I called it my "proletariat field trip." A self-admitted airplane snob, I regularly use phrases like "commercial travel" to distance myself as far as possible from the back of the plane. I decided to take a trip around Eastern Europe from London to Berlin to Budapest, all on European budget carriers, to see who was best of the bunch.
London to Berlin
My adventure began three months prior, booking the first leg of the trip from London to Berlin. Despite hearing it was the most frill-free of the budget bunch,
yields two daily flights to Berlin at 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. for £6.99 ($13.91 plus tax ) or a mere 60 pence ($1.18 plus tax) respectively, which seemed well worth it. In the end, I was thankful I booked the early evening flight to Berlin, as getting to London's airports means traveling a lengthy distance on trains that don't always depart when they should.
After making it through check-in and paying hefty fees for not prepurchasing my two checked pieces of luggage or using the automated kiosk, I made my way through security and into the main terminal area of Ryanair. Having purchased my ticket for £7, I probably should have anticipated what came next. The terminal was a hot and airless sweatshop of restless travelers in long, convoluted lines. Chairs were not an option, occupied by travelers who looked permanently attached while having long given up ever going anywhere.
Upon boarding, it finally made sense to me why travelers line up so long in advance without forfeiting their spot for even a toilet break. Without assigned seating, travelers board on a first-come, first-serve basis. A lesson in human nature soon unfolded, as the front and rear doors of the aircraft were pried open like sardine tops. A mad dash was made for the front entrance of the plane as stout men rushed the back like a swat team pushing aside single women and slow walkers.
Like an emergency evacuation in reverse, the plane filled in a panic as I snagged a seat in one of the last empty rows. Travelers continued to pour onto the aircraft, taking whatever window seats were available, followed by any aisle seats. As only middle seats remained, stragglers scrutinized the filled seats looking to avoid small children, fat men or smelly grandmothers.
As if squeezed into my Ryanair seat with a shoehorn, I began to acquaint myself with my temporary surroundings. The first thing I discovered is that my seat did not recline, and that those plastic tray tables I have always taken for granted are actually an amenity, one that Ryanair does not provide.
Cue the stewardesses, an authoritative bunch that quickly dominated the aisle with their metal carts laden with junk food and overpriced toiletries that frugal travelers never buy. One rejection was not enough as they made their way up and down the aisle again, just in case anybody changed their mind on that Paris Hilton fragrance.
The beauty of European travel is that before you can even finish your soda the plane is in decent, as you find yourself awaiting your luggage and forgetting the entire plane experience ever took place.
Berlin to Budapest
I had hoped to fly the ever-expanding
on my flight to Budapest, but
had a cheaper and more convenient nonstop flight. My trip cost ¿29 ($42.40) inclusive of taxes, with an ¿11 add-on for priority check-in and boarding (provided you're at the gate when boarding starts). I was starving for luxury at this point, so I also prepurchased my checked luggage online, which cost around ¿6 per bag, with a 20 kg limit per bag.
Arriving at the airport 55 minutes before the flight, I made my way to the check-in counter and through security without a hitch. I expected the worst, but the waiting area at Berlin's Schoenfeld Airport is far more pleasant than I ever expected -- there were unoccupied chairs and a pleasant café that even offered soy milk.
I'm beginning to love EasyJet. Getting on the flight is more orderly than Ryanair. Operating a strict system carefully detailed in German on the intercom, boarding begins with passengers who, like myself, have purchased the Speedy Pass. While open seating creates the same human nature issues I discovered on Ryanair, the regulation of the masses means less of a panic once boarding begins.
This time around I was in 2A, which is technically First Class real estate. Upon settling into my leathery EasyJet seat, I notice that the cabin is visually more spacious than its Ryanair competitor. While the company's cheesy font and horrible orange logo speak to its budget nature, the staff looks as though they still believed in the magic of working as flight attendants.
Having begun service in 2003 with mostly a fleet of
737s, the company reversed course and is currently operating mainly Airbus A319 aircraft. There are a number of differences between the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A319, but most noticeably, the Airbus is 14 inches wider. These additional inches create more interior cabin space with wider aisles and more visual space for passengers.
Budapest to London
Instead of flying EasyJet's simpler flight to London's Gatwick, I instead tried
Wizz Air for the sake of variety. Being a fearful flier, I am always nervous of cutesy-named airlines, such as the now-defunct Snowflake and BMI Baby, both reputable discount carriers, but with names that make me think of a toothless child.
The ride to Budapest Airport is quite cumbersome, on endless highways and even a few unpaved roads. Just happy to arrive, I entered the Cold War-era airport and pretended not to notice the antiquated metal detectors or carry-on policy that overlooks the trunk-size luggage of older travelers too cheap to pay for checked luggage.
Boarding meant getting wet on the uncovered airport tarmac as a lone stewardess manned the self-contained staircase as if she was also the pilot. Surprisingly, the Wizz Air fleet isn't anything like the Soviet-made '80s aircraft I expected. Instead, Wizz Air has a young garage of Airbus A320s with an average age of less than three years. The interior of the aircraft is even more impressive, cleaner and more spacious than my previous Ryanair flight. Additionally, the slim stewardesses wore feminine purple suits with Jackie O. pill hats that are far more stylish than the previous airlines' fireproof jumpsuits.
As I sat in my itchy upholstered seat -- 22A -- and contemplated my journey, I looked around and saw the diverse crowd of travelers that budget airlines have enabled to travel while wondering when one of them is going to come up with a supplemental business class that even I can love.
Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com -- a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in In Style, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine, ITV and BBC.