flying

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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It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post here … I blame Twitter … but this story won’t fit the 140 character limit.

The plan

I was in Stuttgart for a week of consulting, so I wanted to return on Saturday to London to pack my stuff and head off to Brussels on Monday for the holidays.

However, it seems like I’ve chosen a bad weekend to travel.

The first part of my trip was from Stuttgart to London Heathrow.

Saturday, 18th of December 2010

I was booked onto the 13:20 – 14:05 flight from Stuttgart to London Heathrow. Just before leaving Esslingen to head to the airport, I checked the Lufthansa website to make sure my flight was on.

Great! Flight is scheduled, whereas British Airways decided to cancel all flights pre-emptively. Feeling smug, I was off to the Airport.

Everything was going as planned, check-in, security check, lunch and then off to the gate. Boarding time was planned for 12:50, but it took a while for Lufthansa staff to show up at the gate. At 12:55 they finally did show up and shared the bad news. They were unable to get a landing clearing at Heathrow due to the adverse weather conditions. My smugness quickly disappeared off my face and it was off to the Lufthansa Ticket desk.

Turns out, you can go backwards through the entire process at an airport to leave it. Arrived at the ticket desk, I quickly got booked onto the flight at 16:40. Ouch. That meant trying not to get bored for another 3 hours. Thank god for my iPad with Spotify and Angry Birds.

3 hours later, again at the gate, the same announcement: Flight cancelled due to weather at Heathrow. Yet another trip to the Ticket Desk, where Lufthansa was kind enough to pay for a great 4* Hotel near the Airport and 20€ for food and drinks. Compared to British Airway’s budget of 200€ for all stranded passengers, Lufthansa was great. I was afraid it would be a small, cheap hostel but it wasn’t. The Pullman Fontana was an amazing Hotel. Nice rooms, fast WiFi and a well stocked bar (gotta love Campari!). The only thing that was disappointing was the breakfast. Just a few mini-Croissants and some toast. It’s the only thing that didn’t fit the entire 4* Business Hotel setting.

And so we get to

Sunday, 19th of December 2010

Wake up call at 4:30, quick shower, mini-breakfast and then off to the Airport again. I was supposed to get the early morning flight, yet I already saw online on the Lufthansa site that it was cancelled. However, the receptionist was convinced that the flight wasn’t, so it was off to the airport again.

What a coincidence, the 6:50 flight was cancelled. So I got onto the standby list of the 13:20 flight, a ticket for the 16:40 flight and a 7€ voucher for breakfast. During breakfast, I was browsing the internets, I checked the Heathrow Airport website and saw that they closed the airport completely for all incoming flights. So it was off to the Ticket Desk again, to tell them that there won’t be any flights going out to Heathrow today.

So, what were the options? I asked about train tickets: Possible, but only to the German border, and it didn’t look like it would be easy to get a hold of Eurostar tickets. So that was a no go.
The next option was going back to the Pullman: After a lengthy talk, they offered us a second night at the Pullman, but clearly said that it would be the last one they would pay for, as this was a case of force majeure, so they can’t be held liable. Realizing that the situation at Heathrow wouldn’t change over night, and that the backlog of passengers at Stuttgart for London Heathrow was growing, this didn’t seem like a smart move. On top of that, I had a flight booked from Heathrow to Brussels on Monday at 10:50, so I would possibly miss that flight.

This is when I overheard some people mentioning a Germanwings flight to Stansted in the evening. So I asked Lufthansa to get me a seat on that flight which they did. However, seeing as this was a low cost carrier, I had to get my luggage and wait for check-in to open 2 hours before the flight was scheduled to leave. This meant killing a day worth of time.

Having met a fellow traveler at the Pullman the night before and both being booked onto the Germanwings flight, we decided to head into Stuttgart and do something there. Little did I know, Stuttgart is the dullest city in the world (no offense). Add the fact that it’s Sunday to that, and you’ve got a place where you don’t want to spend another minute in. After 2 hours of going from one Café to another and keeping the caffeine levels high, we found a “Casino”. It was a very strange place. It was an underground cellar, with 2 pool tables and 6 slot machines and a few very odd human beings. Didn’t matter, it was something to do. So we played pool. The final score isn’t relevant.

Having wasted time there, it was off to the station to get hold of some WiFi and then off to the Airport to check-in. You could immediately see that Germanwings is a low-cost carrier, as the queue to check-in was stretched around several corners. Nevertheless it was a flight to the UK.

Luckily that flight wasn’t cancelled and the plane finally left Stuttgart. A quick sidenote, the Germanwings flight was quite good. A nice amount of legroom (more than Brussels Airlines! wtf?!) and very professional and friendly on board staff.

Landing in Stansted, it was off onto the Stansted Express, then Underground (which for once wasn’t on strike) and finally South West Trains to Egham. HOME.

The experience

Overall, it wasn’t a “bad” experience. Of course, I would’ve preferred not to have been stuck at the airport for 2 days, but Lufthansa was very friendly and having a Hotel for the night and not having to sleep on the benches at the airport like BA passengers was great.

The thing they could’ve done better is communication. They could’ve told the receptionist that the flight is cancelled, so that we could’ve gotten another few hours of sleep. Also, how come we, as passengers, know that a flight will be cancelled before staff at the airport ticketing desk know? Not good. So in short, Lufthansa, get your communication sorted.

And so we’re getting to Monday.

Monday, 20th of December 2010

Getting up at 8am is horrible for any student. So being in the age of Twitter, I wanted to make sure I don’t get to the airport for nothing, so I asked Brussels Airlines on Twitter if my flight was operating.

Yay! Looks like I might get home on time. So I was on my way to Heathrow.

I am used to just finding an empty departure hall, with loads of space and hardly anyone in sight. Today was completely the opposite. Staff was checking if you’re flight was scheduled at the entrance before they let anyone inside and inside the hall people were queuing everywhere and some families lying on the floor on these aluminum blankets.

As I know where the Brussels Airlines check-in is, I didn’t bother checking the boards, and just headed over to the desk. This is where I saw a mass of people pushing and shoving each other to get to 2 check-in desks, and a woman with a bullhorn screaming at them to get back. Turns out, Cyprus Airways had a check-in desks next to Brussels Airlines. Amazed by how uncivilized that queue was, I queued up at the Brussels Airlines desks where I only saw 2092 (which was supposed to have left at 8:30 … it was 9:50). Odd. This is when I saw another tweet by Brussels Airlines.

Ouch. Oh well, I was in the queue already, so let’s see if I could get on any other flight to Brussels. Turns out, I could. An amazingly professional, calm and friendly Brussels Airlines staffer got me onto the standby list of a very delayed SN2092 which was leaving more or less now … and assured me that I would get a seat. Great!

Fast-track through Terminal 1 security and then off to the BMI Great British Lounge to get some breakfast. Turns out that a few weeks ago, BMI decided to change the access rules to it. Even though the BMI website states that BMI Diamond Club Silver card holders get access to the lounge (even with a guest), they now deny access to people not flying on BMI metal. Having booked a BMI flight (BD flight number – even though operated by another LH group member), and thus paying BMI, Silver members aren’t allowed in.

Very disappointing decision by BMI, which results in me not booking through BMI anymore. No point in paying more for LHR-BRU on FlyBMI.com compared to BrusselsAirlines.com.

So it was time to head off to the gate. I quickly got a seat on the plane and boarded.

This is when the fun began: We spent 3 hours sitting on the plane before actual take-off.

The first two hours were spent with the flight attendants counting the people on the plane and comparing those numbers to the manifesto. Seems like those numbers didn’t add up. But how come this takes 2 hours?! After they finally figured that out, it took 30 minutes to get a starting clearance, so we were off towards the runway. Heathrow decided to close the runway for 30 minutes to clear it (even though it was clear).

40 minutes later, touchdown in Brussels. Looks like we just about made it before they realized they were running out of de-icing fluid.

So I thought that was it. Quickly picking up my luggage and then home. Wrong. Turns out my luggage decided it wanted to stay in Heathrow for a bit longer. Normally not a bad thing, however Brussels Baggage hall was a mess.

BRU luggage chaos - picture by Regi Penxten

BRU luggage chaos - picture by Regi Penxten

Bags everywhere but mine wasn’t anywhere. That meant queuing. And not just queuing, but a queue of at least 200 people for the baggage claim. Add to that the fact that there were only 2 desks open to handle the lost baggage claims, this meant a long time to queue.

It took 6!! hours!! 6 hours to tell someone they lost my bag. Incredible. Why weren’t there more people working the lost and found desks?

To sum up, great ground staff from Brussels Airlines at Heathrow, 3 hours of sitting around on the plane before take-off (and seat pitches that are less than on Germanwings, a low-cost carrier!!) and then 6!! hours of queuing at the lost & found. All in all, a lot of room to improve.

Just a few last words: I just wanted to say, a great thank you to the people behind the @FlyingBrussels, @FlyBMI and @HeathrowAirport twitter accounts. You guys rock!

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