I have seen the future of air travel. And it’s covered in Telecom ads.
If you haven’t been broke and in Europe in recent years, you may not be familiar with Ryanair. Among the no-frills airlines specializing in short distances and absurdly low prices, Ryanair is the most vile, audacious and offensive. And usually the cheapest.
The idea of an under-$50 flight gets most Americans all hot and bothered. It’s just another way those Europeans have it better than us—universal health care, social welfare systems that work, less violent crime, tougher environmental laws. And cheap flights. I’m talking 5 Euros cheap. I’m not sure why Europe gets to add this to their ever-expanding repertoire of ass-kicking, but my guess would be that the airlines have to compete with competent, efficient train service. Take Amtrak, or God forbid, Greyhound across the country? Down to LA? I think I’ll pay the $125.
When I was figuring out the general itinerary for my last trip, I checked out flight costs for my longest distances on FlyCheapo. I came across Ryanair, and thought there was something wrong. A one-hour flight from Marrakesh to Seville for 5 Euros? Porto to Madrid also for 5? Are you kidding me?
Well, yes and no. The thing with Ryanair is that there’s catches. Enough to warrant a mitt—or the ability to read fine print, follow rules to a tee, and tune out advertising assaults. And you’ll need a pinch of luck. I took 2 flights with Ryanair; here’s some survival tips on what to expect from Europe’s most infamous airline:
The first trick to surviving a Ryanair flight is to read every rule and instruction, and treat it like the gospel. It is. Any attempts to bend the rules promptly results in a hailstorm of fees. Size and weight requirements for both checked and carry-on luggage, for instance, aren’t approximations. Carry-on baggage over 10kg? That’ll be 20 Euros. Forget to print your boarding pass at home? That’ll be 40 Euros. Traveling with an infant, surf board or guitar? Another 20-40 Euros. You’ve gotta pay to check a bag, but if it exceeds 15 kg, there’s an additional per kilo charge. If you’re a non-EU citizen, you have to have your passport checked by immigration control; forget that, and, yes, it’s another 20 Euros.
In preparation for your Ryanair flight, don’t even think about fudging on the details. Check-in closes exactly 40 minutes before the flight departs; arrive even 3 minutes late and you’re SOL. Have your printed boarding pass in hand, and get your passport checked.
Get to the gate early. Don’t sit in the hard plastic chairs—stand as close to the gate as possible. Ryanair doesn’t assign seating, which at first seems counterintuitive—it takes longer for people to board when they’re elbowing and jostling and trying to find their own seats. But, as always, there’s a catch: you can pay 4 Euros for priority boarding. Most of the folks doing this are traveling with small children, or those infants they paid an extra 20 Euros to hold on their laps.
As boarding time approaches, expect to see a steely-faced attendant walking up and down the line of anxious passengers, examining each carry-on item. It must be under 10 kg, and it must be only one bag. That means purses, laptops, water bottles, plastic bags carrying your wilted sandwich from earlier that day—it all counts. This is where they really rake in the extra fees. I only saw one man successfully evade the attendant, putting a jacket on over his fanny pack and untucking his shirt so you couldn’t see the waist strap. Smooth.
When it comes time to board, don’t expect anything fancy like gates or protected corridors. You’ll be scurrying across the tarmac and scampering up stairs (front or back, they open both up for maximized efficiency). Hustle on to the plane while perky young attendants bark at you like PE teachers: keep moving! find a seat! don’t block the isle! move quickly! go!
You’ll discover a couple of unusual things about your Ryanair aircraft. One, there are no tray tables. That safety card with a creepy characters acting out worst-case scenarios will not be a folded card in a pocket, but pasted onto the seat back in front of you. The overhead bins will be covered in Telecom ads, like a bus or metro car.
Once you’ve buckled your seatbelt, you’ve successfully completed the first stage in surviving a Ryanair flight: you’ve negotiated the rules and fees. Now it’s time to sit back and… be marketed at.
It’s ingenious, really, and I’m not sure why other airlines haven’t thought of it yet. Maybe they have, and Ryanair’s just the only one ballsy enough to go through with it. They’ve got a captive audience on an airplane, and Ryanair makes use of this ideal situation. In a 55 minute flight, I counted 4 opportunities to buy things. Jonesing for a cigarette? Buy our Smokeless Cigarettes for only 6 Euros. Make use of Ryanair’s exclusive inflight mobile phone service, and text and chat your heart away for only 2 Euros a minute. Buy Nescafe coffee for only 3 Euros. Get your gambling fix by buying a scratch card for only 3 Euros—and don’t feel guilty because some undisclosed amount of the proceeds goes to charity (here the flight attendant actually walked the aisle saying, “Win 10,000 Euros, save the children”). And let’s not forget duty-free shopping.
All this means that the attendants are basically talking at you the entire flight. Part of the reason is that announcements and sales pitches need to be made in multiple languages, but still. I recommend headphones. A smiley “no thank you” is as effective as a mean scowl, so pick whichever one fits your mood. No charge.
Now, when you’re descending into your destination, you may think the battle’s almost over, but here’s where the luck comes into play. I was fortunate on my 2 flights, because I landed in the airports and cities I thought I’d be landing in. Not so for all Ryanair passengers. I’ve heard horror stories about people landing on some lonesome runway 20 kms from the city they’d booked for. Notice that on your Ryanair itinerary, specific airport names aren’t given, just the names of cities. This allows them to land in the regional area of whatever destination, but not necessarily the main (and more expensive) airport. So, if you’re among the unfortunate, how do you get to where you thought you were going? Ryanair is nice enough to arrange for a bus. Which you can ride for 20 Euros.
Seeing as though I landed where I was supposed to, only had one flight time changed and neurotically followed every rule, my Ryanair travel experience wasn’t so bad. I actually don’t mind being inundated with ads and paying checked bag fees if it means I’m flying for a total of 25 Euros. And judging from the number of filled seats, I’m guessing I’m not alone.
Ryanair certainly hasn’t won any friends with its wily antics (this guy is pissed), and there’s an art to surviving their flights. But until they start charging to use the bathroom (they lost on that one), I’ll still grab a cheap flight with them whenever I’m in Europe. And my guess is that US-based airlines will begin moving more in this direction—hey, they’re already charging for checked bags. Only their flights ain’t no 5 Euros. (Oh, Europe, there you go again…)