Flying almost anywhere in Europe for the price of a mid-price restaurant meal? If there was ever a reason to move to the UK, budget airlines are it, writes Elle Hunt in the latest instalment of her Elleswhere series about life as a New Zealander in London.
Once I paid several hundred dollars for a next-day flight from Christchurch to Wellington. It was a necessary, last-minute expense as I’d missed the one I’d booked, either getting the day wrong or mistaking the departure and boarding times – I can’t remember which, as I’ve done both. (I have struggled with flights, historically.)
I had a Twix for dinner and spent the night in an airport lodge cabin that was full of foreboding. In total, my mistake cost me about $500. $506, counting the Twix.
I bring this up now, four years later, because I see that for the same amount or less I could fly tomorrow from any one of London’s bad airports to Moscow, Heraklion, Algiers, Marrakesh – truly foreign places, for far less than I once spent getting between islands in New Zealand.
From Wellington, I’d managed about one international holiday every two years, never going for less than 10 days in order to make the most of the time and money it took to get away. I had never “done Europe” because there had seemed too much of it “to do”.
Looking at one of those flight finder site world maps for the first time after I moved to London, I felt a visceral shiver of excitement. The world had suddenly come within reach.
For £20, less than I routinely spend in a week on coffee, I could fly to La Rochelle, Seville, Trieste – any number of European cities – and back, and be handed change. I’d paid more for a hobby horse for a Ringwraith costume. (Another necessary, last-minute expense.)
Of course, on closer inspection, these low low prices invariably prove to be for flights on cattle-class airlines departing before dawn, without bags, and from airports that only air traffic controllers, it seems, would think of as being in London.
This I learned one snowy morning in late January, arriving from Cologne after four hours’ sleep with two family bags of Haribo and a potentially terminal hangover at Southend. The fact that it was by the sea and in Essex, I was dismayed to discover, did not prevent Skyscanner from classifying it as a London airport. With the train service having been replaced by buses, as is always the case when I am at a low ebb, the trip home took nearly four hours: longer than the flight. The Haribo did not last the journey.
That was also one of my first experiences of flying Ryanair, typically as haphazard and perverse an experience as you’d expect of airfare for less than a cinema ticket. More than once in my experience the plane has been either AWOL at the stated boarding time or held for several hours on the tarmac, neither of which are necessarily cause for concern, if only the crew didn’t seem as confused as the passengers.
There is a general sense of trepidation to flying Ryanair, on everyone’s parts, that leaves me feeling wistful for Jetstar. (It is better if I don’t think about Air New Zealand at all.) But every couple of weeks they announce another mega-sale of international flights for less than a week’s tube fare and I can’t resist.
These cheap airfares are taking a terrible toll on European cities, filling them with plane loads of people there for a good time, not a long time. But I am selfishly delighted to be part of the problem. When international travel has typically taken considerable time, money and planning, it is glorious to be able to find yourself somewhere new in a couple of hours, for change from $100. The best part of living in London is how close it is to everywhere else.
In hindsight, in my first year here, I went a bit mad. Paris, three times. Edinburgh, twice. Amsterdam, Utrecht, Cologne. All over Italy. Athens and around the Peloponnese. For a while, I was going somewhere new every month.
It nearly bankrupted me. Dazzled by the cheap flights, I had not factored in the associated costs of eating out every meal, airport transport, and accommodation. I was forced to cut back on city breaks.
Still, it’s nice to know it’s there. Really: just over there.
Within a month of settling in London, I booked a weekend getaway to Paris, partly to meet an Australian friend who was passing through, and partly just to say I could. Flying internationally after work on a Friday with little more than hand luggage appealed to me as being the height of excess – a real pinch-yourself, DJ Khaled “We Made It!” moment.
Forty-eight hours in a foreign city – less than the time in which it would take to watch all of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films – felt extravagant. I ended up there for 24. Naturally, I missed the flight over.
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.