers, however, might fly out of London Stansted or London Luton airports. Check before you commit.
- You won't see much from the seat of an airplane.
- You might get a "free" meal
- (It'll be airline food)
So why do budget airlines exist in Europe?
Make no mistake, the longer the flight, the more efficient flying is. I wouldn't hesitate to take a flight from Rome to Lisbon, or Helsinki to Barcelona, for example. If the flight approaches 2 hours in length, it's likely to save you quite a bit of time over rail transportation, even compared to high-speed trains.
Budget carriers from smaller airports are great for suburban dwelling residents who need to park their cars, fly off to a meeting with just hand baggage, and then rent a car to drive to a factory outside the city. None of the negatives we've outlined above apply to them.
It sounds like you're biased toward rail transportation
Well, yes, I am. Rail travel is a European institution, far more common a way to get places than it is in the US. On a train you can walk around, stretch, get to all your luggage, work, talk to people who are traveling to the same places you are, and see the countryside. You can even jump off the train if the town you're approaching looks like a compelling destination. Try that in a plane.
Planning isn't perfect. Just looking at the schedules in the train station can fuel my wanderlust and make me rethink my prior plans. There's something to be said for impulsive travel. I just don't know what it is.
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