BA vs Ryanair vs easyJet mystery-shopper test for cheap UK flights

BA vs Ryanair vs easyJet mystery-shopper test: MailOnline finds out which carrier offers the best cheap UK flights (and it’s not the one with seats that are ‘a disgrace to aviation’)

  • Ted Thornhill assessed the carriers on trips to Manchester, Belfast and Stansted
  • He filmed his odyssey, with the footage making for fascinating viewing 
  • The Mail paid for every flight and none of the airlines knew he was coming 
  • READ MORE: I sell private jets – this is the biggest myth about the industry

Take a domestic flight in the UK and it’s highly likely you’ll jump on an aircraft operated by British Airways, easyJet or Ryanair.

If you’re flexible with when you can travel, it’s possible to find similarly dirt-cheap ticket prices for all three carriers. But is price where the similarity ends?

I’m the MailOnline Travel Editor and I put them head to head in a mystery shopper battle to find out… flying economy with British Airways to Manchester, then with easyJet to Belfast International, then Ryanair to London Stansted.

The Mail paid for every flight and none of the airlines knew I was coming. Scroll down for a short video documenting my fascinating odyssey around the UK and my verdicts on each airline, from booking to boarding and the in-flight cabin experience. Who won? Spoiler alert – not the one with the filthy cabin carpet and seat that’s a disgrace to aviation…



I found my British Airways flight, which departed at 7am from Heathrow Terminal 5, using Google Flights then booked directly through the BA website.

The process was a cinch, with the fare, baggage and seat selection options presented clearly and aggressive pushing of extras joyously conspicuous by its absence.

Ted found the BA booking process a ‘cinch’ and the layout of the carrier’s website ‘almost serene’

And thanks to the layout comprising gentle fonts and calming blue BA-brand hues, the experience was almost serene.

I opted for the ‘economy basic’ fare, which included two pieces of hand baggage, and paid £47.68 (which included £3 for choosing my window seat – 31A).

Rating out of five: 4.


On his BA flight, Ted was greeted by a stewardess with a cheery, ‘Morning, you okay?’

I was given a friendly ‘good morning, Mr Thornhill’ at Terminal 5’s A6 gate by a friendly BA worker once she’d seen my boarding pass.

And upon entering the aircraft, a stewardess in the new Ozwald Boateng uniform gave me a cheery, ‘Morning, you okay?’, while her colleague busied himself with organising the galley.

Rating out of five: 3.5.


Ted says of his BA in-flight experience: ‘The seat was very comfortable, with a luxuriously padded headrest. Plus, there was a recline option’

The legroom on the BA A321? ‘Distinctly average,’ says Ted, ‘but fine for a short flight’

Ted’s BA A321 flight (stock image) began at 7am from Heathrow’s Terminal 5

The aircraft was an Airbus A321, which felt quite new. The flight was almost full and I had a seat companion – so a good opportunity to test the comfort levels (as having a spare seat to the side can mask true comfort and legroom).

The seat was very comfortable, with a luxuriously padded headrest. Plus, there was a recline option.

The seatback in front featured a plastic cubby hole at eye level and a pocket beneath. And a good-sized tray table. Sadly, though, no charging port.

The width of the seat was agreeable, and the legroom just fine for a short flight, though it would be a tad uncomfortable over long distances (for reference, I’m 5ft 10).

The BA cabin crew were on point – friendly and well drilled, says Ted

Even though the BA plane was only 35 minutes in the air, the crew managed to distribute spring water and a Kellogg’s snack to all

The cabin crew, meanwhile, was on point – friendly and well drilled (though not all in sync sartorially because of ‘logistics issues with the new uniform’, we were told via the PA). They whipped out complimentary bottles of Harrogate spring water and Kellogg’s Nutri-grain bars to the entire economy cabin despite the flight once in the air lasting just 35 minutes. And with a smile on their faces.

The captain was impressive, too, with a debonair lilt over the PA and a yen for keeping us well informed.

He told us about the cause of a small delay (someone didn’t make the flight on time and their bags had to come off), kept us up to speed on our expected departure time and revealed he expected the flight to be a smooth one. Part-way, he announced when we would be beginning our descent. He could definitely land a job in radio or TV…

Rating out of five: 4.


Pictured above is the HS2 scar in the countryside just north of London

Ted’s BA fare was only £47 – but he would have paid £370 had he flown slightly later in the morning

There’s no arguing with a £47 fare with BA. However, on the date I flew, the price for the next departure slightly later in the morning was £370, which seems dizzyingly steep.

Rating out of five: 5.

GRAND TOTAL: 16.5 out of 20 – 82.5 per cent.



Ted found the easyJet booking site clear, but there were an irritating number of nudges to buy extra luggage

I booked my Manchester to Belfast flight directly through the easyJet website. Once you’ve selected your flight, you’re presented with your fare options and the baggage allowance that comes with each one.

I opted for a ‘standard – travel light’ ticket that cost just £25.48, the cheapest fare in the head-to-head adventure, and gave me permission to bring a ‘small under seat cabin bag’ on board.

After this, there was a seat selection page, along with the chance to add on travel insurance and food and drink vouchers, plus a great deal of badgering for buying bonus baggage.

I had to tell the site four times at various stages of the booking process that I was happy with my baggage allowance.

The constant cajoling was irritating and made me feel like I was doing something wrong, while on the ‘hold luggage’ page I was confusingly told what my allowance was for ‘each flight’, when I was buying a one-way ticket for a solitary flight.

On the plus side, there was a panel to the side of each page reminding me of my purchases and the layout was quite clear.

Rating out of five: 2.5.


Ted’s £25 flight to Belfast with easyJet departed from Manchester’s Terminal 1

My afternoon flight to Belfast International departed from Manchester Airport’s Terminal 1, (which is fine in the main departures area, but prison-esque at the gate).

The easyJet boarding-pass checker at the gate was quite chirpy and the greeting by the beaming cabin crew on board the most sincerely welcoming of the trio of flights I took for this mystery shopper experience.

Rating out of five: 4.


Ted is pictured above in the easyJet seat, which was ‘not quite as thickly padded as the BA seat’

The seat on the A319 aircraft was quite comfortable, though not quite as thickly padded as the BA seat and there was no recline function.

However, the legroom was comparably satisfactory, along with the tray table size, and it was handy to have a seat pocket. 

Also on the seatback – an advert for discounted beauty products (I was mildly surprised it wasn’t an ad for buying more baggage for a subsequent easyJet flight).

The easyJet A319 legroom was satisfactory, writes Ted, along with the tray table size

During the easyJet flight, ‘the bonhomie-infused crew zipped up and down with the drinks and snacks trolley’

The flight crew gave informative PA announcements, letting us know part-way after we’d flown over Liverpool when the descent would begin.

And the bonhomie-infused crew zipped up and down with the drinks and snacks trolley.

We arrived 20 minutes late and it was a bit bumpy on the approach, but nothing really to grumble about.

Rating out of five: 4.


EasyJet scored a respectable 77.5% in Ted’s mystery shopper assessment

At £25, a genuine bargain, with an in-flight experience that competed with BA’s.

Rating out of five: 5.

GRAND TOTAL: 15.5 out of 20 – 77.5 per cent.



Ted found the Ryanair website ‘clear and easy to navigate’

The Ryanair booking website, like its Twitter (‘X’) feed, is light-hearted at times (‘reserved seat – just not the pilot’s seat!’), clear and easy to navigate. I particularly liked the handy phrases deployed to clarify what sort of seat you’re buying (‘get off quick’, ‘best value at the back’ and so forth) and the little pictures of the kinds of bags you’re allowed on board with each fare type.

And while, like easyJet, there is some cajoling to buy extras such as car hire and travel insurance, it’s not quite as aggressive as it is with the aforementioned carrier.

I opted for a ‘regular’ fare for my 7.40pm flight from Belfast to London Stansted, which gave me allowances for a small bag under the seat, a 10kg overhead locker bag, priority boarding and a reserved seat. The grand total was £42.49.

Rating out of five: 3.5.


As Ted entered the Ryanair 737-800 cabin (above) a female air stewardess offered a cheery ‘hiya’

The incoming plane came from Milan and it was around 30 minutes late, with the perfectly polite Ryanair gate staff complaining that ‘it’s always late when it’s from Milan’.

The turnaround was rapid, with said gate staff announcing that ‘the plane has arrived so boarding can begin’. And this was no false promise.

On we went.

As I entered the Boeing 737-800 cabin a female air stewardess offered a cheery ‘hiya’.

Rating out of five: 3.


Despite the smiles here, Ted was not terribly impressed at all with the Ryanair inflight experience 

Ted writes: ‘This in-flight experience felt as cheap as the fare’

The carpet around Ted’s Ryanair seat looked ‘filthy’, as the photograph above shows

Oh. Deary. Me.

This in-flight experience felt as cheap as the fare.

The carpet by my seat looked filthy – covered in what looked to be bits of food and stains – and the seat itself was dreadful, a disgrace to the aviation industry. The headrest was rock hard and the armrests thin.

Plus, there were no seat pockets… at all.

And with adverts lining the overhead bins and the seatbacks, the whole vibe screamed ‘tacky’.

Ted labelled the Ryanair seat as being ‘dreadful, a disgrace to the aviation industry’

Ted points out that his Ryanair fare was only slightly cheaper than the BA ticket. Above, a photo showing the lack of seat pockets on the Ryanair 737

Within seconds of sitting down a cabin-crew PA announcement informed passengers that ‘we don’t take cash payments, only cards’, which felt mercenary – and the welcome message from the flight deck was polite, but very short.

The announcements from cabin crew in general were rushed and sounded insincere, though the head flight attendant’s PA offerings were more professional and reassuring.

Any plus points? Apart from the flight being mercifully short at just over one hour in duration, I did quite like the alluring blue lighting that illuminated the cabin once we were underway.

The flight crew didn’t bother with any PA messages mid-flight and I was glad to be off the plane and onto a far more comfortable Stansted Express train to London Liverpool Street at 10.13pm.

Rating out of five: 2.


Ted rated the Ryanair 737 cabin experience (stock image) as inferior even to that of Wizz Air, which was ranked as 2023’s worst short-haul airline by Which?

The problem for Ryanair in this domestic carrier face-off is that the fare was only slightly cheaper than the one for the BA flight, yet the inflight BA experience was in a different class.

Even the inflight experience from Wizz Air, the airline that came bottom of this year’s Which? short-haul airline ranking, is better, in my opinion.

I flew Wizz Air to Lyon earlier this year and versus Ryanair it was superior in the seat and crew department.

Rating out of five: 3.

GRAND TOTAL: 11.5 out of 20 – 57.5 per cent.


Ryanair comes last with a score of 57.5 per cent. Ted took the image above as his BA flight left Heathrow for Manchester

British Airways (82.5 per cent) is victorious thanks to a swish booking site and an impressive cabin experience, but easyJet (77.5 per cent) comes a close second – but only because of its poor score for the booking process. Some may find all the nudges to buy more baggage allowance useful, but I found them irritating.

Ryanair comes last with a score of just 57.5 per cent. I’m shocked that the Irish airline charged me a similar fare to British Airways but then give me a cabin with a filthy-looking floor and an uncomfortable seat with no seat pockets. Unfathomably awful.

Ryanair’s Twitter account declares that it sells ‘seats not windows’. I’d suggest the social media team puts quote marks around the word seats. On the plus side, there’s no denying Ryanair’s competitive prices and user-friendly website.

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