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Differences between domestic flights in the US and Europe

Article created: Jun 30, 2007
Article by: Jeremiah Faith
Summary: Extremely low-fares on European domestic flights are leading many American travelers to abandon their Eurorail passes in favor of plane tickets. If you've never flown on a European domestic flight, things can be a little different from what you've come to expect in America. Here are the differences I've notices while flying around Europe (particularly Southern Europe): 1) expect lower prices; 2) don't expect to choose your seat far in advance; 3) the bus (or train) to airport has a good chance of having no or broken air conditioning; 4) don't expect organization; 5) security might feel a little more lax; 6) europeans push onto the airplane even when they have assigned seats; 7) europeans don't carry on much luggage; 8) seats are usually closer together; 9) european airplanes typically begin and end with elevator music; 10) as soon as the seat belt sign is turned off, all the belts come off; 11) food and water will cost money; and 12) if you fly the country's main airline, there will likely be an enormous number of flights for that airline.

One of the best things about traveling around Europe is that cities are so close together. This proximity has meant that most American travelers (particularly the young adventurous type with no money) buy train tickets and rail passes to get from place to place. More recently, Europe has experienced a huge increase in extremely (often unbelievably) cheap domestic flights. More and more foreign travelers (and Europeans themselves of course) are choosing to make bigger hops like going from Barcelona to Rome, rather than taking long train rides or focusing their trips to one area of Europe.

Traveling on European domestic flights can be a little different for Americans. I’m going to explain those differences here, so you know what to expect. Northern Europe is actually fairly similar to the US with regards to social customs, rules, and politeness. So the information below is more relevant to flights that leave from Southern European countries (e.g. Spain and Italy).

1) expect lower prices

Domestic flights in Europe are much cheaper than in the US. Even Southwest and Airtran aren’t nearly as cheap as EasyJet or Ryanair.

2) don’t expect to choose your seat far in advance

US carriers often let you choose your seat on the day you purchase your ticket. As far as I know, Vueling is the only European carrier that allows you to choose your seat when you purchase your ticket. If you have a domestic flight with non-budget carriers like Iberia and Lufthansa, you will be allowed to choose your seat when you check in for your flight (so check in early if you are particular about where you sit).

Budget carriers like Ryanair and EasyJet operate like Southwest in the US where you are in a boarding group and everyone pushes into the plane to find a good seat. If you are in the last boarding group in the US, you’re probably going to get a middle seat at the back of the plane, and it’s very unlikely you’ll be sitting next to any of your friends on the flight. But we all expect this. However, it could easily happen on a Ryanair flight from Stansted (London) to Rome, that you are in the 1st group and you still don’t find a seat next to your friend. The reason is that Mediterraneans have a more dog-eat-dog culture (unless you’re their family or friends) and people don’t follow rules very precisely. So in the flight I mentioned above, the 1st group would contain British and Americans from group 1 plus all of the Italians from all of the groups. Sure, the Ryanair employees will try to enforce the groups but they’re not policemen. And the shear number of Italians trying to sneak by in earlier groups will overwhelm them.

So my advice if you are picky about your seats: 1) fly Vueling if you can; 2) if not, fly with a non-budget carrier and check-in early; 3) if you fly a budget-carrier, make sure you are in the first group, and don’t be afraid to be a little pushy to prevent everyone from sneaking in front of you. Just make sure to keep your cool and smile (they’ll be doing the same thing as the sneak in front of you). Typically, a hello (in English) or a smile precedes their hoping in line in front of you.

3) the bus (or train) to airport has a good chance of having no or broken air conditioning.

I often hope for no AC, because at least the windows will be open. With broken AC, sometimes the windows aren’t able to be opened, and you ride in an increasingly smelly inferno to the airport (I think this phenomenon also explains 90% of the stinky european stereotypes. Americans get stinky too when they ride in 95F public transportation with no oxygen).

4) don’t expect organization

Europeans typically don’t make their lines zig-zag. In the US, we have those black rope-like things on poles that organize lines at amusement parks, airports, and even Burger King. In Europe, you get a LONG kinda single-file line. A choice few Europeans like to hop this line, and the lack of a zigzag certainly makes line hoping easier. The European mentality makes them good at blocking those people, so watch and learn.

Electronic quick check-in machines aren’t typically available, but if they are available, they are likely underused, so make sure to look for them if you don’t mind using these machines.

5) security might feel a little more lax

I find this laxness to be a relief from the airport security in the US that borders on psychotic and can leave you feeling violated. In Europe (at least Southern Europe; England on the other hand is very similar to the US), people will often be cramming through that metal detector, and the dude operating the metal detector might not even be paying much attention. I don’t think this is something to worry about. As far as I know, there have been no major terrorist problems on European domestic flights. It’s much more likely someone will steal from your luggage (because of this, you’ll see many European’s have their luggage wrapped in something like Saran Wrap, before they check their luggage).

6) europeans push onto the airplane even when they have assigned seats

Americans flying Southwest will be familiar to this pushing onto the airplane phenomenon. However, it baffles me when I fly Vueling in Europe. Everyone on the plane already has a seat, but people still line up 45-60 minutes early to rush into the airplane.

7) europeans don’t carry on much luggage

Along with cheaper tickets, this is another big perk of European domestic flights for Americans. You rarely have to search for space for your carry on baggage, because Europeans put most of their stuff under the plane.

This lack of carry-on is luggage makes, point 6 above even more peculiar. For me, the only reason to rush into a plane when you have a seat reservation is if you have a large carry on and you need to find space for it.

8) seats are usually closer together

Good thing Europeans are skinny. However, having the seats closer together brings the smelly person sitting one row in front of you much closer to your nose.

9) European flights typically begin and end with elevator music

This one isn’t a big deal. I just find it odd and a little annoying. During the parts of the trip when electronic devices aren’t allowed (i.e. loading the plane, takeoff, and landing), they play elevator music. Are Europeans allergic to silence?

10) as soon as the seat belt sign is turned off, all the belts come off

I know this is no big deal, because it doesn’t affect your safety too much. But it can be a little disalarming if you’re not expecting it. In America, you hear “boop”, the seat belt light goes off, and 2 people get up to go to the bathroom. In Europe, you hear “boop”, the seat belt light goes off followed by a massive barrage of clicking-noises as everyone on the plane takes off their seat-belt, and 6 people get up to go stand in the aisle talking to their friends across the airplane for the rest of the flight.

11) food and water will cost money

Don’t expect even peanuts, pretzels, or water unless you fork over some money.

12) if you fly the country’s main airline, there will likely be an enormous number of flights for that airline

If you’ve flown a US airline at its hub (e.g. US Airways in Charlotte, NC), you’ll be pretty familiar to this but on a lesser scale. In the US, we have a lot of major airlines (US, Delta, Continental, etc…). In Europe, each country tends to have one major airline (e.g. Lufthansa in Germany, Iberia in Spain, Alitalia in Italy). This means there will be an enormous number of flights for that airline and very few for other carriers. The only difference this makes is you need to be a little more careful, if you are flying one of these major carriers, to make sure you’re in the correct line to check in. Often they have one line for international and many lines for domestic. Sometimes they even have different lines for different flights. So just be careful before you hop in a long line.