The brutal truth about my $20 flight
Europe: the continent of culture, cuisine, and cheap flights. Or so I thought.
Last month I paid almost five times the price of my one-way flight to Warsaw just to get from London to London Stansted Airport - which is actually a 45-minute train journey outside the capital.
It wasn't the end to unforeseen costs for my "budget" trip. By the time I returned to London a week later, I'd spent more than three times what I'd anticipated on flights and related costs alone. Frustratingly, I could have saved almost every cent by being more organised, less blinded by bargains, or simply by following the advice below:
1. BOOK IN ADVANCE
I booked my flight to Warsaw the week before I flew, and my return journey a few days later. The latter decision took me via Oslo, cost me more than I'd spent all week, and I slept on the airport floor. If I'd researched flights in advance, I could have booked direct return flights for less than $50, and got a good night's sleep.
One of the biggest travel myths is that buying flights last minute guarantees you a good deal. In reality, the longer you leave it, the lower your chance of finding cheap flights gets.
2. CHECK WHICH AIRPORTS YOU'RE VISITING
Oslo Torp Sandefjord, Frankfurt Hahn, Stockholm Skavsta; these airports are all at least 105km from the cities they're named after, and either a $50 bus or a very expensive taxi from the city centre.
Of course, having booked cheap flights, you might save money anyway. But costs add up and small booking mistakes - such as booking your return journey from Warsaw to Oslo Torp Sandefjord, then Oslo Gardermoen Airport to London, thinking both Oslo airports would at least be close to one another can be expensive. Mine cost me $100, money I could have saved by double-checking airports' locations.
3. BE SMART WITH YOUR HAND LUGGAGE
This month, some European airlines have changed their hand-luggage policies. As of November 1, Ryanair passengers are only allowed one bag in the cabin, providing it fits beneath the seat in front. Wizz Air passengers are allowed one bag up to a size of 40cm x 30cm x 20cm.
Both airlines charge for larger items weighing over 10kg, but there is good news: they will then be checked into the hold, meaning you don't have to limit your liquids to 10 x 100ml. Also, it's worth noting that if you pay for this option when you book your flights, it's much less expensive than it is to buy at the airport.
I was lucky and booked my trip before these rules came in. The only downside is that I couldn't bring back any Polish vodka!
4. WATCH OUT FOR CHEAP ONE-WAY FLIGHTS AND BE FLEXIBLE WITH YOUR DATES
At the time of writing, Wizz Air has an offer for flights from Liverpool to Warsaw for just $23.86. But there's a catch: it's only available on December 7. Meanwhile, on the Ryanair website, all of the flights in the "Cheap Deals" section are one-way. There's a catch again: if you're not flexible on dates, then lots of the deals are irrelevant.
Granted, both airlines' options are still relatively cheap, but they're also a long way from the teasing one-way offers advertised, and it's easy to get caught out. My outward flight to Warsaw was only $20, but because I had to be back in time for the weekend, for my return journey it was cheaper to return to London via Oslo than it was to get a direct flight. It cost $221, without added unforeseen costs. Speaking of which …
5. CHECK IF YOU HAVE TO CHECK IN ONLINE
Infuriating though it may be, some European airlines will fine you if you fail to check in online. If you're flying with Ryanair, you can only check in online from 48 hours before your flight departs to two hours before it leaves and if you're flying with Wizz Air, online check-in is only available from 48 hours up to three hours before departure. This is where I got caught out once again.
The $50 fine, combined with getting to the airport in London, flights, and the bus journey in Oslo took the total cost of my flights and related expenses to $493. Or, to put it differently, the equivalent of 216 Polish beers, three seven-course meals at Warsaw's Michelin star restaurant Tamka, or a night at the Hotel Bristol in the centre of Warsaw Old Town.
Did I get my money's worth? Absolutely not. But I'd go back to Warsaw tomorrow if I could and, fortunately, that's all that matters.