Monday, 12 May 2008

I had my first experience with ultra-budget airline companies when I went to Spain the other weekend. There was nothing really wrong with them, the plane home was delayed by about 40 minutes but apart from that the whole trip went smoothly. The only thing I worry about when flying ultra-budget is that if anything serious did go wrong, you would be on your own, there would be no overnight hotel stays or food vouchers or anything like that. It would be a night in the airport until the security staff kicks you out at 3 am as those Jetstar passengers discovered recently.

The lack of a security net is fine if you are only doing the short-haul flights, or have comprehensive travel insurance, but I think I would be real hesitant to fly for longer than a few hours with them. I've learnt my lesson about budget airlines when I flew KLM from Paris to Canberra, it took 60 hours, involved 3 stop-overs and 2 nights in hotels, not pleasant, but I guess at least they put us up in hotels. On the bright side of that horrendously long trip home I got to experience my first, and probably last, Hilton hotel. It was alright, the bathtub was massive, but I don't think I would pay the 5 star prices myself.

I knew I was in for a budget experience when I was booking my ticket, once I had booked everything and thought the price had been finalised, they then start adding on all these extras. The first was a seat guarantee for 2 euros each way, which you get because it is only 4 euros, but as you are paying for it you're thinking "what's the 400 euro ticket price if that's not a seat guarantee?". Then they charge you 10 euros to check in a suitcase and will charge you more if you turn up with hand luggage that's bigger than regulation. Good I say to that, I hate it when people take in massive hand luggage and then there is no room for your regulation size bag in the overhead compartments.

So once I had bought the ticket I was still a little nervous that it would all go wrong before I get to the airport. Another way Vueling saves money is that there isn't really any customer sales centre, everything is done via the internet, so you really do have to trust them, and the seat guarantee only really serves to make you more nervous. So I make sure I get to the check-in a little earlier than usual, which for me is like 2 hours early. It turns out that I was actually on the best Vueling flight that morning as mine left last, 25 minutes after a plane to Malaga and 10 minutes after a plane to Rome. What that means is that all the Barcelona passengers slowed down the people to Malaga and Rome and as Vueling were too cheap to pay for efficient security staff all these people were all mixed in with us Barcelona people. I saw passengers go up to the security staff and say they were flying to Malaga, which at that time was meant to have departed about 20 minutes ago, but the security people just tell them to go to the back of this immensely long, ultra-slow moving line. Eventually they started to try and hurry the Rome and Malaga people through, but it wasn't very effective as us Barcelona people kept milling around and getting in the way of things, that's people really, we're great millers.

The attitude I have noticed with these inter-European airlines is that they will wait for all the passengers no matter how late they are. My experiences with air travel is that if you are late by 5-10 minutes they immediately start the PA announcements saying "Proceed to the gate immediately as we have started to off-load your luggage". Granted I have only traveled in Australia or vast international distances and they seem to be a bit tougher. Which is strange when you think about it, when you are going to be flying for 23 hours what's an extra 15 minutes on one end really matter, percentage wise. And yet if you are only flying for an hour that 15 minutes is actually a significant delay. I suppose the reason is that these international flights always have to make tight connections which don't exist for these inter-European flights, or if they do, tough, you shouldn't have gone budget, seems to be the attitude.

Anyway my flights all went off without a hitch, due to my plane paranoia, though I am starting to worry about my flights to Italy. I had to book them through an external internet site as the actual airline web site wouldn't accept my Australian credit card numbers for some reason. I'm flying out in a bit over 6 weeks and I still haven't received any ticket number or anything, so fingers crossed that all works out.

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