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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Rupert Jones and Jess Clark

Budget airlines: which is the best – and what about the worst?

A plane
A plane. Each airline has its own rules, paid-for extras and small-print fees. Photograph: Anna Gowthorpe/PA

So which budget airlines offer the best customer experience, and which ones will have you muttering “never again” as you stagger out of the airport?

There is of course no one-size-fits-all answer – there are so many variables at play, from cost, customer service and the number of cancellations to legroom and luggage policy. Each airline has its own (often byzantine) rules, paid-for extras and small-print fees to navigate.

However, to try to come up with some answers, Guardian Money took a deep dive into the recent findings of a detailed survey of short-haul airlines by the consumer body Which?, and also asked travel experts for their views.

The Which? survey findings

The consumer organisation quizzed more than 8,000 travellers about their experiences of flying in the past two years, with passengers invited to rate their carriers across a range of criteria. – which flies from 10 UK airports to more than 65 destinations – came out top with an overall customer score of 80%. It was one of only two short-haul carriers – the other being the airline Norwegian, which scored 74% – to achieve “recommended provider” status.

Propping up the bottom of the table were Wizz Air (customer score: 48%) and Ryanair (52%). British Airways was fourth from bottom with 56%, while easyJet and Tui Airways scored 59%.

A Boeing 737-800 aircraft of German carrier Tui Fly takes off from the international airport in Duesseldorf, Germany in 2020.
Which? quizzed more than 8,000 travellers about their experiences of flying in the past two years. Photograph: Sascha Steinbach/EPA

What do travel experts say?

We asked four people who really know about this stuff for their views, including on which airline they think offers the best experience.

Paul Charles, the chief executive of the travel consultancy the PC Agency and a former director at Virgin Atlantic, told us: “I still think easyJet have one of the best products available for the price. It often gives the feel of being on a full-service airline but obviously without the frills … The crew are well trained at customer service in my view.”

Is it worth paying extra for the extras? “It depends on the airline and the destination,” Charles says. “If you’re on a four-hour flight to Athens, it’s worth paying extra for more legroom. If you’re only on a 90-minute flight, or have a small bag, then just pay the basic fare.”

He adds: “I travel a lot and am finding that passengers are bringing on board more and more luggage rather than checking it into the hold. People are paying for the ease of having their small bags with them at all times rather than risk luggage being mislaid behind the scenes. I think that’s wise as it means you can get off the plane and out of the airport as quickly as possible, which is a good thing!”

Passengers queue up at the Jet2 check-in desk at Palma de Mallorca airport in July 2020 came top in the Which? survey. Photograph: Clara Margais/Getty Images

Chelsea Dickenson, who runs the website Cheap Holiday Expert, says that of the main three – Ryanair, easyJet and Wizz Air – she likes the “laissez-faire” attitude of Ryanair and Wizz Air, “since I’m often travelling with a bag that’s ever so slightly too big! Whereas I find easyJet is a bit more ‘on it’.”

That said, she adds: “If I was really pressed, I would have to opt for easyJet. This is in large part thanks to the fact that they don’t deliberately split up travellers booking together who have skipped the option to pay for a seat.”

Wizz Air A320 200 on the tarmac at Budapest Ferihegy airport, Hungary
Chelsea Dickenson likes the ‘laissez-faire’ attitude of Wizz Air and Ryanair. Photograph: Gareth Dewar/Alamy

Dickenson says her followers on Instagram agreed, too. “With over 3,000 responses on a recent poll I posted, 77% said that easyJet had the best customer service, followed by Ryanair at 15% and Wizz Air at a mere 9%. However, by adding Tui and Jet2 into the mix, easyJet slipped down to third place after Jet2 – who stormed ahead – followed by Tui.”

Oli Townsend, a deals expert at, points out that with Ryanair, “if you don’t pay for a seat, you will almost certainly be split up, as it ‘randomly’ allocates seats for those who don’t cough up for guaranteed seats. Not paying for a Ryanair seat also means you can only check in for free 24 hours before departure – for comparison, easyJet is 30 days. It also means many will have to check in for their flight home while overseas.”

He adds: “Never leave checking in until you’re at the airport as Ryanair will charge you £55 a person for each journey for airport check-in … Some other airlines do it, too, such as Wizz Air, which charges £36.50 per person per flight for airport check-in, while easyJet is one that doesn’t charge extra for this.”

Rory Boland, the editor of Which? Travel, says “distinguished itself as the pick of the pack, with passengers not only praising its excellent customer service and value for money but also rating the boarding experience and cabin cleanliness highly. Proof that it is possible to have great customer service at a good price.”

He says passengers planning to take luggage should always price up the total cost of their ticket rather than just the headline fare. “You may find airlines with more generous free baggage allowance, like Jet2 and British Airways, work out cheaper than Ryanair and easyJet once you have added on the cost of a bag or two.”

Boland reckons that paying for priority boarding or to make seat selections “will usually be a waste of money for most people. In the past, our research has found that as long as you check in early, you’ll usually be seated together. The only exception to this rule is if you’re flying with Ryanair.”

Passengers queue to get on Ryanair planes at Stansted airport in July 2022
Rory Boland says airlines with a more generous free baggage allowance may be cheaper than Ryanair and easyJet ‘once you have added on the cost of a bag or two’. Photograph: N Carson/PA


This is a big deal for a lot of people. The Which? survey includes details on each airline’s “seat pitch”: the distance between two rows in standard economy.

Wizz Air is one of the least generous on this front, with a seat pitch of 28in (71.12cm), although to be fair, at Jet2, the range is between 28in and 31in, so you may not fare much better on one of its flights. Some may be surprised to learn that, at 30in, Ryanair is very slightly more generous than easyJet (29in). Flying BA will often give you more legroom: its seat pitch figure is 29in to 34in. At Tui Airways, it is 28in to 34in.

Seats with more legroom are often available, although you will usually have to pay extra. For example, Ryanair’s extra legroom seats cost from £14 upwards. These are located in rows one, two, 16 and 17 and typically boast 40 inches of legroom.

EasyJet charges a fee for customers to choose their seats. A seat in the first row with extra legroom starts at £12.99. For an extra legroom seat towards the front or over the wing, it’s “from £7.99”.

At Wizz Air, if you buy the Wizz Plus bundle, this includes free seat selection, including front row and extra legroom seats.

Bags and luggage

Many of the airlines offer a bewildering array of options. At Ryanair, passengers can bring one small bag – up to 40cm x 20cm x 25cm (15.7in x 7.8in x 9.8in) – on board free of charge, and it must fit under the seat in front. Priority boarding, which also allows travellers to skip the main queue, allows customers to bring a second cabin bag (up to 10kg and 55cm x 40cm x 20cm) and costs between £6 and £35.99.

In terms of Ryanair, Which? advises people to “do your maths first before booking to see if better rivals, like Jet2, which includes a much larger free luggage allowance, are cheaper for your trip”.

Jet2 lets you carry on board one piece of hand luggage for free, as long as it weighs no more than 10kg and is a maximum of 56cm x 45cm x 25cm.

At easyJet, passengers can bring a small cabin bag (45cm x 36cm x 20cm) on board for free, which must fit under the seat in front, while the price for a large cabin bag (maximum 56cm x 45cm x 25cm) starts at £5.99. It is worth knowing that booking an extra legroom seat also gets you a large cabin bag plus speedy boarding.

Bag under passenger seat storage area for passengers on an easyJet plane
Do you prefer to have a small bag on board with you rather than checking one into the hold? Photograph: David Gee/Alamy

Like Ryanair, Wizz Air lets people bring on board one carry-on bag for free, although the maximum size is slightly bigger: 40cm x 30cm x 20cm.

Norwegian has three ticket levels – LowFare, LowFare+ and Flex – each of which comes with its own baggage allowance. Everyone can bring one under-seat bag – up to 30cm x 20cm x 38cm – to be stored under the seat in front.

If you are just booking a Tui Airways flight you can carry one piece of hand luggage of up to 10kg for free. It can be up to 55cm x 40cm x 20cm in size and can go into the overhead storage compartments.

Customer service and complaints

Which? says that this year, with strikes and staff shortages, “it pays to pay attention to those airlines that look after customers when something goes wrong”.

Jet2 was one of only two airlines out of more than 20 (the other was Finnair) that received the full five stars for customer service. This rated the quality of the service provided by on-ground and onboard staff. Meanwhile, Wizz Air was the only one that was given only two stars. Ryanair, easyJet, BA and Tui received three stars.

A British Airways check-in desk at Gatwick airport.
British Airways, Ryanair, easyJet and Tui received three stars for customer service. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

A look at last-minute cancellation rates (within 24 hours of departure) suggests Ryanair is a fair bit more reliable than easyJet. At Ryanair the rate was 0.5% – a lot lower than easyJet’s 1.3%. BA lost a lot of marks for this – its last-minute cancellation rate was put at 2.3%. By contrast, at Tui Airways, Jet2 and Norwegian, the figure was 0.3%, 0.5% and 0.6% respectively.

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