Expat Essentials

Expat Essentials: Dispatches’ 5 best small airports for your winter sun and snow escapes

We’re accelerating quickly toward Christmas and if you’re like us, you’re planning your winter get-away.

CAVEAT EMPTOR: MAKE SURE YOUR CARRIER HASN’T FOLDED BEFORE PLANNING YOUR VACAY.

In the last year, we’ve told you where to go skiing to beat the crowds. But our Dispatches team hasn’t tackled the trickiest part of travel – choosing the right airport to reduce travel time and optimize fun.

As airline travel out of the huge hubs such as Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Heathrow gets more and more challenging, we have some good news.

Travel is far less stressful if you have the option of flying out of Europe’s smaller airports, most of which are served by low-cost airlines such as Ryanair, Wizz Air and easyJet.

And let’s face it … after you spend your business life waiting for flights that are delayed or canceled, you really don’t want to spend your vacation in that McDonald’s on the observation deck at Frankfurt, nice as it is.

Think of smaller airports as the boutique option … the valet experience as opposed to the mass travel hubs.

Smaller airports also have shorter queues and faster luggage handling. In addition to scheduled flights to sunny and warmish vacations in Miami, Morocco, Greece or the Canaries, they also have charters to truly tropical destinations in the Caribbean, India and the Maldives.

So we pinged our expat network and asked them for their recommendations for the five best small airports in Europe.

Obviously, this was a pretty small sampling, so we’d love to have your recommendations at: terry@dispatcheseurope.com.

The fine print:

Small airports aren’t always practical because of limited service. There’s a reason 50 million people go through Frankfurt. Also, it’s tricky finding discount flights to the beach in the middle of the winter as carriers such as RyanAir cut flights to Croatia and other summer vacation destinations after peak season, or when they don’t have sufficient crews.

Finally, with the exception of, say, Malta, much of the Med and North Africa cool off to the point you’re not going to be lying on the beach in January. For that you need to go either to the Caribbean, the Maldives or Goa.

Read the details for each airport because some have limited flights outside Europe.

Here are our five:

Bologna Airport

Bologna has several advantages including more than 75 destinations and good connections to so much of Italy.

It also offers a huge number of flights to year-round sun-and-fun including Zanzibar (yes!), Egypt, Cape Verde and United Arab Emirates.

Obviously, in Northern Italy, the mountains are simple, and you’re within driving distance of Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia. But, if you want to take a discount flight to discount skiing, there are flights to ski resorts via Prague, Bratislava, Sofia, and other cities.

From Dispatches contributor Nancy Church:

I would recommend Bologna (BLQ) for the following reasons:

It is central to many points in the northern third of Italy, and even to the south into Tuscany. There is a convenient bus (6 euros, 35 minutes) from the airport to Bologna Centrale train station. The times below are train times from Bologna Centrale train station:

Verona, Padova, – 1 hour
Milan  – 1.25 hours
Bolzano (Dolomites) – 3 hours
Venice – 1.5 hours
Turin – 2.5 hours
Ravenna – 1 hour
Florence – 40 minutes
Siena – 2 hours
La Spezia (for train to Cinque Terre) – 3 hours
Trento (another gateway to the Dolomites) – 2.25 hours
Napoli – 3 hours, 45 mins
Innsbruck – 4 hours, 44 minutes
Zurich – 5.5 hours

Bolgona is served by discount airlines Transavia and Ryanair. During the recent Ryanair cancellations (mid-Sept), BLQ was not affected (incoming or outgoing flights)
There is also a FlixBus station within a 5-minute walk of Bologna Centrale train station.

Flights to snow: Include BLQ to Munich – four to five nonstop flights daily, 1 hour.

Flights to sun: Ryanair flies to Tenerife. Neos flies to Boa Vista, Cape Verde. Ryanair and KLM both fly to Dubai from Bologna.

Other beachy destinations include Egypt and Zanzibar (yes!).

Other flights: Bologna has more than three nonstop flights daily to: Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Catania (Sicily, UNESCO), Copenhagen (weekdays), Dubai, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Istanbul, London Heathrow, London Stansted, Madrid, Moscow, Munich, Palermo (Sicily), Paris, Prague (not every day), Rome, Vienna.

The website: Bologna has a terrific website, the best of the bunch. Of course, it has real-time info on arriving and departing flights. But if you’re thinking about a trip, it also has photo icons and summaries for all its major destinations. Cool!

Total number of annual passenger movements: About 8 million in 2016. (For comparison, Heathrow, our benchmark airport and the busiest in Europe, has 75 million).

DÜSSELDORF IS NOT A SMALL AIRPORT, BUT IT HAS A SKY TRAM AND OTHER AMENITIES THAT MAKE IT EASY TO GET TO ITS FOUR TERMINALS. (Photo by Terry Boyd)

Düsseldorf

This is probably not the most representative airport for this post because Düsseldorf is a medium-sized airport … almost as big as a major airport and nearly as busy.

Düsseldorf had about 24 million passenger movements for 2016 (compared to our baseline of Heathrow at 75 million.)

But Düsseldorf is sooo much easier to use than Frankfurt, and 200 kilometers closer to expat centers such as the Düsseldorf/Cologne/Bonn megaplex and Luxembourg City.

You can get a flight from here to 200 destinations on 59 airlines. (It was 60, but Air Berlin just bit the dust.)

Major discount carriers include Condor (Lufthansa), Niki and Sun Express. But the Big Boys are dominant here including Delta, KLM and Quantas.

We’ve flown in and out of Düsseldorf several times and the service was good, though parking sucked and long-term was really expensive.

Also, it’s kind of a strange airport. Compared to Schiphol and Munich, Düsseldorf has a bit of a dated feel. There are still pay computers in some of the terminals so you can access the Internet … in 2017.

On the other hand, there are services you don’t see anywhere else including a pharmacy.

Access: By car, bus or train. Lots of parking. But be forewarned … I was coming back from Stockholm last year, and I had to make the train to Amsterdam. My connection to the main train station in Duisburg – and on to Amsterdam – never came. So I had to take a 50 euro high-speed taxi ride to Duisburg to catch the last train to Amsterdam.

Flights to snow: There are a ton of flights to Zurich on EuroWings. You can fly to Innsbruck on EuroWings or Niki, retired Formula 1 legend Niki Lauda’s airline. And lots and lots more.

Flights to sun: There are discount flights to Marrakech on EuroWings and other sunny destinations into the winter. Condor flies to the Caribbean including Barbados. If you really want to lie on a (semi) tropical beach and are willing to pay for premium flights, Lufthansa has regular flights to Miami from Düsseldorf.

The website: Germany is bizarrely behind everyone when it comes to tech. The website is okay, with a widget on the landing page to tell you if flights are on time.

Total number of annual passenger movements: About 24 million (Heathrow 75 million)

Eindhoven

As we’ve posted before, Eindhoven has a super-nice little airport with lots of connections to sun and sea via multiple airlines and a push to attract more.

But it’s manageable and you can park right outside.

As far as sun and snow, Eindhoven can connect you to more than 75 destinations from Morocco to Innsbruck.

But Eindhoven is geared more toward sun than skiing.

Access: There are buses from the main Eindhoven train station. But there is no direct train service to Eindhoven airport. There are lots and lots of parking lots. You can reserve your parking here.

Flights to snow: Lots of flights to Austria including Innsbruck via Transavia. WizzAir flies to Varna and Sofia in Bulgaria, which has terrific ski options.

Flights to sun: Carriers flying to and from Eindhoven include Ryanair, Wizz Air, Transavia, and TUI Fly. They offer flights to Morocco, Greece (Rhodes, Corfu and Athens), Barcelona and Ibiza, Lisbon and Malta. However, flights to the beach decrease after 31 October, though it looks like Transavia keeps flying to Greece through the winter and Ryanair has regular flights to Malta.

Sadly, you can’t fly anywhere really hot from here. The closest would be Antalya in Turkey, where you can ski in the morning, then swim in the sea in the afternoon.

The website: Pretty good. Flight info is on the landing page, as is info about problems such as parking issues due to construction.

Eindhoven officials are working on the Eindhoven Easy Mobile Assistant, or EEMA, a Web app that gives passengers information for their trip to the airport. EEMA tells you the optimal time to leave to make a flight; how busy roads are and whether the train would be faster and how busy the terminal is.

Total number of annual passenger movements: About 4.7 million passengers in 2016, with the number to grow to about 5.7 million this year. (Heathrow 75 million)

EuroAirport

If you’ve ever driven from eastern France to Basel, you’ve passed EuroAirport and said to yourself, “What the heck is that?” The answer is, it might be the best alternative for three countries.

The full name of EuroAirport is EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg. So it serves Switzerland, France, and Germany down in that little corner where all three countries come together.

Despite the grand name, it’s a Podunk little airport, but a Podunk airport with a ton of flights and carriers including EasyJet, SunExpress, Ryanair and Niki.

Flights to snow: Not that many, though you can fly to Bergamo, which puts you in the Italian alps just south of Lugarno, Switzerland. Plus, outside Basel (and close to Mulhouse) you’re already within driving distance of the Alps, and not that far from the Black Forest. But if you’re looking for a discount flight to discount skiing, easyJet flies to Sofia, where you can make connections to ski resorts around Bulgaria.

Flights to sun: Lots, including Casablanca and Marrakech, the Canary Islands, Malta, and Tel Aviv. Air Arabia flies to Casablanca. easyJet and TUI both fly to Tenerife in the Canary Islands.

Total number of annual passenger movements: About 7 million. (Heathrow 75 million)

Website: EuroAirport has the Reddit of airport websites. It’s 1995 again. Easily the worst of the five.

Frankfurt-Hahn

We flew out of Hahn to Ireland in 2006. It’s the least amount of parts you can call an airport, with two small terminals.

Hahn started life as a U.S. military air base that was handed back over to the Germans in 1993.

For the record, it’s nowhere near Frankfurt, which is 75 miles away. It’s out in the middle of freakin’ nowhere Germany, up in the hills of the Palatinate. But, it’s really convenient to American expats living in the U.S. military communities.

Ex-military brat and Dispatches contributor Beth Hoke has more current info:

I love flying out of Frankfurt Hahn because it is serviced by budget airlines like Ryanair and there is a B&B hotel on the property. If your flight is delayed or cancelled, your life doesn’t have to be completely thrown out of whack.

You can get there using Flibco. (Really convenient to expats living in the U.S. military communities around Ramstein Air Base and Kaiserslautern Military Community. And despite it’s name, Hahn is closer to Luxembourg City than to Frankfurt.)

There’s also long-term parking. It’s far less crowded, and it takes very little time to get through security, and has a small selection of shops and places to buy food, including McDonald’s. 

Ryanair is the major discount airline here. Others include Wizz Air and SunExpress.

Flights to snow: Hahn has a lot more flights going to warmer climes than to ski areas, though Ryanair flies to Plovdiv in Bulgaria, close to Bansko and other ski resorts.

Flights to sun: There are lots of flights to the Canaries including Lanzarote, Tenerife and Gran Canaria as well as to destinations in Morocco including a Ryanair flight to Nador.

In fact, we’d say there are more flights from Hahn to obscure places such as Trapani (Sicily) and Alghero (Sardinia) than any other airport outside of Sana’a, Yemen.

Starting this month, you’ll be able to fly to Israel from Hahn Airport. (Israel qualifies as sunny.) Ryanair offers twice-weekly flights to Eilat Ovda, starting 29 October.

And if you’re thinking about next summer, flights to Burgas on the Black Sea start in March 2018.

Total number of annual passenger movements: About 2.6 million (Heathrow 75 million)

Website: Did we say Düsseldorf was the worst?

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