Randomness (r_ness) wrote,

My personal rules for low-fare low-service airlines.

theloriest posted a Buzzfeed article saying that Ryanair is planning to offer low-fare transatlantic flights. They claim they'll won't be doing this for another four or five years, but we'll see. In any case this is that time in the industry again where low-fare low-service carriers try to break in to that market, what with Norwegian Air Shuttle throwing a few flights across the ocean, Air Transat doing its best to turn itself into a scheduled airline (as opposed to a mainly charter one), air berlin getting in there with a few transatlantic routes, and WestJet flying the occasional 737 from Newfoundland to Ireland and back.

Every few years, some venturesome souls make a crack at breaking into the lucrative (and thus heavily-defended) transatlantic air market. Mostly what happens is that they get some flights going and initiate a bitter and hard-fought price war with the legacy carriers. Trench warfare ensues, the newcomers get run out of business, bought out by other carriers, or end up in a niche. After the dust settles everyone decides that maybe going head-to-head with the legacy carriers who own the vast majority of landing slots isn't going to work in the present business environment, and ticket prices rise again. This has been happening at least since the time of Freddy Laker's Skytrain and PEOPLExpress, which is when I first experienced it first-hand. Sir Richard Branson actually managed to make a go of it, but now Virgin Atlantic is as established as any of the legacy carriers, and in any case (possibly not by coincidence) has decided they'll compete on service, not price.

Anyway, this time Michael O'Leary and Ryanair are considering entering the market. This is big news because Ryanair is a big airline: the largest European airline by passengers carried, and the largest international airline, again by passengers carried. It's a bus with wings, but it's a lot of buses and a lot of bus passengers. If they actually do enter this market, the price war that ensues will dwarf all the previous ones. You may not ever have to fly Ryanair to take advantage of this war, because every legacy carrier competing on a route Ryanair flies will match whatever price Ryanair charges. No matter what it takes.

I've flown Ryanair. More than once, even, and I have a few thoughts. Ryanair is the carrier everyone loves to hate, and there's good reason for that. They nickel and dime you even worse than Spirit Airlines, who are pretty much the worst in North America in that regard. They even charge you a fee to pay them by credit card. (No, you can't get around this by paying cash, although they do take debit cards.) Michael O'Leary is the guy who famously said he'd put coin-operated bathrooms on his planes if he could (he can't, and later claimed he was joking).

The thing about low-fare airlines like Ryanair is that if everything goes right, you're okay. But if something goes wrong, you're screwed. Miss the flight? Too bad, buy another ticket. (To be fair, the whole point is that their tickets are cheap, and the price of the new ticket plus the ticket for the flight you miss may still be cheaper than any alternatives.) More baggage weight than you guessed you had? Start tossing out stuff at check-in or get hit with a penalty fee. And you may find recovering your lost bag a bit of a chore. So the trick is to minimize the chance of a problem affecting your trip plans, because you should not expect them to fix any problem that arises. Service is not part of the ticket price.

After a few experiences with this breed I came up with some personal rules for low-fare, low-service carriers.
1) If anyone else is flying the route, make sure that whatever total the low-fare airline quotes includes all the fees you'll be using: credit card fee, checked bag fee, reserved seat fee, and whatever else you'll be using. Then compare the total cost. Often, you can take advantage of the existence of a low-fare carrier's fares without ever flying on them by flying with the legacy carrier who's trying to drive the low-fare carrier out of competition on that route.

2) Remember to add in the cost of their dedicated shuttle bus to the cost of getting to wherever you are from the remote secondary airport they use. Ryanair tends to fly into and out of airports that are converted Cold War airbases that local governments are desperate to get flights into and out of. Thus they pay much less for landing rights, and they don't have to fight for crowded slots.

This is particularly important when you're flying to someplace like Beauvais, which is a Paris airport the way that Manchester is a Boston airport. Difference is, there are painfully few alternatives to Ryanair's shuttle at Beauvais. You could rent a car, I guess.

I can imagine Ryanair flying to Providence Portsmouth and calling it Boston, or flying to Stewart and saying they fly to New York, for example. For Miami they could fly to Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach. Mitchell International, here comes Ryanair! You get the idea.

3) Never try to make an immediate connection on either end of a low-fare flight. I use them for point-to-point trips, and schedule a couple of days on either end of the flight if I have to go anywhere. Usually, this is fine. If you're going from Stansted to Hahn, for example, you probably want to visit London for a couple of days before your flight. And you probably won't mind visiting Frankfurt for a day or two after. But trying to use them to do something like Edinburgh to Beauvais with a same-day connection in Dublin is rolling the dice. And connecting between two low-fare flights from two different low-fare carriers is even more fraught. JetStar from Perth to Singapore and then Singapore to Chennai on Tigerair? Good luck with that. At least if they strand you, you'll be stranded at Changi. Better just to get yourself a bed in Singapore for a couple of days and try all the tasty food.

4) The seats are small. Personally, my measure of a small seat is one where I'm not comfortable. As I'm a small person the only time I've really been in a seat that was too small for me was five hours on a second-class bus from Aranyaprathet to Bangkok. (Thai and Vietnamese non-luxury buses are sometimes built for people smaller even than me. Ever since, I've waited for the first-class bus.) But anyone not fun-sized like me should be aware that low-fare airlines pack the maximum number of passengers into the minimum amount of space. For me, that's sometimes pretty snug. You may call it something less friendly.

5) I seem to have just gotten email from flydubai with their latest deals. That reminds me of another point: even when they're not in some remote secondary airport as in point 2), low-fare airlines are often relegated to a far-off terminal away from all the "real" airlines that's not easy to get to or from. flydubai is a great example. They operate out of Terminal 2 at Dubai International.

Dubai International has three terminals: Terminal 3 is for Emirates and its friends. It's brand new and very nice. Terminal 1 is for most airlines not in a special arrangement with Emirates, and is showing its age but generally okay. Most importantly, you can walk between Terminal 1 and Terminal 3, and both of them are connected to a Dubai Metro station.

Terminal 2, not so much. Terminal 2 is basically a large shed on the other side of the runways where they stick all the low-fare carriers. Getting to and from Terminal 2 is a non-trivial operation, as it only gets bus service. So much so that sometimes it seems getting to Sharjah International, fifteen miles away, is easier than getting to the other terminals.

There are any number of other multi-terminal airports which do this to their low-fare airlines, Paris Charles de Gaulle included. Check before you fly, or end up miles from where you expected with time running out before your flight and no way to get to the other terminal except an expensive taxi.
All that said, I fly low-fare carriers quite a lot. I haven't ever taken Spirit myself, because there are too many alternatives with competitive prices. But in Europe and Asia, sometimes the low-fare airline really has a great price, even after all the fees and inconvenience are added in. JetStar, Tigerair, SpiceJet, AirAsia, Air Arabia, Ryanair, EasyJet, they've all been part of my itineraries and they likely will be again someday. I even have some pleasant memories of flying on some of them. But it's best to use them judiciously, eyes open about their limitations.

Those are five of my rules. If I've missed anything, tell me in the comments. :)
Tags: travel
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