Thursday, June 07, 2007

Who put the "easy" in the EasyJet? (Whomever he was, he was a liar, but a damn good marketer...)

This part of the world is particularly rife with low cost airlines. I'm not sure why they're all clustered here (and it's entirely possible that they're actually not and that it is in fact only my attention span for such things that is entirely clustered here at the present time), but the European market is clearly big business for all of these low budget operations. I suppose the close proximity of dramatically differing cultures and climates in this region makes it easy to market diverse sounding destinations that are accessible via relatively short inexpensive flights. (It just wouldn't be the same in the U.S.: "An unbeatable bargain: fly from one side of Texas to the other at a low, low price!")

At first, I thought that these budget airlines were not for the likes of us. I'm a nervous flyer under the best of circumstances, and I don't care to cut corners when the plummet factor is a part of the equation. Logistically, these operations sounded like a nightmare, too. No reserved seats? With two small children in tow? The mental image of jostling amongst a gazillion self important business travelers to try to find space to deposit my offspring and their accoutrement made my mind spin. I had mentally dismissed the budget airline concept before we'd even arrived in the UK.

Eventually, all of that marketing and my inner cheapskate got the best of me, though. Flying as a family of four is expensive, and we do a lot of it. Every time I would see an advertisement proclaiming "Rome for £25" or "Dublin for £10", I would wonder what the hell I was doing shelling out full fares for big name airlines. And so we tentatively tested the waters with BMI when we flew to Edinburgh this winter, and were please with the results. It wasn't that much cheaper after I'd nervously upgraded us to the "choose your seats in advance" category, but the check in process went smoothly, the plane seemed to be in good shape and we arrived at our destination on time and unscathed. Perfect. I was ready for the big time.

I scoured the Internet for rock bottom rates to Prague, using every low fare aggregator I could get my hands on. Each time I'd think I'd found a good price, I'd run the numbers, only to stare quizzically at the final total. £35 fares, it turns out (once you've added the return flights and the taxes and fees and multiplied by 4 family members and multiplied again by 2 because I still can't stop converting to dollars) are the makings of thousand dollar trips. If I wanted to take a solo one way flight to Ibiza on a Tuesday carrying only a handbag and never return, I could probably get one heck of a deal. (Tempting. So very tempting.) But if not, the whole low fare thing is relative at best. It's lowER, perhaps. But there is no way that I can use the words "low cost" and "nearly a thousand bucks" in the same sentence without some serious eye rolling.

Nonetheless, I was committed to the thrill of the chase by then, and determined to get the best possible fares to Prague even if they didn't offer me the enormous savings I'd initially anticipated. And so I booked us on EasyJet. We were leaving on a flight that necessitated setting our alarms for an hour we've rarely seen since our kids' newborn days. We would be returning at an hour my children have never in their lives been awake to see before. But I was willing to be flexible to save a few quid. (At least I think we'd saved a few quid. To be honest, I had so many windows open and discarded on my laptop by the time I finally selected those flights that I can't absolutely guarantee that the conveniently timed, amenity-filled British Air flights weren't a pound or two cheaper.)

Could the whole thing have been anything but a disaster after that auspicious start? Could have been, I suppose. But it wasn't. The combination of no online check-in option, check-in counters that do not open until exactly 2 hours before a flight departs and a paltry few under-trained agents working at those counters led to insanely long, unbelievably disorganized queues full of irate passengers. Add in the fact that seating priority appeared to be given in the order that people checked in and all of that famous British queuing decorum just went completely out the window. In the end, I can't even imagine what all of the fuss was about, because even the priority boarding (which we did end up receiving because we had small children in tow) just meant first onto the bus that drove passengers out to the airplane. Once off the bus, it was a mad free-for-all. Delightful.

We did end up seated with our children, of course (who else would want 'em?) and from there, the flights themselves went smoothly enough. There was limited food available for purchase on board as they had run out of many of their offerings, but we'd brought our own. We had some delays both coming and going, but nothing I wouldn't have expected with any other airline. There was quite a bit of turbulence on the way out that had me clutching the armrests and wondering why on earth I'd opted to stick my whole family in this discount tin can in the first place, but we did obviously land safely in the end, so no harm there. But the kicker to the whole exhausting rigmarole was that because of some odd quirk of EasyJet's baggage policies, the stroller which we'd optimistically gate-checked was magically unavailable until we reached the baggage claim. That meant traipsing through long airport corridors with arm loads of kid crap which we generally stash in the buggy. It meant corralling two frisky kids during a 45 minute customs wait in Prague without the benefit of a 5-point-harness to keep the two separated. And on our return flight at that ungodly hour my kids had never seen? Well, let's just say that carrying the dead weight of a sleeping child through those long airport corridors is one heck of a workout. And that trying to bribe sleepy children with chocolate to get them to pick up the pace produces mixed results at best. (It was worth a try, though, Paul. And I certainly enjoyed the chocolate...)

In the end, I'm fairly certain that we lost more in convenience than we gained in money saved with the whole EasyJet experience. I'm ready to go back to my big name airlines with their online check-in and their convenient flight times and their free coffee and peanuts. And yet, as we slipped exhausted into our seats on the Gatwick Express at midnight after finally escaping the airport mayhem, I spotted a sign above our heads advertising trips to Marrakesh for only £35. Marrakesh. Doesn't that sound exotic and fun? And only £35? Well, that's a true bargain, too good to pass up really. I wonder whether there are any good family-friendly accommodations there. I'll have to do a search...

Somebody stop me, please. Quickly.


Blogger Liesl said...


OK, just kidding...

We're going to Chicago in July. We're flying Southwest, which has those cattle call boardings, but my mil who flies them all the time swears they are a great airline and we'll get on first with kids in tow.

And I'm at the same conclusion with mine that you arrived at - no one else would want to sit with them. Well, the baby perhaps. Definitely not the 3 year old who will sing the Thomas song incessantly and bend your ear about steam trains...

Anyway, I'm glad you've had good travel experiences, although I wish they had been the great financial deals advertised.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Steph said...

Ugh, sorry that it wasn't all it was cracked up to be!

We frequently travel on Southwest back and forth to my mom's and are generally very happy with them. (except for the fact that they are the very last gates in the terminal - they must have gotten cheap rent out there, we presume)

I've actually had at least two experiences that I can recall on a Big Name airline where they *didn't* assign us seats with our kids and then expected *us* to ask other passengers to change seats with us so we could sit with our then 2 or 3-year-old M! And, even then, I got dirty looks from the people I had to ask.

Um, so, I guess have fun in Marrakesh? :)

1:20 PM  
Blogger denzylle said...

I guess your title question was rhetorical, but yes, Stelios is an excellent businessman and marketer:

I've also been thru' the cheap flights thing and come out the other end. The only one I really liked (and miss) was British Airways' own, Go, which is no longer. Some of the cheapies even charge per item of baggage now. The worst, in my view, is Ryanair, which only has access to the most unlikely airports. For example, they fly to Glasgow BUT, use a magnifying glass to read the smallprint, and it's Glasgow (Prestwick). Prestwick is more than an hour's drive away from Glasgow and there ain't no Prestwick Express. And that rule seems to apply to all their European destinations.

So, I've had it with them all and now look for BA's special offers, which are often very good.

Yes, you *can* find family friendly accommodation in Marrakesh. Check out the riads.

2:03 PM  
Blogger Gina said...

Southwest isn't too bad here in the states though they do have cattle-call boarding and like Steph said, their gates are always out in the north 40. I've flown them several times (here to Dallas for $10 one way - man, those were the days). However, I've learned I can usually find cheaper rates on the big name airlines by using one of the cheap rate finders...and I get assigned seats! :)

3:47 PM  
Blogger Kristy said...

Um. You went to Prague. I love you Rebecca, but quit yer bitchin ;-) Pffffttt!

5:34 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I'm sure as heck not going to stop you. I want to see Marrakesh photos!

7:30 PM  
Blogger pinksundrops said...

The call of the discounted prices. Maybe it would help us to imagine a big red star next to the discounted price and then underneath next to a similar star "With hassle, carrying an extra 50 lbs, stress, and fighting a crowd for your favorite seat!"

4:12 AM  
Blogger jordan said...

Oh Becca, you have idea how long Dan and I have been waiting for this post! As we squished into the 2nd of three buses out to our "discount" flight (may have been easyjet, actually) from Berlin to Bristol, I said "boy, Becca would hate this". Dan said "I was just thinking the same thing!"

Ha! Guess we got used to it before you guys got the call to England - sorry we didn't warn you... might have been in my blog.

Anyway, now you know what to expect, I guess. Just don't EVER take HLX. There. You've been warned.

4:58 PM  

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