This trip, I’ve decided to see how low I can go – in terms of ticket prices and weight carried. These things are connected, but we’ll get to that in a minute. For this latest trip to Lithuania and Berlin (again!) I decided to branch out a bit from my “go to” Turkish Airlines and see what some of the competition is doing.
A friend had bragged about a seemingly unbelievable low price on WOW Airlines, the budget Icelandic brand (and allegedly Iceland’s “most punctual airline”), and I checked it out. The website shows you exactly how much a ticket will cost on any give day and let me tell you, on some days those numbers can be impressive, and on others not so. But through some chicanery I managed to get a round-trip ticket from Boston to Berlin in December for just over 300 USD. Yup. Could hardly believe it myself.
The devil, of course, is in the details. You get nuthin’ at all for free with the exception of five kilos of carry-on. That’s about 11 pounds for us Ah-MUR-cans, and once you add the weight of the case itself and one’s trust laptop (throw in a bottle of water and your toothbrush), one is just about there. One can purchase extra carry-on weight, checked weight, and many other amenities, but that of course kicks the price up to competitive with other budget carriers. WOW also does not provide blankets, pillows, movies, or food (except for purchase). The planes were clean, and the flight attendants delightful
Since I’m headed to Lithuania as well and I didn’t want to spend the entire two weeks on a bus, I decided to book a round trip from Berlin to Vilnius on Air Baltic, the Latvian flag carrier. They also have fairly draconian luggage regulations, allowing for a positively robust eight kilos carry-on (about 17+ pounds). So I decided to take the “mix-and-match” challenge. J has watched with some amusement as I have tried to wrestle two weeks’ worth of life into an eight-kilo bag, and it ain’t been pretty. (As a somewhat heart-rending aside, the Syrian refugees are probably very familiar with this problem, but for us privileged Westerns, it’s Tetris in ballistic nylon.)
So, wrapped my in my smug achievement of this packing puzzle, I showed up at Logan yesterday afternoon to begin my trip. What has dawned on me, thought, over the course of the last 24 hours is that when you chose a budget airline, you are actually choosing a budget travel lifestyle.
Hear me out on this. Because I was flying WOW, I didn’t go through the usual TSA boarding-pass-and-passport snake line. No, those of us saving our krona depart through gates E1A and E1B, a separate lounge at the extreme end of Terminal E. There are fewer amenities: only one low-grade restaurant, no fancy boutiques to peruse in our pre-boarding haze, no comfy rockers. One already feels a bit set apart.
Happily, in Boston we were spared that greatest indignity of the budget airline – the people-mover from the terminal and the plane. I hate those things. You pass through the gate and instead of the soothing beige tunnel direct to the plane door, you’re faced with a Tokyo-subway-style body crunch with 65 of your soon-to-be closest friends. You wait, strap held tightly, staring into the far distance to take your mind off the screaming child for seeming hours while the driver decides that yes, indeed, he will actually drive the thing slowly to your plane. You then wait while everyone tumbles off, complete with strollers, duffel bags, canes and umbrellas, and then grimly climb the stairs, usually in either rain or wind or both.
WOW met that challenge, however, by having no way whatsoever to leave the plane on arrival at Berlin – a stairway finally made its appearance just about the time the natives were getting truly restless.
Here in Berlin, I’m noticing two additional aspects of budget travel – the budget terminal and the whole budget airport. I’m flying Air Baltic this afternoon, and that’s in Terminal C at Berlin’s Tegel Airport – home of a bunch of airlines I’ve never head of. Separated by a long outside walkway and a change in elevation, It’s basically a big warehouse, dotted with some shops and cafes, but much less elegant than the main, Lufthansa-anchored terminal A. No one seems the least upset, but it’s more like a waiting zone in Bucharest or Belgrade than Berlin. (Aside – a ground crew member just snogged a waitress at Cindy’s diner, where I’m currently sitting. No lack of romance or libido around here, happy to say.)
And to complete the scenario, the budget airport, as suggested above, also seems part of the equation. Berlin’s Schonefeld, out some distance from the city, is a modest establishment sporting every off-brand airline you’ve every heard of – Ryanair of course, the renowned cheapskates of air travel, but also Easy Jet (?), WOW of course, and a new one for me – UP – the *Israeli* budget airline. Who knew?
So I’m not really sure what to make of all this. People are price-sensitive, and airlines understand that. Frankly, I’m amazed that I can still fly to Europe for roughly the same amount that I did the first time in 1974. And the airlines have to cut costs by, well, cutting costs, including airport real estate and amenities to passengers. But it just seems to me that we are classifying and declassifying people this way – giving them what they need, but with a message that perhaps they don’t quite deserve it as much as others. Hmmmm.