(Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part post on Europe’s airlines. You can jump to Pt. 2 here.)
Flying isn’t what it used to be. The gazillion catch-all flight options on sites such as Expedia and Skyscanner. New budget airlines seemingly popping up and disappearing every week. Having to choose from 39 different categories of baggage allowance and seat allocation (most of them with
hidden costs) … I’ll stop before I put myself off my next holiday!
Because of the way air travel is going, it’s getting harder all the time to know which airlines to trust, if any.
Not to mention badly organised, overcrowded airports with connections involving hiking trails from one end of a terminal to the other, and ever-diminishing in-flight returns on your ticket purchase. And let’s not forget those last-minute schedule and gate changes, two-hour delays and cancellations – exacerbated by the entire air industry being turned upside down during the pandemic.
Okay, that really is the end of my rant now, I promise.
Anyway here’s a two-part list to help you choose the best flight experience for you. This first part recommends which European airlines to fly with. These are the ones who’ve managed to maintain a modicum of respectability and service quality in the midst of COVID and the post-COVID maelstrom.
One of the few flagship airlines still genuinely worthy of the name, Air France was ranked seventh-best airline in the world in 2023 by professional reviewers, eighth-best for 2022 by Skytrax’s customer survey, and No. 1 in 2023 in Western Europe.
In-flight Wifi is excellent and there is comfort on board in terms of legroom and the standard of food included on your ticket for all medium and long-haul flights.
(Just one footnote on the meals: Be careful if they’ve been prepared by a partner airline, depending on your departure location – in my personal experience Egyptair services them with stomach-turning breakfasts.)
Timely and reliable, Air France has prices including luggage that are still relatively decent and tend
not to be a rip-off. It also scores highly in professional safety ratings. As long as you can stand a transit at the dingy, dilapidated, dirty and overall distressing Charles de Gaulle airport, this airline is definitely a good way to travel.
Ever reliable and safe, Germany’s number one airline offers the widest range of destinations of any flagship carrier in Europe, and carried the most passengers of any airline in Europe in 2022. In-flight comforts are as expected with great options for travelling with pets.
It’s just unfortunate that changes to the airline’s pricing structures means you now have to watch out for steep added luggage costs among other charges. But what airline isn’t engaging in this practice nowadays? We can all thank Ryanair for that. (More on them in Part 2).
If you’re heading to Helsinki or Lapland, you can do worse than Finnair. Its premium standards of comfort and reliability mean that it’s consistently voted the best airline in Northern Europe in Skytrax’s World Airline Awards survey. Maintaining this level of service year after year bucks the trend of increasing costs and declining customer experiences across the industry, making Finnair one of the few national carriers that increases its country’s stature as a travel destination.
Ranked in the Top 25 airlines in the world last year and the best in Southern Europe, Iberia ticks most of the boxes for a reasonable flying experience. Its prices compare favourably with other flagship airline and it offers family-focused booking options and in-flight services. Comfortable, reliable and high-scoring in safety metrics, the airline does particularly well in Air Advisor’s compilation of professional reviews. If you’re off to sunny Spain – especially for a family holiday – Iberia’s probably the airline for you.
(Editor’s note: Iberia just joined Qatar Airways and British Airways to form the largest joint-service system.)
Coming in right behind Iberia in the Southern European rankings, Aegean Airlines is great for safety, reliability, family travel and above all comfort, featuring pet-friendly options in its bookings. They offer flights from across Europe into Athens, which also serves as a hub airport allowing the airline to provide connections not only to the Greek islands and the Balkans but also the Middle East and North Africa.
Tickets are relatively good value and the airline has lots off-season promotional discounts and deals to watch out for. (Subscribing to their mailing list saved my wife and me more than 300 euros last year!).
Their typically quick-turnaround transits can be stressful, but are well-managed in Athens. First, Aegean has an excellent record of avoiding flight delays. And second, helpful airport staff are typically aware of your connection and direct you to your gate.
Spain’s second-best airline and usually your best option for Spanish destinations, Vueling is reliable, but also cheap. Additionally it offers flights at low prices between various other European countries, such as Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal, as well as carrying passengers to and from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Setting the standard for European budget airlines, it carried more than 30 million passengers in 2022. Vueling provides you with a simple and straightforward experience, offering a little more comfort and fewer headaches (and price trickery) than its direct competitors in the budget price bracket.
Stay tuned for Pt.2, where we’ll be running down the list of European airlines to avoid this year.
See more about airlines here in Dispatches’ archives.
Alex Beaton is a writer from London, UK. His published works include a guide to starting a business in Warsaw, a fictionalised account of his time living in Egypt, and a 2013 report of the political situation in Bulgaria. He has also written extensively about his travels in France, Portugal, Italy and Malta.