Buyer beware on 'low-cost' airfares

One of the most attractive things about living in London is being able to jump on a plane and fly the length of the United Kingdom, or further afield, in a short time and for just a few pounds.

Low-cost airlines are largely to thank but this is a lesson in "you get what you pay for". Or do you?

A recent trip to Scotland was an eye-opener, even for an experienced traveller, when choosing EasyJet proved anything but.

There were ominous signs when, arriving at Gatwick Airport more than 90 minutes before my Glasgow-bound flight was due to depart, I was greeted by a queue that ran the length of the large terminal building.

As my jaw dropped, I reminded myself the English love to stand in line. Surely they were just engaging in this quaint cultural practice and not actually waiting to check in.

A staff member confirmed the monstrous line was indeed for check-in.

When I responded with a look of bewilderment mixed with concern that I might not reach the front before the gate closed, something she had seen countless times that morning, she assured me I would be called on to jump the queue if time was tight.

Sure enough, over an hour later, I was right in the middle of a knot of humanity zig-zagging through rope barriers when the Glasgow flight was called forward, allowing me to squeeze past a sea of jealous faces out of the queue and into another.

After more queues at security and the departure gate, I was among a group of passengers left standing on the tarmac as the bus taking us to the plane was filled to bursting.

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We were sent back inside to wait for the bus to deliver its load to the plane and return for us.

Finally on the bus, the journey took so long I joked that perhaps they were driving us to Glasgow.

With tempers frayed, my comment raised a snigger from two women I had befriended while repeatedly bumping into them at various stages of our ordeal. Others shot me scowls and silently fumed.

After the rigmarole, we missed our take-off slot and had to wait on the plane for another.

Surprisingly, the total delay was only about an hour - fine if you didn't have a connecting flight.

With no time to grab early morning refreshments at the airport, I begrudgingly paid $A4.40 for one of the most offensive tasting hot drinks masquerading as coffee I can remember.

Upon finally arriving in Glasgow, I opted not to lodge a complaint. Like everyone else, I made a bee-line for the door, desperate to put it all behind me.

This is key.

Complaints, if anyone can be bothered spending more of their precious time making them, are notoriously greeted by the budget carriers with the attitude that the flights are cheap because you're paying for a no-frills service. What do you expect?

But quite often they're not that cheap.

Being the week of a major golf tournament, the easyJet fair I bought was only marginally cheaper than British Airways and slightly more expensive than Ryanair, which flew in and out of less convenient airports.

Factor in taxes, A$32 per checked in bag and a A$5.95 fee for paying online using a debit card (the cheapest option) the $A213 journey was hardly bargain basement.

Ryanair chief Michael O'Leary has even flagged charges to use the toilet in future.

To make things worse, a computer system failure on the return leg resulted in another long wait in a queue.

These annoyances can be beaten but sometimes such victories are impossible.

If you have access to a printer, check in online and printout your boarding pass.

If you can manage a week-long business trip carrying only one piece of hand luggage, go for it.

Use a debit card when booking and avoid travelling in summer.

Otherwise, pack a fold-up chair, sandwich, thermos, iPod and a book.

AAP

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