Monday, 27 April 2009

Flying Cheaply

Recently I had a frustrating experience in Amsterdam’s cavernous Schiphol Airport. I was coming off a very fatiguing fifteen day Greyhound Ameripass in the United States. I had flown USAirways to Amsterdam from my home town Philadelphia to review the Siegfried Bing show at the Van Gogh. (He is the Parisian gallery owner who invented the term “Art Nouveau” in 1898, and he had never had a retrospective.)

I was pooped, and wanted to go to my German wife in my second home in Weimar and unlax. But I didn’t want to pay a fortune to get there quickly. KLM wanted 270 euros for a flight to Berlin. Lufthansa wanted more. And I’ll be damned if I could get anyone to tell me where the cheap airlines were in that great airdrome.

Finally, after scores had tried to steer me back to the oligolis pair, Lufthansa and KLM, a man had pity on me and pointed to Terminals 1 and 2 where the charters were and uttered the magic word, “Basiq Air”.Quicker than you could say “misleading the public” I had a 102 euro ticket for the next day from Rotterdam’s miniairport to Berlin/Schoenefeld, leaving at 15:30 and arriving an hour later. How to get to Rotterdam? No problem a 15 euro shuttle left from where you book the canal boats across from the Victoria Hotel. Heavy luggage portage was solved by offering a taxi driver 10 euros to drive me across the wide plaza to wait for the shuttle. Inexplicably, Amsterdam Central Station has no trolleys.

I spell this transaction out in detail because it clear that the major airlines do their dirty damnedest to divert customers from the cheapies. Now let me expatiate on some problems I have had recently with the cheapies. Take Ryanair which prides itself on bringing Southwest Airlines mode to Europe. I wanted to go from Erfurt (25 km from Weimar) to Dublin via London/Stansted to attend the James Joyce Ulysses Centennial on June 6. Somehow (I think their computer slipped the date after I had chosen it) my leg to Stansted came after my leg to Dublin. Cost me 15 pounds to correct the error, whoever’s it was. I was in too good a mood to hassle about it.

Next I bought on the flight a telephone card that worked a third of the time and finally fell wholly useless because the pin number disappeared. Too small a thing to complain about. Right?

Now the big swindle. I was in Helsinki writing architectural reviews. I wanted to get to London for the press opening at the V&A of an exhibition on the first industrial designer in history, one Christopher Dresser (1834-1904). I checked into an Internet Café and booked a cheap flight from Stockholm to London and back. After I had paid with my Visa, they curtly announced that the cheap fare was no longer available. There was one was for over $300.

I passed and went across the street to the main train station and booked a 21 hour rail ferry/rail journey that got me to the museum on time. After the opening, I flew back to Germany on Ryanair to Lubeck. Imagine my amazement when my next Visa shows the $300 plus flight. I rose in wrath at this bait and switch. A long condescending letter from CEO Michael O’Leary accused me of trying to scam the airline. Talk about projection. He said there was an email sent to show I had bought the fare. No way.

Now take Easy Jet. I booked a round trip Berlin-Copenhagen-Berlin. A family matter at the last moment forced me to not use the return leg. Four hours before flight time (two are required) I sent an e-mail explaining my predicament. There was no telephone number. And in their sanctimonious refusal to let me fly later, they told me I should have used my password. Except I never had one! Soft swindling. Compare that with their touted model Southwest.

When I had a cardiac incident on the way to Charles de Gaulle that prevented me from flying Southwest as planned on to Oakland, they told me by phone to save my locater number and when I was well again to either ask for a refund (doctor’s letter required) or use the fare on another flight with the agent carefully explaining how much my refund would be.I actually booked a flight from LAX to Oakland on the last day of my Ameripass. But my luggage was too heavy, and portage through Dart to BART plus dragging to the Geary bus to my friend’s home was too foreboding. So I called Southwest to cancel. No problem. And took the overnight Greyhound. It is housed in the same Transbay Terminal as the Geary bus.

I go at length to warn European travelers that they can be hassled and lose Big Bucks with the so-called Cheapies. I also am trying to shame Ryanair and EasyJet into behaving more civilly like their purported grandfather airline, Southwest. I will continue to use the cheapies (BasiqAir was a marvel, with a very effective and affordable snack service, and lockers at Berlin Schoenefeld for leaving the heavy stuff with them until the next morning, as I went on to crash at my friends on the Hackester Market stop on S9.)

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