Discount air travel, revisited again

I commented a few times in the past (most notably here and here) that the notion of cheap air travel on discount airlines within Europe is rarely as good as advertized. How about another example?

We are planning to fly to Costa Brava in the summer. There are two airports in the area directly connected to London – Barcelona and Girona. The former is served by British Airways from either Heathrow or Gatwick, the latter is served by Ryanair from Stansted. Girona is closer to our final destination of L’Estartit by about an hour over Barcelona, but that advantage brings a bit of ambivalence with it: Our chance to spend a few hours in Barcelona would be on the day of the departure back; if we fly from Girona, we are likely not to see Barcelona on this trip at all.

The best fare for a round-trip for a family of four on British Airways to Barcelona is from Heathrow, for a total of £370. Not too bad, in all honesty. Ryanair, however, offers the round-trip between Stansted and Girona for just £2371. A considerable difference, with the airports on both ends being more convenient to get to. A no-brainer, right?

Wrong!

You see, BA includes in the fare not just the seats on the plane, but also luggage and carry-on allowances for each passenger. Ryanair wants to charge £10 for the first checked piece of luggage per passenger (and £20 for the next if one passenger checks in more than one piece). We are going for a couple of weeks and we’d rather not have to bother with laundry too much. There will be four suitcases along, likely not small enough to be passed as carry-ons. The price goes up to £317 in a flash.

Not done yet. Ryanair asks you to check in online, and demands £5 per passenger for checking in at the airport. But! If you’re not a EU citizen (check!) or you need to check in luggage (check!), you cannot check in online. Another £40 just got added to the wonderful low price. (There is no such charge with BA.)

At £357, the deal is no longer as attractive, is it? Would considerations of airport convenience still make it a winner?

Only if you discard the consideration of assigned seating. You see, Ryanair does not assign seats for passengers. You get on the plane – you find a free seat. Obviously, not all seats are made equal. A Ryanair boarding resembles a stampede, with people jostling for a forward place in the queue to be let onto the plane and then galloping ahead to claim the best seats. I don’t get into these types of contests. Which potentially may result in all four of us having to get middle seats away from each other. I can deal with that if I were traveling alone, but I don’t want to have Kimmy sit by herself. And try to convince someone who fought for a seat to exchange for one of the lesser quality with you!

Ryanair provides “priority boarding” service for £4 per passenger. Those who pay this extra charge are let on the plane ahead of the rest. I don’t think there is any limit on how many people may opt to pay for the privilege, so in theory, the entire plane may feel entitled to board first, defeating the purpose of paying for the option, but undoubtedly making the airline exceedingly happy. If we were to fly Ryanair, I would err on the side of “most people would rather jostle with the crowds than pay extra” and splurge on the early boarding.

We come to the £389 total. And that does not account for different weight allowances. BA’s per-bag weight limit is 23kg, while Ryanair’s is only 15. With undisclosed extra charges for over-the-limit bags. We seem to always end up with at least a couple of 20-kg suitcases. There’s likely extra expense right there.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather fly to a less convenient airport (especially when it affords me half a day in one of my favorite cities on Earth) then deal with extra charges and fights for seating accommodations.

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1 Ryanair’s offer starts at £14.99 one-way fare. Once you add all of the taxes and total it up for 4 people for a round trip, you get £237. You have to agree that when you look at £14.99 price tag all by itself, you’d think that there is no way to beat that incredible price…

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