Budget Flights – worth the money?

Are budget airlines an alternative to full service airlines?

A Thomas Cook aircraft at London Gatwick

After having scoured the internet for cheap flights to Tunisia for weeks, I’ve decided to book a flight with Thomas Cook Airlines. The price for this started out as £172 return for a flight from London Gatwick (LGW) to Enfidha (NBE). The reason that I chose this flight was that I needed to be in Monastir for a week, and no normal flights were heading that way. The only alternative was Tunisair who are flying from Heathrow to Tunis for about the same price.

So I decided to give Thomas Cook Airlines a try, knowing that I would be conned out of my money somehow.

 

The pricing scam

When you go through Thomas Cooks online booking system, it all looks nice in the beginning, but gets worse with every click.
They lure you in with a reasonable (not even low!) fare, in this case £172, but when you start to click next, you realize what’s missing.

Thomas Cook Airlines "extras"

Let’s start off with luggage. On any full service airline, you’d be allowed to take 20-30kg of hold baggage with you. As you’d expect, Thomas Cook doesn’t allow this. Traveling with a bag is an extra for a mere £32 per 20kg.
If you were expecting a complementary meal, or just even a snack on board of a 3 hour flight, think again! That option will set you back another £16 per  flight. Who needs food anyway?
Then you have countless other options to lose your money on. I tried to be smart, and didn’t select any options (like priority check-in or extended seat pitch), as I was set on not paying extra charges.

Come the day of departure, I show up at the airport with a small carry on bag and my laptop bag. I was aware that I’d be allowed to only have 5kg of hand baggage, so I packed light in the morning and made sure all heavy items were in my pockets or jacket.
After a long queue (±80 people 3 hours before scheduled departure), I finally arrived at the check-in counter. The moment of truth, the bag goes onto the scale and shows 5.1kg. Phew, I thought. Just made it! (this was a bag with 2 jeans and 2 shirts, so basically nothing!)
However, a few seconds later, I learnt that unlike full service airlines, Thomas Cook doesn’t allow for a personal item (such as a laptop bag). That meant that I had 2 carry on items which exceeded the limit by 1. That meant I was allowed to do the walk of shame to the additional payments desk (they actually a dedicated check-in counter!) and pay an additional £25 to check 5.1 kg of baggage.

However, the fun good news doesn’t stop there.

 

Outbound flight fiasco — Operational issues

One doesn’t expect much from a budget airlines like Thomas Cook. I was prepared to having to pay for excess baggage, but I wasn’t for the next one.

We’d like to point out that your flight has been delayed from 19:20 to 23:40.” No reason for this delay could be given, the only thing one got was a £5 voucher. That’s £5 for a flight you’re supposed to check in 2 hours early for! For me that meant 6 hours of waiting at the airport.

Later I found out that the reason was “operational issues”. My guess is that the flight was so overbooked that it was cheaper for Thomas Cook to fly in a bigger aircraft and fly the passengers out than it would be to offload a substantial amount of passengers.

 

The in-flight experience

TCX 1274's Boeing 757

The plane on the flight out was scarily old. I think that AlItalia actually has newer planes than some of these Thomas Cook Airlines planes. They definitely have a better seat pitch. I’ve flown quite a bit over the last few years, and I’ve never experienced such a small seat pitch as on Thomas Cook Airlines. Any StarAlliance carrier I’ve flown with in Economy has had a larger seat pitch and didn’t require me to squeeze myself between two chairs. Even Nouvelair (a Tunisian charter airline) and AirBerlin have a substantially better seat pitch. Heck! Even Easyjet!

If you decided to pay for a lunch, you would’ve gotten bangers and mash and some tea or coffee, which looked quite nice.

 

Don’t travel without your Priority Pass

The only upside of having traveled with Thomas Cook was that I was able to thoroughly try out the Priority Pass benefits at London Gatwick and Enfidha.

 

London Gatwick Nº1 Lounge (South Terminal)

Eggs Benedict in No 1 Lounge

This is a beautifully designed lounge with great service. If you travel through Gatwick Airport, this is definitely a stop you need to make.
It took away the frustration of having to wait 6 hours for the flight as you’re greeted by delightful staff in a calm environment. This lounge definitely makes my personal top 5 of lounges.

 

Enfidha CIP PrimeClass Lounge

If you’re looking for a place to take out the stress of your travels, the CIP PrimeClass lounge is the place to be. You’ll be greeted by friendly staff offering you breakfast (I was there early!) and taking care of your every need (food, drinks or other). They will also guide you through a private security checkpoint and to the front of the queue of boarding (Hah! You paid for the Thomas Cook extra?!). The only thing that does get a bit annoying is the extremely helpfulness of staff, asking you if you need anything a second after you finish your plate / drink. Just like the Nº1 Lounge, I highly recommend using this service.

The CIP PrimeClass Lounge at Enfidha (NBE)

 

Post mortem

To summarize, if you have to travel with Thomas Cook Airlines, I feel for you. For me personally this was probably the last time I ever set foot on a Thomas Cook Airlines flight (never say never), and will in future take a Tunisair flight to Tunis instead. The song that pops to mind is the following:

Sorry :)

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