Renting A Rowboat and Expecting a Luxury Cruise Ship – Let’s Talk Budget Airlines

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

It happened again, I posted an update about an upcoming flight with a budget airline and before long had messages from several friends and readers telling me to be careful or suggesting I book with a traditional airline. I ignored their warnings and happily booked with EasyJet. Why? Not only because they were the cheapest option but because I genuinely like budget airlines.

Wait….what?  Those of you who have been reading for a while will no doubt recall that I have a long history of being disappointed by airline customer service and transparency. From being charged for water by US Airways on a ticket between AZ and Europe to being lied to by British Airways I always groan a little when the time comes to deal with airlines.

I should be the last person ready to sing budget airline’s prices, right? Not exactly. My upbeat opinion seems to lay in managed expectations. When I book with a budget airline I’m not expecting traditional “airline” quality service. I’m booking a ticket on an air-bus. An air-bus that is usually only slightly above the quality of a city bus, lacks the crazy people and has slightly more comfortable seating (though RyanAir is working on “fixing” this). The ticket is cheap, the perks are non-existent, the rules are firm, and it gets me where I want to go. In effect, I book a rowboat to get me where I’m going and expect a rowboat when I arrive. The big problem, and source of endless frustration, complaining, and agitation among travelers seems to stem largely from occasions where people book a rowboat usually knowing it’s a rowboat and then show up expecting a luxury liner.

To be fair, budget airlines don’t make a major effort to differentiate themselves from traditional airlines. Let’s face it, “service for a premium, shitty seats, cramped planes and ridiculous fees but GREAT prices!” isn’t exactly marketing gold. For those who assume most airlines are the same, this can be a massive shock. Especially if they’ve paid sticker price for their ticket and failed to anticipate and incorporate the secondary fees and rules designed to generate the airline significant secondary income.

When I book a budget airline, I book differently.

I do my research on the front end and make sure that I know what the rules are – especially for luggage and check in – and then make sure that I’m well within a safety buffer. If I think there’s a chance I’ll go over weight or that my bag is over sized I don’t assume they’ll overlook it, or that I can just risk it. I incorporate the $10-$20 extra for a checked bag into my fare cost.

I’m also not put off by the $5 credit card fee, the $5 nonsense fee, the $5 made up just because fee or the $7 mickeymouse convenience charge. Again, these are all expenses that I’ve already incorporated into my cost when analyzing which airline I choose to book with. It’s an annoying game and involves some added mickey mouse, but if I can play the game and get a a fare at 1/2 to 1/3 the cost of a conventional carrier then so be it. Bring it on!

Additionally, I almost never book a standard or last minute ticket with a budget airline. Budget airlines are cheap within a certain structure. That does not mean, however, that they’re always going to be the cheapest option. In many ways I view them in the same way as department stores – if you’re paying sticker price and it’s not on sale, you’re tossing money away.

At the end of the day I weigh the actual cost of the fare with a budget airline, the length of the flight, the airports I’m flying between, and the cost of more traditional airlines before booking. The end result? I book about 40%/60% on traditional/budget airlines.  There are also a number of budget airlines I just won’t fly.  Groups like Spirit Airlines have chosen fee structures which I find defeat the purpose of flying on a budget airline entirely.  Others have reliability or safety issues which leave me uncomfortable.

For many of you this may be nothing new. For some of you, hopefully it serves as an invitation to re-frame your personal perspective and approach to engaging with budget airlines. Still not convinced? Share your piece in a comment – I always value your feedback!

The Start of A Travel Adventure – Playa Del Carmen

*I’ll start this post by sharing one of the joys of travel. Though the post itself will be presented chronologically – it’s currently the 26th of December.  I’m sitting in an internet cafe in San Ignacio on the Belize/Guatemala border and relaxing. Not 5 minutes ago a friend I made during a 3 day sailing trip I was on three days ago walked in and sat down on the computer next to me.  It truly is a small, delightful world full of new friendships and great adventures.   Now back to the story…

In typical form I haphazardly kept my packing list in the back of my mind as the days raced by.  Checking average weather reports for the region, trying to fathom how they might be accurate and debating what the true temperature would be.  After all – mid 80s in the heart of winter?  Would it truly be that warm?  Would it be a humid heat or a humid cold?

As I entered the final 24 hours before the trip I finally committed myself to packing.   I turned the living room into a war zone.  Bags laid out, clothing piled on top of clothing, shoes tossed about and items mixed into yes and maybe piles.  Eventually, I paused and recorded the video of the final packing list I’d come up with.  In retrospect I packed for too cold a climate, but more on that later.

With my bags packed, destination confirmed and brother sleeping on my sofa ready to give me a ride to the airport at 7 in the morning i crawled into bed; nervous, excited, eager.

The flight itself was what i’ve come to expect.  In typical form US Airways managed to blow it. After several phone conversations and assurances that I was A) Not on a bulkhead and B) not next to a bathroom I ended up A) Against a bulkhead (no reclining seats), B) immediately next to a bathroom (I couldn’t have been closer), and just for S&Gs C) Next to a mother/father/toddler combo.   Taking things in stride I plugged in my ear buds, turned the volume up to hide the young child’s shrieks and zoned out for the 5 hour flight.

Cancun

The view during the landing was compelling.  Beautiful beaches along the coast, intense looking jungle so thick that it looked almost uniform – as though it was scrub brush – not tall trees and lush jungle.  The landing was anything but white knuckle and the blast of hot, humid air that hit me as I crossed from the plane to the terminal a delight.

Before I knew it I had been ushered through customs and security and found myself over dressed, sweating and delighted by the weather bathed in bright sunlight and with flowerbeds full of vibrantly colored blooming flowers.  I’d arrived in Cancun.  My visit was to be brief.  Within minutes i’d found the bus stop, booked a $8 ticket to Playa del Carmen and settled in for a brief wait.

Playa Del Carmen

The bus ride was easy.  As I wondered where I was, staring out the windows periodically trying to catch a street sign, i soon realized locating my hostel wouldn’t be overly difficult.  The bus dropped me off right in the heart of the tourist district and after misreading my directions once I found my hostel.  At first I was completely put off.

Located up a stairway sandwiched between two bars the reception was a small room set off the stairs.  I paid, checked in and was ushered to the dorm room.  A cement affair that provided a pillow, clean under sheet and sheet. I was rather concerned and put off – despite the heat – by the lack of a blanket.  In retrospect, i’ve come to realize that most hostels in the region don’t provide blankets as they’re completely unnecessary.  A cover sheet is typically more than sufficient given the hot, muggy nights – even in December.  The hostel lounge, common area, kitchens and bars I’d expected were all missing as well.  More than a little disappointed I headed downstairs for a beer.  It was only on returning that I continued up stairs and realized that the hostel was all around quite decent.  I’d just missed the hallway to the two rooftop bars, pool, kitchen with free internet access and social area. All of which were a major relief, especially for any hopes finding travel friends and social connections.

Despite discovering the social areas of the hostel, things were fairly quiet.  I set off again for food – locating a taco stand by the bus station.  Six delicious tacos and Coca Cola later I was stuffed, happy and starting to settle in and relax.  I strolled along the bustling main avenue as it bled tourists, hawkers and locals onto the side streets and delighted in the white sandy beach and warm water.  It was already dark, but my spirits had already started to lift – any concern I had over picking Mexico and Belize instead of Europe was already being driven out by the joys of a new adventure in a new region.

Feeling tired I made my way back to the hostel and settled in at the hostel bar where I quickly got to know the local barman. As I picked his brain a group of guys from one of the other rooms settled in at one of the tables.  Before long I joined them – an American from the east coast, a German from the norther part of Germany, an Aussie and two Israelis.  We got acquainted, ran through the usual howdy-dos and before long were exchanging stories and advice.  As time progressed the group grew – and before long we included an American girl and her Australian travel companion.

The Israelis had taken a cab and done their own trip to Dos Ojos and Akumel for snorkeling earlier that day and spoke highly of it.  Zeno (the guy from NY) suggested we consider renting a car at a local place he’d found during a previous trip as well as snorkeling gear from a local shop on the cheap.   Thrilled at the opportunity to bypass th $90+ trips to Xel-Ha and other tourist aquatic Disneyland-esque destinations I jumped at the shot to join them.

With a car and gas split 4 ways and a $5 snorkel/mask/fin rental we were able to start the trip for less than $25 a piece.   That story, however, needs it’s own post – so stay tuned.

After setting a 9 o’clock start time for the following day I paid the $8 for a pub crawl which left the hostel a bit after 11 and headed to a new club re-opening.  The club itself was fairly unimpressive.  Over packed, hot and humid it lacked a decent dance floor and had obnoxious security guards.  That said, the did had a show shortly after we arrived which was quite impressive.  The performers dressed in extravagant outfits inspired by the UAE and Dubai performed a series of aerial acrobatics while suspended from two hanging ropes – much like what one would expect in a cirq-de-sole (sp) performance. About an hour after the performance I grew tired of the heat and excused myself – a few of the others joined me and after a quick stop back at the hostel to drop off one of the girls we struck back out to explore the rest of the city’s night life.  By two it was time for bed, and time to prepare for the following morning’s adventure!

As I crawled into bed I only paused briefly to pinch myself and reflect – some how it had only been a few hours since I landed.