Having now flown the with the three most notorious budget airlines (at least where I’m from, anyway), here is my review so far.
Air Asia was my flight from NZ to London. Unfortunately they no longer go to London/Europe – the half empty plane seems to have been the writing on the wall. I do wish demand was higher though, as there was absolutely nothing wrong with my flight and it was a steal. Air Asia seems to be a budget airline based around extremely careful planning, and pay as you go. If you don’t want a meal, you don’t pay for it, and only supplying what has been ordered probably works quite well for them. The flight was perfectly fine, although the seat didn’t go back that far, they probably fit more people in that way. I was happy to make a few sacrifices for my cheap fare, though it was around $200 more in extra fees than the advertised price.
My next budget airline was RyanAir. I am fairly sure Ryanair is the reason for the stereotype of crappy cheap airlines in Europe, and had a ludicrous amount of advertising. Not only when booking the flight (they even try to sell you a suitcase as you book), but on the plane there were ads on the back of every seat, on the outside of the luggage compartment, and the air hostesses read out sales scripts! It’s just lucky everyone knows they are on the cheapest airline so they put up with it. It’s the airborne version of a shouty ad on TV – a totally unwelcome interruption as opposed to something you might ever be interested in. The advantage (sortof) is they fly to smaller airports with lower fees, in order to reduce their prices. So Ryanair will fly to Aarhus rather than Copenhagen, which works for me. Not that handy if going to the most popular places. A flight from Aarhus to London (Stansted) is ludicrously cheap though.
Finally, EasyJet, which so far is my favourite of them all. With far less shameless advertising than Ryanair but similar prices and a really good onboard travel magazine (the only one I have ever a) really enjoyed, b) not finished in the first 30 minutes, c) not been full of useless ads or travel destinations of the rich and d) wanted to take with me. There were no problems or annoyances with EasyJet, just a great, cheap far.
To get a super cheap fare you are going to have to make a few sacrifices, and in my opinion they are all worth it. Ryanair was the worst of them, but also the cheapest. As for people complaining about safety? Well Ryanair pilots are trained by Lufthansa who have a great reputation, and one need only look at Qantas to see that high prices doesn’t mean safe flights.