The Big Ben Switcheroo

Fly into London cheaply, and then elsewhere on a low-cost carrier (Photo © Reid Bramblett)
Fly into London cheaply, and then elsewhere on a low-cost carrier

London is the cheap airfares turnstile of Europe, so fly cheaply into here and then elsewhere in Europe or North Africa on a no-frills airline for far less

London is usually the cheapest European city into which you can fly from the U.S. 

London is also the main hub for Europe's great no-frills airlines, connecting the capital of the British Empire with the cities and vacation spots of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East for as little as nothing (Ryanair often runs "free" sales—though it also tacks on the most ancillary fees) to maybe $120 max. 

Flights between London and Paris typically run $40–$50 on easyjet, Vueling, and Ryanair—heck, you can just take the Eurostar train though the Chunnel for under $60.

The Big Ben Switcheroo is also a great way to fly to other French destinations besides Paris, which can be far, far pricier to fly to transatlantically with a plane change in Paris

Add all those facts together, and you may be able to subtract hundreds of dollars from your airfare.

If you don't mind doing some fancy footwork, booking everything yourself, and hauling your luggage around a bit, you can take advantage of this confluence of budget travel truisms to do what I call the Big Ben Switcheroo.

Here is a practical example, using a sample trip taken from New York, pitting fares gleaned from Expedia against the Big Ben Switcheroo (using a keen $170 roundtrip to London, which was actually available as I wrote this).

NYC to: Expedia Switcheroo how? savings
Paris $391 $250 ($40 fare on easyJet) $141

The great thing is, though, this way you're not limited to round-trip flights. The Switcheroo is also a fantastic way to arrange a trip that starts in one place and ends in another, since no-frills tickets are always priced one-way. That means you could, say, fly from London to Madrid, tour your way across Mediterranean Europe by a combination of means (trains, more no-frills carriers, rental car, whatever), then fly back to London from Rome—or wherever it is you end up.

The Rules of the Game

1) First, find a cheap fare to London

Go through the steps for getting the cheapest airfare» more

2) Check out all the no-frills and low-cost carriers

See which ones fly to the city you want to visit. Ryanair and easyJet are the obvious ones, as they're based in London, but don’t forget to "reverse-hub" your logic—Eurowings may be based in Dusseldorf, but it flies to London from there, so if Germany is where you want to be, check their flights out, too. Remember: no-frills tickets are one-way, so there's no need to book both directions with the same outfit. You could fly easyJet out and Ryanair back, and neither would be offended. » more 

3) Figure out the "Switcheroo" portion in London

Most transatlantic flights land in Heathrow, or sometimes Gatwick, airport.

Most no-frills use Luton or Stansted airports—though easyJet uses Gatwick as well.

You're either going to have to shuttle between London airports (easiest by a long shot, but there may not be frequent service), or make your way downtown London from one airport and then back out to the other airport. » more

This is where the technique gets annoyingly time-consuming. There are now transit services between each airport, but not all are conveniently timed (plus, to make air schedules match up, you may actually have to spend the night in town, so you'll be transferring via downtown London):

  1. Retrieve luggage
  2. Haul luggage to bus/train/car to connect airports
  3. Ride to other airport (or if you are transferring via downtown London...
    1. Haul luggage down into Underground to switch from the downtown station where you arrived to the one where you can get transport out to the other airport
    2. Ride Underground
    3. Haul luggage up to means of transport out to other airport
    4. Ride to other airport
  4. Haul luggage to check-in
  5. (Notice the high degree of "hauling luggage"; See "The fine art of packing light".)

4) Factor in the additional expenses and time to switch airports

This page on Getting between London's airports on our sister site details the option, prices, and travel times for the fastest and easiest links with and between London's airports—though note that some "convenient" direct connections might run infrequently, such as Heathrow/Luton, which goes only every two hours. » more

5) Allow yourself at least a 4–5 hour window between flights (more from Gatwick)

That should cover travel time between airports, the need to check-in an hour before your ongoing flight, plus a 90-minute cushion in case your first flight lands late.

Know that no-frills schedules tend to fall behind schedule more often than major airlines, so allow a slightly longer time cushion between that no-frills back to London and the flight home. 

6) Realize this might means you end up stuck in London overnight

Sometimes, the schedules just don't match up properly—usually on the way home (your flight from, say, Pisa arriving too late in the day to hook up with your return transatlantic flight).

This is not a problem if you planned to spend some time in London anyway, but if Big Ben is just a turnstile for you, this extraneous night can be a financial burden—London hotels are expensive!

The Upshot

I’ve done this rigmarole of switching over to no-frills once on British soil myself a few times. I don’t mind the effort to save a few hundred bucks, but some people find this DIY method too annoying and nerve-racking.

Please don’t forget to factor in the time involved—and aggravation of schlepping luggage—to get between airports in London before deciding to try it out. 

And remember: since you're your own travel agent, ain't no one gonna bail you out if you get off schedule. If one of your flights is delayed and you're not going to arrive in London in time to catch the next one, the other airline couldn't care less and will fly without you. As far as it's concerned, you missed the plane.

That's a risk you're going to have to accept—and a good reason to pad the Big Ben Switcheroo plan with an extra day in London on either end, just to be safe.

Airfares links


Basic phrases for air travel


Useful French phrases

Useful French for air travel

English (anglais) French (français)   Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is... Où est? ou eh
...the airport l'aéroport lair-oh-POR
the airplane l'avion lah-vee-YOHn
terminal terminal tehr-me-NAHL
flight vol vohl
gate porte pohrt
customs douane do-AHN
to the right à droite ah dwa-t
to the left à gauche ah go-sh
straight ahead tout droit too dwa
departures hall Hall de départ ahl de day-PAR
arrivals hall Hall d’arrivée ahl da-ree-VAY
exit sortie sohr-TEE
delayed en retard hn ruh-TAR
on time à l’heure ah LOUR
early en avance hn ah-VAHNS
check-in l’enregistrement lun-rej-ee-stray-MUN
immigration l'immigration lim-ee-grah-SYON
security check le contrôle de sécurité luh kon-TROLL de say-cure-ee-TAY
shuttle la navette lah na-VET
boarding pass une carte d’embarquement ooun kart dem-bark-eh-MUHn
baggage claim la livraison des bagages la lee-vray-SOHn day bah-GA-j
carry-on luggage les bagages à main lay bah-GA-j ah meh
checked luggage les bagages enregistrés lay bah-GA-j on-ray-jee-STRAY

Basic phrases in French

English (anglais) French (français) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you merci mair-SEE
please s'il vous plaît seel-vou-PLAY
yes oui wee
no non no
Do you speak English? Parlez-vous anglais? par-lay-VOU on-GLAY
I don't understand Je ne comprende pas zhuh nuh COHM-prohnd pah
I'm sorry Je suis desolée zhuh swee day-zoh-LAY
How much does it cost? Combien coute? coam-bee-YEHN koot
That's too much C'est trop say troh
Good day Bonjour bohn-SZOURH
Good evening Bon soir bohn SWAH
Good night Bon nuit  bohn NWEE
Goodbye Au revoir oh-ruh-VWAH
Excuse me (to get attention) Excusez-moi eh-skooze-ay-MWA
Excuse me (to get past someone) Pardon pah-rRDOHN
Where is? Où est? ou eh
...the bathroom la toilette lah twah-LET
...train station la gare lah gahr

Days, months, and other calendar items in French

English (anglais) French (français) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quand est-il ouvert? coan eh-TEEL oo-VAIR
When does it close? Quand est l'heure de fermeture?   coan eh lure duh fair-mah-TOUR
At what time... à quelle heure... ah kell uhre
Yesterday hier ee-AIR
Today aujoud'hui ow-zhuhr-DWEE
Tomorrow demain duh-MEHN
Day after tomorrow après demain ah-PRAY duh-MEHN
a day un jour ooun zhuhr
Monday Lundí luhn-DEE
Tuesday Maredí mar-DEE
Wednesday Mercredi mair-cray-DEE
Thursday Jeudi zhuh-DEE
Friday Vendredi vawn-druh-DEE
Saturday Samedi saam-DEE
Sunday Dimanche DEE-maansh
a month un mois ooun mwa
January janvier zhan-vee-YAIR
February février feh-vree-YAIR
March mars mahr
April avril ah-VREEL
May mai may
June juin zhuh-WAH
July juillet zhuh-LYAY
August août ah-WOOT
September septembre sep-TUHM-bruh
October octobre ok-TOE-bruh
November novembre noh-VAUM-bruh
December décembre day-SAHM-bruh

Numbers in French

English (anglais) French (français) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 un ehn
2 deux douh
3 trois twa
4 quatre KAH-truh
5 cinq sank
6 six sees
7 sept sehp
8 huit hwhee
9 neuf nuhf
10 dix dees
11 onze ownz
12 douze dooz
13 treize trehz
14 quatorze kah-TOHRZ
15 quinze cans
16 seize sez
17 dix-sept dee-SEP
18 dix-huit dee-SWEE
19 dix-neuf dee-SNEUHF
20 vingt vahn
21* vingt et un * vahnt eh UHN
22* vingt deux * vahn douh
23* vingt trois * vahn twa
30 trente truhnt
40 quarante kah-RAHNT
50 cinquante sahn-KAHNT
60 soixante swaa-SAHNT
70 soixante-dix swa-sahnt-DEES
80 quatre-vents  kat-tra-VAHN
90 quatre-vents-dix  kat-tra-vanht-DEES
100 cent sant
1,000 mille meel
5,000 cinq mille sank meel
10,000 dix mille dees meel

* You can form any number between 20 and 99 just like the examples for 21, 22, and 23. For x2–x9, just say the tens-place number (trente for 30, quarante for 40, etc.), then the ones-place number (35 is trente cinq; 66 is soixsante six). The only excpetion is for 21, 31, 41, etc. For x1, say the tens-place number followed by " un" (trente et un, quarante et un, etc.).

‡ Yes, the French count very strangely once they get past 69. Rather than some version of "seventy,' they instead say "sixy-ten" (followed by "sixty-eleven," "sixty-twelve,' etc. up to "sixty-nineteen.") And then, just to keep things interesting, they chenge it up again and, for 80, say 'four twenties"—which always make me thinks of blackbirds baked in a pie for some reason. Ninety becomes "four-twenties-ten" and so on up to "four-nineties-ninteen" for 99, which is quite a mouthful: quartre-vingts-dix-neuf.