Britain's budget airlines have revolutionised travel for millions of people over the past 10 years, bringing low-cost overseas holidays to families that previously could only afford to stay in the UK, as well as opening up European weekend breaks to couples and groups of friends who once would never have dreamt of crossing the Continent for just three days.
But, as the market has got ever more competitive over the past few years, customer service, transparency and, ultimately, value for money appear to have been sacrificed in favour of short-term profits. Having got us hooked on hopping across the Continent whenever we fancy, the budget airlines seem to believe, perhaps rightly, that even without a good service, customers will still come to them because of their low prices.
Today, buying a ticket from Ryanair's website is an experience that leaves me enraged. Although the front page flashes adverts about free or low-cost flights, the starting price no longer bears any resemblance to how much you'll finally end up paying.
Booking a return flight to Stockholm in June, for example, has a headline cost of just 2p. Add taxes and fees and that rises to £10 – still incredibly cheap. But then perhaps you need to check in a bag or two. Not only will you be collared for a fee for each piece of checked-in luggage, but you'll also be penalised for not checking in online. Two bags and airport check-in comes to a total of £42 – instantly increasing the price of your air fare fivefold.
Next up is priority boarding, which, conveniently, is automatically selected – that's another £6 (although you can opt out if you spot this). Then there's a similar trick with travel insurance, which costs you £8.93, but rather than asking you whether you want it or not, there's a rather cryptic line on the form that says: "Confirm country of residence to purchase travel insurance". It's far too easy to think this is mandatory.
By this stage, we're up to £66.93 for that 2p ticket, and there's more to come. You have to pay by card, but there's a charge for that, too – £1 each way for a debit card, £3 each way for a credit card. This one really gets me worked up – why does it matter how many flights you're buying? There's only one transaction, so it's irrelevant whether I'm flying one way or return.
So, paying with my Visa credit card, I get a total bill of £72.93 – that's 3,646 times more expensive than my original ticket. This, of course, is still cheap, but only £30 cheaper than a flight with a regular scheduled airline – £30 you'll wish you'd paid as soon as you set foot on a Ryanair flight.
When I took my mother for a weekend in Salzburg a few years ago, the turn-around of the aircraft was so quick that the cabin hadn't been cleaned – not even the vomit on the headrest of my mother's seat! And, on the newer Ryanair aircraft, the tray tables have been removed and the seats placed that much closer together – more discomfort.
Providing a bad service, however, is the airline's choice. Ultimately, it will lose customers such as me, who will never again travel on a Ryanair plane unless we absolutely have to.
But the trickery on their ticket-booking website must be stopped. It needs to be made clear from the outset that you'll be charged for checking in bags and paying by credit card, and it needs to spelt out that the insurance is optional.
Furthermore, while Ryanair is not responsible for taxes, it could take a leaf out of easyJet's book and advertise all its prices inclusive of taxes and fees. Flights for free, flights for 1p, flights for £10 – it's all meaningless until you know how much you'll be hit with in tax and other charges. It's time for Ryanair to start treating its customers with honesty and respect.