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Flying Wizz Air, European low-cost airline
I just flew with Wizz Air, a major budget airline in Europe whose name and stunts I had previously only snickered over. It turns out in addition to offering low fares across Europe, they are also the largest carrier in Hungary (at least according to Wizz, Malev Hungarian would beg to differ) and a major player in Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. Last week I traveled to Bulgaria (look for some future Weekending posts soon) and decided to try to fly across the country from the Black Sea town of Varna to the capital city Sofia rather than spend another eight hours on a bus. As is often the case with budget carriers, Wizz has caught a fair amount of flack for their nickle-and-diming fare structure and customer service, so I was anxious to experience it first-hand.
The low-cost carrier advertises flights as low as 15 GBP from London to Poland before taxes and fees, and I found fares from Varna to Sofia starting at 78 Bulgarian (around $50 USD) plus a few bucks for taxes. Not too bad, a lot pricier than the bus but much faster. Enter the laundry list of service fees. First, you are hit up 5 Euros per passenger to use a credit card (only other options are European credit cards or bank transfers that aren't possible for US travelers). Next, you are offered a bunch of services that might be useful for some (extra legroom, flexible booking, priority boarding, etc) but not integral to the flight. Then comes the big guns: baggage allowances. Whether I'm traveling for two days or two weeks, at maximum I pack a standard wheelie carry-on and a purse, and avoid checking bags whenever possible. Wizz allows just one piece free, up to 10 kg (22 pounds), and charges 15 to 60 Euros per bag depending if you select the option online, at the airport, or at the gate. Not wishing to be caught with a surprise charge at the airport, I opted to check one bag. Final tally: 117 Bulgarian leva per ticket or $76 USD, booked less than two weeks in advance.
Haven't even gotten to the airport and there's another potential fee: flight check-in. It's free if you do it online up to 7 days in advance AND print boarding passes, or 10 Euros if you wait until arriving at the airport or can't find a printer. After entering your passport information and checking in online, your boarding passes are available as web documents or PDFs. I downloaded the PDFs and emailed to my hotel in Varna, who were kind enough to print, but boarding passes via email. Arriving at the airport, they will still check your documents, but my baggage was not scrutinized and I noticed several fellow passengers with more than one bag to carry on, so I may have been able to get away with a purse and a rollerboard.
Seating on the flight is open, causing the usual every-man-for-himself rush at the gate, but inside the plane, seats are relatively comfy with snazzy purple leather seats. There is an excellent (and free!) in-flight magazine with great destination info and articles that made me want to move to Poland immediately. The Varna to Sofia flight was too short for the full food and beverage "service" (i.e. they didn't wheel out the cart of stuff you pay for) but the usual drinks and snacks were available for purchase at typically high prices (2.50 Euros for water, 3 Euros for Cup Noodles, which is sort of a great flight food idea). Flight attendants were helpful and cheerful in the signature purple and hot pink colors.
All told, I'd fly Wizz again (especially to Poland), especially if I were near to one of their hubs. Fares are much lower than the competition (Bulgarian Air priced out at 211 leva for the same route) and if you stop looking at fares as inherently all-inclusive, the a la cart structure is actually refreshing and honest. There aren't many perks and no in-flight movies or tv, but with most flights under 3 hours, you can get by. Airline experiences are all in the seat of the beholder, but with prices this low, a leather seat and free English-language reading material feels more luxe than low-cost.