THE MAN WHO PAYS HIS WAY: What a difference 22 years makes

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Indy Lifestyle Online
One of the stranger ticket-buying experiences I have had took place in Barcelona during the Falklands War. I wanted a one-way flight to London. At the time, the cheapest ticket cost pounds 150. Everyone I talked to pointed in the direction of a young Argentinian, said to run the best bucket shop in town.

Upon hearing that I was keen to get back to work in order not to be sacked, Ramon launched into a frenzy of ticket-procurement, making urgent phone calls to another agency, then driving me across town to pick up a ticket. This document asserted that I had flown from London to Barcelona a week earlier on British Airways, which I hadn't, and that I was booked to return that very afternoon. For this work of fiction - without the London-Barcelona coupon, which was removed - I paid pounds 70, equivalent to a week's wages.

How different the world looks now that you and I can simply click our way around Europe for next to nothing.

MY "SEND pounds 1 to Dublin" campaign was launched a year ago this week after Ryanair had its no-frills knuckles rapped by the European Commission. The Irish airline's deal with Charleroi airport in Belgium, which amounted to a subsidy for every passenger that flew there, was ruled unfair. Ryanair's chief executive, Michael O'Leary, warned at the time that routes would be cut and fares would rise.

The send-a-pound campaign was not overly successful. Indeed, I appear to have been the only person to have sent one, and Mr O'Leary posted it back - a move he may have regretted this week when his airline announced sharply reduced profits. In the previous third quarter, Ryanair had made an average profit of pounds 5.50 per passenger; this time, that figure dropped by pounds 2.

THE IRISH airline has frequent "fly for 99p" offers; one is underway this weekend at www.ryanair.com. As you know, the catch is that you end up paying significantly more than the headline price. "Taxes" can add pounds 14 to the price of each flight. These mainly comprise spurious fees and charges that are enough to cover the airline's marginal costs - the amount to carry one more passenger.

The internet reduces transaction costs almost to zero, so it is perfectly rational to try to entice passengers on board a flight with a very low fare. What is less rational is to cut prices below marginal cost. But this week I flew from Luton to "Barcelona", as Ryanair likes to call Girona, for a total fare of pounds 5. The airline is obliged to send this straight to the Government for Air Passenger Duty - unless I become one of the 2 million or so passengers who each year mysteriously fail to show up for their Ryanair flights. The flight home from a different "Barcelona", this time Reus, was even cheaper: Û5 (pounds 3.50). Along the way, I kept tabs on my spending, from snacks to paying the world's worst busker Û1 to go away.

APART FROM musicians whose rendition of "No Woman, No Cry" is enough to make you weep, Barcelona looks good and feels grand in winter. On a crisp, clear February day the Catalan capital is at its dazzling best. You can walk along the Ramblas without colliding with a squadron of Swedes bearing backpacks the size of Volvo estates; and in the sublime Picasso Museum the only sound is your echoing footsteps.

COMING HOME, the flight was all you need for a two-hour hop: punctual, clean and safe. But there were just 29 passengers, giving each six seats each. It was a shame - not least for the planet - that there were so few of us to enjoy the experience.

As concerned environmentalists gathered to discuss climate change, I totted up my spending on the trip: pounds 123. Of this, Ryanair took just seven per cent. For flying me 1,400 miles, the airline charged around half a penny a mile - compared with 30p a mile earned by Midland Mainline for the train to Luton airport. I had spent more on elevenses at Taller de Tapas than I had on the flight home. It appears that however low the fares go, seats are still difficult to shift - partly because there are so many extra costs to add on to a trip.

At Reus airport, just before I boarded, I asked how much the flight would cost for someone turning up at the last minute wanting to go to London.

The answer: Û272, just short of pounds 200. Travelling on impulse can be expensive.

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