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may 28 2008

Affordable Europe: Use Ryanair, but watch the fees

Irish budget carrier Ryanair operates over 500 routes, offering a cheap way to hop around Europe. You have to be careful how you book your ticket, though, because this airline is notorious for nickel-and-diming passengers, such as by charging a fee of about $8 for checking in at the airport instead of online.

Here are some booking tips, drawn from my experience of buying a one-way flight next month between Rome (Ciampino) (CIA) and Brussels (Charleroi) (CRL). The advertised flight was €50. But, after taxes, fees, and surcharges, I paid €87.84 (or about $137). The final cost could have been even higher, probably €45 more, had I not avoided some pernicious fees.

I reviewed the advice in American, Irish, and British publications on how to book tickets on Ryanair. The general consensus is that Americans looking for plane tickets for travel between European cities should begin their hunt on the travel search engine Mobissimo.

I used Mobissimo and decided that Ryanair offered the best times, connection, and price for my route. The general consensus of British and Irish media is that you should book your flight directly on Ryanair.com. The temptation here is to instead book the flight through a third-party, such as Opodo or WeGoLo, which may be offering a lower "come-on" price. Too often, after the third-party company lures you into buying, it slaps on surprise fees that exceed Ryanair's own fees (a truly amazing feat). Plus, Ryanair is less likely to provide its best customer service—to the extent that it offers much customer service at all—to passengers who book through third parties. Ultimately, it's a case of the Devil you know is better than the one you don't.

Ryanair.com's worst fees are for luggage. Its free weight allowance on checked bags is about 33 pounds collectively. Whether you check one, two, or three bags, if their collective weight exceeds 33 pounds, you'll pay about $10.40 for each pound over the limit!) (about €15 per kilo, or the local currency equivalent; full fees listed here.)

And don't try to pool or share luggage within the same traveling party. That's a no-no. But you can try this Budget Travel tip, instead: Stick an empty duffel bag in your suitcase; if Ryanair tries to charge you extra, shift some of the weight to the duffel and use it as your carry-on bag (which Ryanair allows, given that it's a reasonable size carry-on).

Ryanair.com is tricky in baggage rules in another way. Oddly, the site asks you to specify in advance how many bags you're planning to take with you. My trip is a month off. I have no idea whether I'll be checking one, two, or three bags. But as I study the fee chart, I see that if I say I'm going to bring at least one bag, it costs only €8,—half the fee I would pay if I instead told the site I'd bring zero bags and then showed up at the airport with one bag. So, when you're not absolutely sure how many bags you plan to bring, it saves the most money to tell Ryanair.com that you plan to bring at least one bag.

True, if I do what I say above, and then show up at the airport with more than one bag, I'll have to pay a €20 fee per bag. But this charge is unavoidable, and Ryanair.com charges the same fee whether you tell it in advance that you'll bring 2 to 3 bags or whether you tell a gate agent at the last minute. In short, follow my boldfaced rule above.

Another cost-cutting move is to pay by Visa debit card. Ryanair.com charges a €1.20 fee for paying by debit card (online) but more than twice that (4 euro) if you pay with a major credit card. And note, if you get to the airport and are hit with more fees, you'll be hit with a second processing charge as you pay them. So if you have a Visa debit card, bring that with you to the airport, too! The processing charge will only be €1.50 (versus €4 for a credit card at the airport).

During booking, Ryanair.com asks: Would you like to be one of the first passengers to board to the aircraft? Say yes. The advice of the folks at Eurocheapo.com, whose staff often flies Ryanair, is that you should say yes and swallow the €5 fee per person—unless you're traveling solo. The Priority Boarding voucher allows you to board the aircraft as part of the first boarding group.

Skip the insurance. Irritatingly, Ryanair.com automatically signs up you for travel insurance at €14.50. Simply choose "No Travel Insurance Required" in the drop down menu. Ryanair's insurance offerings don't cover U.S. residents.

Ryanair will request an email address from you to send your itinerary. Be sure you provide your primary email address, and one that you will have access to while traveling overseas. Ryanair does nearly all of its contacting of customers by email, not by phone, so if there is a last minute change to your plane schedule, you will only get an email, not a phone call.

Ryanair slaps on a €5 airport check-in desk fee if you opt to check-in at the airport. As an American, you must opt for checking in at the airport--even though Ryanair's website doesn't make that clear. No check-in fee is applied to passengers who check-in online, though. But as an American, you have to check in at the airport.You could get a refund on a $7.80 fee for being required to check in at the airport: Details here:

UPDATE 11:20 a.m. Hilary at Less Than a Shoestring caught a bit of fine print on Ryanair's website that I had missed! I originally blogged that you might want to consider checking in online to avoid a nearly $8 fee for requesting airport check-in. But Hilary points out that American citizens can't do that, a point she discovered and blogged about last November. However, she and Student Scooge have come up with a way for Americans to apply for a refund of this fee. Details here. Thanks guys!

Feel free to share your own tips of booking Ryanair tickets below.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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