Let's start with the luggage. Contact your London hotel first to see if it can store your bags while you jaunt off to Europe. If that's not feasible – you may be moving to a different hotel on your return or your accommodation might decline to help – don't despair.
Main airports in Britain provide luggage storage, often operated by Excess Baggage Co. They usually charge £10 ($14) per item for the first 24 hours and then £5 for each 24-hour period. In larger airports, there are facilities in each terminal.
This means taking your bags to the airport when you head out for your side-trip, storing them and strolling on the plane with a thimble-sized carry-on. You can then collect everything on your return. Check ahead to ensure the luggage counters are going to be open when you arrive and depart.
If lugging your luggage to the airport seems onerous, Excess Baggage also operates at main London railway stations. This means you can leave your bags in the city, perhaps in the area you'll be departing from or returning to. See its website – excess-baggage.com – for locations and hours.
While storage fees add up, you'll likely still save on the checked-baggage charges of avaricious budget airlines. Ryanair, for example, charges up to £75 ($108) for checking in a 20-kilogram bag – plus up to £10 per kilo after that. Its bitter rival, EasyJet, is slightly less pricey. Both have strict carry-on limits.
These fees are a reminder that budget fares are only bargains if you can avoid the airlines' additional charges. Booking via their websites can be a minefield of "extras" for everything from seat selections to credit card payments. Scrutinize these carefully to get as close as possible to the price that first tempted you.
One additional factor: Most London-serving budget airlines depart not from Heathrow but from Gatwick (30 to 60 minutes by train from central London), Luton airport (20 to 50 minutes) or Stansted airport (45 to 55 minutes). Factor in travel time and transport costs at both ends, especially at your destination: Budget airlines are fond of smaller airports that can be far from the cities they claim to serve.
These caveats aside, what are your options?
Coming from Canada – home of failed budget airlines and $800 domestic flights – you'll be amazed at the side-trip possibilities an hour or two from London. But try to avoid peak-fare August: When I checked, September and beyond was markedly better in value, with dozens of options between $100 and $200 return. Booking early usually delivers the best fares.
From Gatwick, I found Ryanair September flights to Dublin from $110 return. Since it's one of its main hubs, EasyJet also had many tempting options, including Amsterdam ($99), Berlin ($110) and Barcelona ($146).
Fares from Luton were similarly priced, with Ryanair routes including Malta and Marrakesh and EasyJet offering Lisbon and Reykjavik. Fancy Seville or Edinburgh? Ryanair flies to both from its Stansted hub, while EasyJet offers Prague and Copenhagen.
But the beauty of budget airfares is the affordability of the unfamiliar. Ryanair – especially from Stansted – services many intriguing, lesser-known destinations. Roll the dice and you could be exploring historic Lamezia in Italy; Billund, the Danish home of Lego; or the Croatian city of Osijek.
And although these two airline behemoths dominate the budget skies, they're not your only options.
Luton is a hub for Wizz Air (wizzair.com), which services Eastern Europe cities from Riga to Bucharest; Monarch (monarch.co.uk) specializes in sunny spots, such as Corfu and Gibraltar; and ever-popular Norwegian's (norwegian.com) routes include Bergen, Helsinki and beyond.
Personally, I'm aiming for Vienna on my next British trip. Around two hours from Gatwick, fares start at $125 return – similar to a pair of London theatre tickets, minus the mid-show drink.
OUR READERS WRITE
- Don’t take main luggage. Take one carry-on and a cross-body tote everywhere. Lynda Grace Philippsen
- Go to Istanbul if time allows, food and accommodation in the old town are cheap. If not, then Paris, lots to do and comparatively little travel time. Linda Arnold
- I’d snag a cheap flight to Salzburg, stay at Castellani Parkhotel and follow in the footsteps of the von Trapps. @chibeba
- Klagenfurt, Austria, on Ryanair from Stansted, then a free shuttle bus to Kinderhotel Gina on Lake Faaker. @Jody_Robbins
- We suggest cultural side trips in Spain (Andalucia) and Italy (Venice, Florence, Puglia, Sicily). @JenniferRaezer
- I’m going to have to go with Nice because it’s by the sea, has incredible food and is perfect for day trips to Eze, Cannes etc. @TripStyler
- Palma de Majorca and Bruges, hands down. Both are preserved walled old cities. I’m fairly sure Palma is the largest “old city” in Europe. Both are quaint and lovely, yet they are very modern and accessible. The food in both is amazing as well. @PaulMonKau
- The obvious, easiest choice is Paris via Eurostar. Or head to Brussels. All domestic travel in Belgium is covered as part of your Eurostar ticket. Bruges for a weekend?@BuccaneerInn
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