Okay, you’re an expat in Europe and it’s summer …. time to head out for fun, sun and adventure. Last year, Dispatches told you how to go skiing without getting stuck on the autobahn, or spending days stuck at airports.
Increasingly, the trickiest part of travel is choosing the right airport to reduce travel time. There are, of course, private airports such as Cannes Mandelieu where – if you’re a billionaire who doesn’t want to mingle with the hoi polloi – you can land your Gulfstream G-650. But the rest of us … we’re flying coach.
Last fall, we pinged our expat network and asked them for their recommendations for the five best small airports in Europe for winter destinations. What we ended up with is essentially a list of boutique airports mostly served by ultra-low cost carriers, or ULCCs, such as Ryanair. So you get a better travel experience for less money.
Now, we’re going to help you maximize summer relaxation by minimizing travel hassles AND help you find the best bargain flights, so you’ll have more cash to drop on Mai-Tais at the beach bar.
With our first list, we had a simple proposition: “Where can I just park, check-in and fly?” Over time, our contacts have suggested additional airports to add to that original list, airports with more destinations.
And of course, we’d love to hear from you at: [email protected]
Small airports aren’t always practical because of limited service. There’s a reason 60 million people went through Schiphol during 2017. Unlike at Frankfurt or Schiphol, the airlines servicing small airports tend to cut flights in the winter and add them in the summer at peak travel periods. Read the details for each airport because some have limited flights outside Europe and often even scheduled flights change on a whim.
Here’s our (ever-evolving) list:
Airport Weeze Niederrhein
Like Frankfurt-Hahn below, this is a former military airbase. Germany got a bunch of these back starting in the 1990s, and privately owned Weeze became an airport in 2003. Or as Wikipedia terms it, “a minor international airport.”
What Weeze has going for it is location – close to both the Düsseldorf metroplex that includes Duisberg, Bonn, Köln and Bonn, and to Eindhoven and Nijmegen and Arnhem in the Netherlands. That, and it’s basically a one-airline (ULCC Ryanair), three-terminal airport with only about 2 million passengers as opposed to say the 65 million who pass through Frankfurt.
Okay, there are actually six airlines – Eurowings, Fly Egypt, Ryanair, Small Planet, SunExpress and Tailwind – flying nonstop to a respectable total of 51 destinations.
Ryanair flies to the United Kingdom, Estonia, Morocco, France, Greece, Egypt, Spain, Sweden, Poland, Portugal, Italy, Malta and Turkey from Weeze.
Major destinations include a new flight between Burgas, Bulgaria and Weeze that launched 30 March. Ryanair will operate the 1,893-kilometre route twice-weekly (Mondays and Fridays).
Here are our picks for the best vacay destinations from Weeze:
London, Munich, Grand Canary Islands, Fez, Malta, Mallorca, Porto and Stockholm
Flights to the sun: Malta, Bodrum, Alicante, Fez, Porto, Corfu … you name it.
Other flights: On the Weeze summer schedule, there are daily flights to Alicante and Girona in Spain and regular flights to Palma and other vacation destinations. There are also flights to places we’ve never heard of including Bydgoszcz, Poland and Lamezia Terme, Italy.
The website: It’s really pretty good, especially compared to Hahn. But with an airport this small, how much is there to tell?
Parking: Parking ranges from 2 euros per hour up to about 300 euros premium parking for the month, and there is free drop-off parking. You can see parking details here.
Access: The train station of Weeze is only 5 minutes by car, the distance to the train station of Kevelaer is only 10 minutes by car. The regional train connection RE10 from/to Krefeld and Düsseldorf makes daily stops in Weeze and Kevelaer every 30 minutes. Shuttle buses connect the bus and train stations with the airport. You can find the time table under “Bus Connections Kevelaer and Weeze.” It is not necessary to make a reservation in advance. For further travel information visit www.bahn.de and enter “Weeze Terminal 1” as destination.
Total number of annual passenger movements: About 1.8 million in 2017. (For comparison, Heathrow, our benchmark airport and the busiest in Europe, has 75 million).
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 the United Arab Emirates.
For a relatively small airport, Bologna offers an amazing number of beach destinations including tropical Cape Verde way out in the Atlantic, Dubai, Grand Canaria and Lanzarote, Ibiza, Rhodes, Sharm al Sheik and even Albania for the off-the-beaten-path crowd.
From Dispatches executive Nancy Church, who splits her time between the Netherlands and Italy:
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
Bologna 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 the 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, Düsseldorf, 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).
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 58 airlines. (It was 60, but Air Berlin and Niki bit the dust last year.) Major discount carriers include Condor (Lufthansa) 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 dated feel. There are still pay computers in some of the terminals, so you can access the Internet … in 2018.
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 in 2016, 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 literally the last train to Amsterdam.
Flights to sun: There are discount flights to Marrakesh 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)
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. It’s manageable and you can park right outside.
During the summer, 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 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 6 million passengers projected for 2018, a record year. (Heathrow 75 million)
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 and Ryanair. EuroAirport had Niki till it bit the dust last year.
Flight to premium vacation destinations. Bergamo, which puts you in the Italian Alps just south of Lugarno, Switzerland.
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 six.
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.
Like Weeze above, Hahn started life as a 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 canceled, 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 its 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 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. Since 2017, you can fly to Israel from Hahn Airport. (Israel qualifies as sunny.) Ryanair offers twice-weekly flights to Eilat Ovda.
Flights to Burgas on the Black Sea just started last month.
Total number of annual passenger movements: About 2.6 million (Heathrow 75 million)
Website: Did we say Düsseldorf was the worst?
Porto Francisco Sá Carneiro
To our surprise, there are websites run by people who actually like airports. The Sleeping in Airports website, for example, has a team who travels around, rating airports in terms of creature comforts under the assumption that somewhere, sometime you’re going to get stuck at an airport.
From the SiA website:
Airport sleeping is no longer just for the cheap young backpacker. Nowadays, early morning flights, long layovers, flight cancellations, snow storms and erupting volcanoes are just a few reasons why you’ll see travellers from all walks of life stretched out on airport floors around the world.
If that’s going to happen, it’s probably going to be this summer, when leisure travel is absolutely booming across Europe. And it could happen in Porto, with Portugal off-the-charts popular with travelers.
We ran this past our network of Portuguese expats. They and SiA give Porto Francisco top marks for being comfortable, up-to-date and clean. The airport has free Wi-Fi, free water dispensers, free showers, public transportation to the city, chairs you can sleep in AND they dim the lights at night.
Compared to most of the airports on this list, Porto Francisco has a lot of traffic …. about 11 million passengers last year. That’s because it – unlike say Eindhoven and Haan – is an international airport with global connections to North America (Newark and Toronto.)
But it feels like a small airport … just an open and well-designed one.
In Europe, connections include: Bristol, Budapest, Köln, Dusseldorf, Munich and Warsaw
Flights to the sun: From Porto Francisco, you can get to pretty much anywhere in Portugal as well as to a ton of sunny, beachy destinations including Ibiza, Madeira, Malta and all the way down to Angola. So this is the airport to the sun and back again.
Total number of passenger movements: 10.8 million (Heathrow 75 million)
This is crazy: Parking starts at 3 euros … per day!
Website: One of the best
Google reviews: 4.3 stars out of five stars, with more than 1,300 reviews. Not bad!
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.