Air travel was once something only for the rich. Today most of us can afford to take a flight and many of us do. In fact flying today can actually be cheaper than other forms of transport, thanks to cheap airfares and budget airlines.
This year, in line with my desire to create experiences rather than acquire things, Amy and I have decided to visit different European cities for short breaks. So far we’ve been to Bilbao and Berlin and plan on visiting at least another couple before the year is out.
As many of you know, I’m also paying down some consumer debt through my strategy ‘The Great Escape’. This means that money is tight so these trips have to be affordable.
With the global recession still biting there are some really good deals out there and we have been able to take both trips at minimal cost. Both times we flew with a budget airline, which was new for me. Having had that experience I am now questioning whether these really low fares are as good as they seem.
Is there a hidden cost?
I think that there is a hidden cost: one that you may want to weigh up and decide whether you are willing to pay, or whether for a few dollars more a traditional (non-budget) flight makes more sense.
The costs they don’t tell you about
So, you’re planning your next mini-break. You’re on the internet looking up the cheapest flights and the best deals. Naturally the cheapest deals involve flying with budget airlines. You see the price. You think to yourself, “that’s great; surely they can’t be that bad?” You book.
That’s what we did. Having flown now, twice, with a budget airline here are some of the costs that they don’t tell you about when you book.
Often the cheapest flights are not out of the closest airports. Budget airlines tend to use less popular airports (because they’re cheaper). For example, on our last trip we flew out of Luton airport: cunningly described as ‘London Luton’ even though it’s at least 35 miles away and the transport links to it are not good.
The upshot: it takes longer to get there.
In addition the cheapest flights are at times that people don’t really want to travel: either really early or really late. This makes getting too and from the airport more difficult and adds to the time.
Question: is the additional time involved worth the reduced cost?
Really I hear you ask: anxiety? Let me explain. On the particular budget airline that we used there are no seat allocations. It’s basically a ‘free for all’ when boarding the plane. Everyone, and I mean everyone, gets anxious about this: queues form, people try pushing in, and eventually when told the plane is ready for boarding everyone runs, desperate to get a good seat (next to their travelling companion etc.).
This creates anxiety and from talking to other passengers everyone feels it.
Question: is the feeling of anxiety worth the reduced cost?
Ever wanted to know how cattle feel? Fly a budget airline.
It would appear that good customer service is not something you can expect on a budget airline. You are herded from one place to the next: no smiles, you feel like a number rather than a passenger.
And then there are the rules: which cannot be broken for anyone. They are adhered to rigidly. You must comply.
Question: is a good experience worth paying that little bit extra for?
Although the flight itself is cheap there are a number of other charges that you might find yourself paying. For one, the baggage entitlement is strict. Anything over and you have to pay. Not a problem for Amy and I as we travel light, but something to watch out for if you take a lot of luggage on holiday.
Then there is the in-flight refreshment. Tea, coffee, sandwiches: all have to be paid for. Nothing is complimentary. Fair enough I guess, given the cost of the flight, however we found that it’s hard to resist getting something and the prices are steep: so that has to be added on to the overall cost.
Question: once you add on all the hidden ‘extras’ is the flight really that much cheaper?
The silver lining
It might appear, from this post, that I’m having a go at budget airlines. I’m not. They serve a useful purpose. I’m simply outlining my experience and some of the hidden costs.
It’s also worth reflecting on a wonderful experience we had a Berlin airport. We were booked on a late flight, meaning we wouldn’t have got home until the early hours of Monday morning (and I had work). We’d arrived at the airport early and noticed that there was an earlier flight. On the basis of ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’ we asked if it was possible to return on this earlier flight. We fully expected to pay some sort of admin fee (although we didn’t know how much).
The result: we were transferred to the earlier flight for free.
So, not all bad Mr Budget airline!
In future we are going to give the budget airlines a miss and travel on more traditional airlines, which can still be relatively cheap. For me, it’s worth paying that little bit more to get flights at a convenient time, from a good airport, with seat allocation, and service with a smile.
How about you? Have you had good/bad/indifferent experiences using budget airlines?
I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.