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April 12, 2004 -- If you haven't flown within Europe in the past few years, you're in for a big surprise.

Thanks to the more than 50 small, low-fare airlines that have cropped up on the Continent in the past five years or so, airfares between the UK, Ireland, and various European countries are at an all-time low. Often, they're at ridiculous, absurd lows: Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) has periodic sales where their fares are one euro-cent, plus tax. If you're taking a long trip within Europe and you can buy your tickets in advance, discount airlines can be much cheaper and faster than taking the bus or train.

There are a few warnings to remember, though. The most important: never, ever try to connect between a budget airline and any other flight. Most budget airlines will give you no pity if you miss a connection. Forget getting put on the next plane -- you just forfeit your ticket. It's not worth the stress. Use budget airlines for single, point-to-point trips only.

Also, pay attention to which airports the budget carrier is using. Most budget carriers use out-of-the-way, subsidiary airports that may be far from the cities they're named for. It costs more than $24 each way to get to or from London's Stansted Airport, a hub of many budget carriers. If you're comparing flight prices to train fares, remember to factor that cost in.

To understand the range of Europe's budget carriers, start at Flitesite (www.flitesite.co.uk/mapf.php?cid=1). The site looks and feels like a work in progress, and it doesn't calculate prices (even though it promises to). It does, however, deliver a fabulous animated map of low-fare routes on more than 30 European airlines, with colored dots representing the frequency of flights to cities all over the Continent. It's the perfect place to start planning your low-fare journey, as it's the only place where you can see most of your low-fare options (including the critically important Ryanair) on one map.

Flitesite has the best map out there, but even it's not totally comprehensive. For a full list of low-fare airlines, go to www.etn.nl/lcostair.htm#searchmul, which lists 56 airlines. Unfortunately, it's a hideous, poorly-designed Web page, but it explains rough details of where most of the competitors fly, so you can poke around and try to find the best prices.

A few other sites say they'll let you compare low-fare airlines' rates. That's difficult, as the discount airlines don't play well with online travel agencies. None of the sites we're about to mention check fares on Ryanair, for instance. That's a major loss, as Ryanair is Europe's largest low-fare airline; it's like leaving Southwest out of a search of the US.

Skyscanner (www.skyscanner.com) sure is fascinating, though. This low-fare search engine checks several discount airlines, including Air Berlin, EasyJet, bmi, Virgin Express, flybe, and VolareWeb, and also provides a very cool graph of which days in a month provide the best fares for flexible flyers. But it's missing fares and routes from several major carriers, including RyanAir and the Eastern European newcomer Sky Europe. Most annoyingly, it doesn't give a comprehensive list of the sites it checks.

Applefares (www.applefares.com) is less flashy but more honest, listing the 14 airlines it searches on its home page. Applefares also lets you check for weekend flights and scan across date ranges, and it send you directly to a low-fare airline's Web site to seal the deal.

Openjet (www.openjet.com), on the other hand, is dangerously misleading. They purport to sell tickets letting you make connections between low-fare flights. Deep in their fine print, they admit that no such tickets exist -- you can't make connections on European low-fare airlines. If you miss a flight for any reason, you forfeit your ticket. They also charge an obnoxious 10.89 € booking fee. Another competitor, Gooflight (www.gooflight.com), loses out on flexibility -- you can only use it to check specific dates for one-way trips.

If you find any route you want coming in above $99, or you can't find any flights to your destination, immediately turn to EuropeByAir (www.europebyair.com/eba/English_us/default.jsp), which guarantees $99 one-way tickets on a very, very wide range of routes. They're actually agents for a network of carriers which don't fit under the normal "low-fare airline" rubric, which means they have access to a slew of destinations you won't find on other sites, such as Russia, Malta and several Greek islands.