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The bizarre art of budget air travel

Last Updated on January 2, 2016

We’ve talked before about how much we enjoy air travel, specifically people-watching at the airport, by creating people’s backstories or analyzing human behavior, almost like anthropologists. There is one thing I have noticed that is always surprising to me: you would think that air passengers would show more camaraderie with each other.

After all, by the time all electrical devices have been switched off for take-off, we have all been through loads of stress together just to get to that point. Normally such stressful shared experiences make us bond with complete strangers – just look at how much even the most hardened New Yorkers bonded during the black out.

For whatever reason, though, with some exception, we tend to file on and off our flights without bonding over the truly bizarre set of hoops we had to jump through to get on that flight in the first place.

It all starts when we decide on our destination and look up flights. Flight comparison sites help get a feel for the price range, but sometimes there are wildly different rates. Already buzzing from making that final decision to take a trip, it’s easy to see one of the super cheap prices and feel like we scored a huge deal. Nine times out of ten, however, once you add on taxes and fees, the flight is just as expensive as all the others. Usually it is with budget airlines that the initial price jumps so high in the end. Imagine how hard life would be if buying milk or a new laptop were the same.

plane over mexicoTeletext Holidays recently published an interesting report on the extra costs for using budget airlines. In the report, they say, “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.” We couldn’t agree more. Of all the flights we’ve taken, only a handful have been that holy grail of amazingly cheap flights (like our Lisbon-Toronto flight that totaled $650 for the two of us, including taxes and fees).

After sifting through loads of misleading prices across multiple sites and diving in to make the purchase, there is the confirmation and decision whether to do check in online, which sometimes doesn’t work at all and then you get to the airport with fingers crossed that checking in the old fashioned way still works. Other times, in particular with a certain Irish budget airline, failing to check-in and print out the boarding pass in advance results in a fine so hefty, it’s often more than the original ticket itself.

But let’s say we do all the pre-airport printing and show up at the airport – the luggage fiasco is often where I develop a facial tick attempting not to lose my cool. Domestic flights in the US often require payment for even one checked bag, which causes business travelers and frequents flyers to subvert this by taking on way too much carry-on luggage to avoid the fees.

Most confusing for me is this mysterious distribution of weight scenario. Our checked luggage was once two kilos over, and the agent presented us with a choice. We were allowed a second piece of luggage for free, so we could either purchase a bag in one of the airport shops and empty a few kilos into it, or pay $100 fine for overweight luggage. The tiny, overpriced duffel bag cost $25, thereby ‘saving’ us $75, all so the exact same amount of weight could be brought onto the plane.

airplaneJust before boarding the plane is the stage to which I will never become accustomed: taking part in the en mass strip down, as hundreds of people remove shoes, belts and sweaters in front of total strangers. If I’m honest, though, we are both usually more worried about them finding and confiscating something useful, like our Swiss Army Knife, in one of our carry-ons. Later, when waiting for take off, we often discover the knife in the bag and though at first we’re just relieved that security personnel didn’t find it, we slowly get freaked out wondering what other possible weapons our fellow passengers have managed to get on board as well.

Maybe that’s why we don’t bond with each other after such a hassle to get on that flight together? Ah well, within minutes I am usually fully engrossed in a sitcom I’ve never heard of or imagining what it would be like to be a flight attendant, just excited to get to my destination.