Bags of time with day-before check-in at Gatwick?

The man who pays his way
  • @SimonCalder

Day-before check-in is the best antidote to airport stress. At the UK's two biggest holiday airports, Gatwick and Manchester, carriers such as easyJet, Thomson Airways and Thomas Cook Airlines invite you to hand over your baggage and pick up boarding passes on the night before you travel. Next morning, you can set the alarm later and go straight to security with none of the usual uncertainty about how long to allow for check-in.

You may already be a convert; if not, try it soon. It is so popular among Thomas Cook passengers that the firm is about to start charging extra for it.

The concept is aimed at people staying at airport hotels before an early flight. But travellers living reasonably close to the airport can benefit too – and usually only one member of each group needs to go along. My family was booked on a 9.15am departure from Gatwick last Sunday. I concluded that the benefit of everyone getting an extra hour's sleep was worth the investment of a couple of hours and a £10 train ticket to the airport.

So, at about the same time as the field in the Grand National was under starter's orders, I set off from London knowing it was a racing certainty that we would then be able to relax before the following day's flight.

I also noticed that with no time pressure you can be amused rather than enraged by the many barriers between you and your holiday.

First hurdle: catching a train to Gatwick. My local London station, Blackfriars, has such unreliable ticket technology that usually I resort to taking a photo of the defunct pair of ticket machines to demonstrate to railway staff where I started the journey and why I have no ticket.

Blackfriars has a direct link to Gatwick. Anyone encumbered, as I was, with an implausible amount of luggage uses a lift with entirely counterintuitive instructions. For Platform 1 you press Button 2; for Platform 2, you press Button 1.

With a cluster of hotels close by, Blackfriars station is used by lots of foreign visitors – many of whom are looking for a screen announcing "next train to Gatwick" or some such. Instead, they have to work out for themselves that they need a train to Brighton or Three Bridges, which stops at Gatwick along the way.

At Gatwick, in contrast, a screen announces departures just as soon as you exit the ticket gates at the station. But for the vast majority of travellers it is useless.

A passenger just arrived at an airport terminal for a flight appreciates timely information. How to find the correct check-in area; the current average wait at the security checkpoint; or something that highlights specific flights that are closing imminently, thus enabling tardy travellers to go straight to the right desk.

Gatwick provides none of those things on the departures screen. Instead, it lists all the local buses going to such alluring destinations as Redhill and Crawley rather than planes going to Malaga or Rome.

Monopoly money at the airport

The next item in the Gatwick information overload is a big poster at Moneycorp, the bureau de change in South Terminal: "Best rates at the airport – guaranteed." Since the start of this month, that has been an easy boast, because the firm has been given a monopoly of the foreign exchange business at Gatwick.

Mark Bessent of Moneycorp said: "Everyone at Moneycorp is totally committed to and extremely focused on playing our full part in revolutionising the customer experience and value proposition."

Spencer Sheen of Gatwick Airport Ltd said: "We look forward to working together to create a proposition that will encourage passengers to exchange their currency at Gatwick rather than on the high street."

The lady at the Moneycorp said: "Ninety-eight pounds and four pence", in answer to my question "How much will it cost to buy €100?".

That is a rate of less than €1.02 to £1 – dreadful even by the usual lamentable standards of Britain's airports. Happily, the airport cannot eliminate all competition, because Network Rail owns the train station that is part of the South Terminal. Just around the corner from the Moneycorp bureau, an ICE office tucked into the railway station offered €100 for less than £90.

Store point for unwanted deliveries

When I arrived, in the manner of an overburdened delivery man, at the Thomson check-in at Gatwick's North Terminal, it was blissfully empty. So the staff had plenty of time to explain to me an interesting concept: that the Thomson's pre-flight telephone staff who had confirmed I could deposit my bags and collect the boarding passes a day ahead were, in fact, mistaken.

Overnight storage at Gatwick costs £8 per case. And, building in the time to retrieve baggage next morning means you have to get up even earlier than if you had never heard of day-before check-in.