Cheap travel is only as painful as you make it
In this great age of cheap flights and package holidays, we’re all travellers. We’re on life’s journey, seeking our destinations and finding ourselves along the way.
The mere mention of travel should conjure images of the well-to-do, flitting off around the globe, sipping cocktails in first class, and then floating through immigration to a waiting limousine, all the while looking as if they’ve just stepped out of a salon. Or at least that’s what travel companies want us to believe.
All too often, reality falls short. There are delays, screaming babies, long queues, security checks (my belt doesn’t usually “go off”), cancellations and airplane food. And that’s before you arrive. You deplane to find the air conditioning in the arrival hall is dead, only two of the fifteen customs booths are staffed and you smell like a nightclub in the daylight.
Out the front, the taxi queue stretches around the block, you just missed the last shuttle bus (“our buses leave every half hour until 2 am”) and every smoker in the country has lit up just outside the terminal door. Let’s not mention lost luggage.
But you arrive at your luxury hotel and immerse yourself in the gracious hospitality of your hosts, shower away the grime, eat, sleep and convince yourself it wasn’t that bad. Until the last day of your stay when you face the ordeal in reverse and the happy, tranquil place you found within yourself is gone, destroyed by the tyranny of travel.
Now, before we all change our holiday destinations to somewhere closer than thirty minutes from home, take heart fellow voyager, there is a way to reduce the adversity of discount air travel. It is The Golden Rule: Do not lose your sense of humour.
I love irony and what is more ironic than paying hard earned cash (credit?) to get away from the stress of work, to go on a relaxing holiday, and then being imprisoned for six hours, strapped to an uncomfortable chair, surrounded by families with screaming kids, in an aluminium tube at forty-thousand feet. For some reason they never mention that in the brochures.
Don’t forget, there are reality TV comedies about air travel where we watch ourselves paying to suffer, and we laugh. It’s important to see the funny side. Realistic expectations go a long way towards preventing disappointment and frustration.
The scouts have the right idea – be prepared. Young kids cry on planes. It’s a fact. Adults are apprehensive about flying, so imagine what it’s like when you’re only three years old, can’t see over the seats and your Eustachian tubes (in your ears) are not big enough to equalise the pressure so it feels like your head will explode. I think I’d cry too.
Earplugs are the secret ingredient in every seasoned adventurer’s carry-on. For a couple of dollars from a pharmacy or a couple more from an airport newsagency, the piercing shrieks of a tortured two-year-old can mellow to the decibels of a dulcet Dostoevsky.
At some time during the flight, normal people need to use the toilet. If you’re not in the aisle seat, the person between you and bladder relief will be asleep, morbidly obese or speak a different language (or all three). Experienced flyers don’t request window seats. They know that one cloud looks a lot like every other and the five minutes of view at takeoff and landing are worth less than the freedom of standing up and walking to the toilet at leisure.
Yes, the aisle seater has to stand up to let others out, but that helps prevent deep vein thrombosis, so is worth the effort (DVT usually is mentioned in the brochures, in fine print, because they don’t really want you to read it).
Why do some people rush to undo their seatbelt as the plane arrives at the terminal? Perhaps their fear of flying is too much and they want to get off, now! I sympathise with flight attendants whose job it is to wrangle these flyers back into their seats, only to have the seatbelt sign turned off immediately afterwards.
If I were a pilot, I would stamp on the brakes just before I turned the seatbelt sign off. An unceremonious impact with the seat in front might encourage them to reconsider. Forget the myth; flight attendants receive crappy wages to be a safety officer, cleaner, server, first aider and bouncer.
Check-in staff don’t fare much better. They are also paid crappy wages to listen to the abuse of travellers who, “through no fault of their own”, arrive late for check-in, forget their documentation, over-pack their bags and expect to receive special treatment. It’s no wonder a smile is rare at the counter of some airlines.
I wasn’t going to mention luggage, but it’s too important to leave out. Next time you’re at an airport, take note of how many bags are black. And then wonder why it’s hard to find ‘our’ bag. Next time you buy a new bag, buy any colour but black. Decorate it with odd, brightly coloured bits of ribbon. Make it stand out.
Anyone who travels a lot will have a lost luggage story. But “lost” is not really the correct adjective; it is usually only “delayed”. It will turn up the next day, or the day after. The only time I’ve heard of truly “lost” luggage was when Ansett collapsed. Passengers waiting for their luggage heard there was no one left to unload it. Some never saw their bags again.
Aeroplanes use a lot of fuel. The heavier they are, the more fuel they use and fuel is expensive. That’s why discount airlines are strict on luggage weight. They’ve calculated the profit margin on their ticket sales based on the fuel they’ll need for our one bag that weighs less than the maximum.
So when we turn up with our 17 overweight bags, they’re not going to let them through, “just this once”. They’re going to charge us extortionate prices for every kilogram that our luggage is overweight. It’s easy to avoid paying excess baggage fees – weigh your bags before you leave home. If they are over the weight allowed, buy extra allowance before you get to the airport, it’s cheaper.
If someone investigated the most frequent cause of traveller frustration, I expect “time” would stand out. When there are only five minutes until check-in closes and you’re sprinting from the car park to the counter, time is on fast forward. But when you’re stuck in the front of an airport waiting for check-in to open, surrounded by your bags and swearing never to fly again, five minutes seems like five hours.
Although, even this pales when compared to the frustration of arriving early and queuing patiently only to watch the latecomers whisked to the front of the line, seconds before their flight closes.
Discount airline travel is here to stay. Learning to manage its unique trials helps to keep flying tolerable. Things will go wrong but how we cope will determine whether we recall the problems as disasters, or the challenges that make life interesting. If all else fails, remember the Golden Rule: Don’t lose your sense of humour.
So next time you see me grinning stupidly in an airport, don’t worry, I’m just seeing the funny side.
Disclosure: I own shares in Qantas and probably other travel companies. Not that it makes me special because anyone with superannuation is likely to be in the same boat (plane?). Also, I am a member of every free frequent flyer and hotel loyalty scheme that lets me join.
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