Over the past two months I have flown on nine airlines, visited six countries, crossed a border somewhere, somehow, 10 times, and experienced everything from Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic to a regular seat on United. I've flown the often attacked Ryanair, the Southwest clone known as Easyjet, the Jet Blue like Vueling and others, and after all is said and done, I'm convinced more than ever that Delta, United and US Air are in bigger troule than they realize.
First, nothing compares to Virgin Atlantic or Virgin America. From booking to getting where I need to be, consistently the two provide an experience that's second to none in the way of being nice, informed, and informative. I don't know if the hire better people, or have better systems but they just seem to "click" more, and do a better job than all the rest, in an industry where similarity is standard, and exceptional service has been erroding.
Much has been written about how bad United has become, and how US Air is suffering and even Delta, which may be the best of the remaining lot of legacy carriers in the USA, is doing. So I won't really go there. All one need to be is business traveller of many years to know, that it's none of them are the same airline anymore, and haven't been since deregulation, pension cuts and surcharges became the norm. All one needs to do though to see the difference is get on a Jet Blue or Virgin America flight and you'll see why they are winning, as is Southwest (which is sadly becoming the new version of American Airlines) and you'll understand.
But I digress. Over in Europe, there's a who raft of "discount" airlines that one can fly. Air Berlin, Air Niki, Air Europa, Vueling, EasyJet and Ryanair all come to mind. And, unlike the regionals in the USA who make their money as feeder airlines, these carriers compete head to head with the flagship carriers, and are incredible values. In fact, Vueling, Ryanair and Easyjet fall right behind the two Virgins on my list of carriers now for air travel excellence.
Vueling is a hybrid for customer experience. I've used them for flights between Barcelona and Lisbon, Palma and Barcelona, Marseille and Barcelona as well as Paris and Barcelona in the past. They are cost efficient, offer a great option of either a reserved or non-reserved seat, easy upgrade to what they call a Duo seat, and consistent pricing.
EasyJet is much like Southwest. You book, you buy, you show up, you fly. Much like the Southwest of old, it seems at first blush to be a cattle call, but most European airlines really are that way. The trick with EasyJet, as with the European airlines, and now more and more with the US ones too, is to read, and pay for what you really need. In the case of Easyjet, you pay for a flight and you can carry on one bag. For day trippers and those who travel light, it's great. But for someone who is on the road for a while, like I've been, at first blush, it's a hurdle. Not so. First, I've been a member of EasyJet Plus, their version of a VIP program. You buy it. You don't earn it. It gives me early boarding for free vs. paying for Speedy Boarding as they call it. When it comes to putting your bag and coat over your head vs. at your feet, it's worth it. You next need to know you will pay for your bag to go in baggage. Knowing your bags weight and purchasing the baggage handling fee in advance is the key. Beyond that, and a trial of reserved seating, EasyJet really lives up to their name. You don't have a lot of frills, you pay in the air for snacks and drinks, they keep the value proposition simple, and if you can keep your schedule they are a wonderful way to jet around Europe.
Ryanair..is much maligned, but a last minute change to my travel gave me the option of trying them out again. I've flown them once or twice before, and went in with the mindset then, of low cost. This time I went in and approached it differently, using the approach of "can I get what I need" to go where I need to be. Even with all the add ons, I was still at less than one third the price, and a better time to travel, than the other more costly options to get between Porto and Madrid. What I learned was this. If you take your time and read what Ryanair has to offer, they are hands down the best airline to get you from point A to Point B for the lowest cost.
My experience from the first two trips years ago taught me to always buy early boarding and to always pay in advance for luggage handling. Now, I have taken the option of buying a reserved seat, which pretty much gets you in the first two or three rows, or an exit row, but it goes more than with that. The service was exceptional. From the check in person (Angela) in Porto, to the crew in the air, they were professional, cheerful, chatty, (much like the Easyjet crews), well informed about the airline, the changes coming, the city having flown out of and into, and super informative when it came to delays, gates and where to go for luggage reclaim. Unlike what I'm seeing more and more in the USA, there was a gate agent to help you, not just someone to help open the door of the plane.
From my personal experience, Ryanair and Easyjet have taken knocks in the past for customer service issues, but having now been using them as much as Virgin America the last few years, when it comes to at the airport customer service, and in the air team members, they blow away United, American, Delta and US Air, hands down.
Bottom line. If you read and follow their instructions, you will have a very relaxing experience, much like Virgin America provides.