Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The End Of Cheap Travel?

I've been an avid supporter of low cost travel operators, but recently I've detected a marked change in their attitude, and some fairly hair-raising pricing ploys. Perhaps it started with some of Ryanair's tactics, but I'm afraid it may not have stopped there.

My recent experience seems to bear out Stelios's complaint that easyJet no longer deserves to use the word "easy". Not content with a 2.5 hour delay on the way to Mallorca because of the need to change crew, easyJet cancelled the return flight for 'operational reasons', according to the unapologetic desk attendant. We opted for a flight scheduled to leave 2 hours later, but a further 2 hour delay ensued while a charter company jet (typically configured on the assumption that humans grow no higher than 6 feet) was summoned because EasyJet had run out of planes (according to the pilot, who also mentioned strikes by French air traffic controllers). It appears that if we'd chosen to fly at midnight, we'd have paid £25 less per head. Should low cost airlines be obliged to refund the difference if flights are delayed beyond such a price band? The difference was almost enough to cover the cost of carrying our bags, especially as I'd foolishly failed to pay for baggage online when booking the flights 5 months ago, so incurred a baggage charge at double the online rate - £109 or 17% on top of the flight itself.

Meanwhile, back at the car rental desk, there was the usual kerfuffle over the fine but expensive distinction between "damage waiver" and "super damage waiver". I confess to always querying staff about the rationale for two 'waivers', as I suspect the cost of a combined waiver would be significantly less. But this time I was truly gobsmacked at having to pay Europcar an extra €173.32 to cover the insurance excess of €730 for 14 days (€12.38 per day on top of a base rental of €35.92). I was similarly stunned to learn that Europcar proposed to charge €75 each for two booster seats that we bet (correctly) you could buy in the local Carrefour for €16 euros a pop (€32 for the Ferrari-logo version). We'd pre-paid the basic rental of €502.88, so €348.32 worth of pretty essential 'extras' meant that the real cost of what we wanted was an additional 70% of the prepaid amount. Certainly true to the Europcar tag line: "You rent a lot more than a car".

But why all this nonsense? Is it perhaps because if 'low cost' travel operators were up-front about the 'real' cost of their services the average budget traveller would simply stay home or travel less often but with a 'traditional' operator? How many infuriating experiences will it take for many customers to take one of those options?

I sense that in this Age of Conspicuous Thrift the Western experiment with low cost airlines and other allegedly budget travel operators may be coming to an end. And we may well see a return to the era when the closest most people came to international travel was the effervescent luxury of a Peter Stuyvesant commercial.
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