Budget Air Travel: Do you get what you pay for?

Are cheap flights really cheap? Are pricier airlines more comfortable? As millions prepare to jet off to the sun, our writers put three airlines to the test with a quick flight to Venice

Easyjet By Kevin Rawlinson

Total cost (inc transfers): £260.63.

Card payment fee: £3.

Hand luggage: free.

Hold baggage: £9 per bag, 20kg per customer and 32kg max. £10/kg for each over the 20kg limit.

Food on board: coffee: £2.50; pizza: £4;

Bacon roll and cup of tea deal: £6.

Toilets: free.

In-flight entertainment: Well, at least the Alps were pretty...

Newspaper in airport: cover price.

Overall journey-time (one-way): from central London to Venice in a little under four hours.

I have flown with easyJet before, so at least I knew what to expect. When I finally made it to the check-in desk at Gatwick airport, the staff were busy informing the passenger next to me that 38kg of luggage was, in easyJet's opinion, excessive. The baggage handlers "are not insured to lift more than 32kg", apparently. The offending young lady, in halting English, enquired as to what she should do with her "excess" worldly possessions. "Dunno," said the check-in girl. "Why would anyone pack 38kg of luggage anyway," muttered her colleague, aside.

My turn. "No hold baggage sir?" "No," I replied. "Probably for the best sir." "So I see," I nodded.

Arriving at Gate 95, I made the mistake of taking a seat. Within 30 seconds, three groups of sixth-formers on school trips had bounded round the corner and swelled the queue three-fold. I decided to resign myself to boarding last, got a cup of tea and dug in for the long haul.

On the flight, the senior steward – the impeccably manicured Debbie – talked us through the security briefing. The equally manicured John provided the visual aids.

The on-flight entertainment was scarce, but old cockneys Doris and Pat, next to whom I sat, must be in line for some sort of prize for actually managing to talk non-stop for a whole London-Venice flight. (Turns out Doris's granddaughter Holly is getting married without bridesmaids, but Doris doesn't mind so much; she's just happy Holly's found such a nice young man.)

As if that wasn't enough entertainment, there was always the advertising: there were ads on the seats, in the magazines and over the tannoy. Debbie was "pleased" to announce that the drinks on board were brought to us by a particular, omnipresent coffee chain (I forget which).

Anyone who was unconvinced was invited to read the in-flight magazine, which told them that this coffee company had "found a new way to offer a truly great tasting cup of coffee". The ad explained that the revolutionary technique involved dissolving coffee granules in hot water. And for only £2.50 a cup.

Debbie also told us that, because of a problem preparing the aircraft, there were no bacon rolls for breakfast on the morning flight, but there would be some on the afternoon one.

Instead, she could offer us a lukewarm American-style microwavable pizza (on a flight to Venice), for £4.

On the return flight, I came into the departures lounge of Marco Polo airport and prayed that I would be able to use any one of the many desks standing free. But it turned out I was destined for the only one at which travellers were queuing across the departures lounge, out of the door and into the passenger drop-off zone.

Still, the outbound flight touched down bang on time and the inbound journey was five minutes shorter than advertised, so at least I got a little time in Venice.

British Airways By Gillian Orr

Airport: Heathrow Terminal 5.

Total cost (inc transfers): £460.77.

Card payment fee: £0.

Hand luggage: free.

Hold baggage: free.

Food on board: hot breakfast and drinks out, snack and drinks return; no charge.

Toilets on board: free.

In-flight entertainment: choice of newspapers; in-flight magazine.

Toilets in the airport: free

Overall journey time (one-way): from central London to Venice in four hours 30 minutes.

When I pick British Airways out of the hat to determine which airline I'll be flying to Venice with, I'm delighted. I never win at a game of chance. And landing British Airways is winning, right? In the age of the budget airline, they're regarded as the classy choice, their name representing quality and reliability.

With my underground travel card, I'm able to take the Piccadilly line all the way from my flat in north London to Heathrow Terminal 5 at no cost. It takes only an hour door to door and I arrive in plenty of time for my flight.

I try to do the self check-in, which has replaced over the counter service, but the machine doesn't want to accept my passport and orders me to go to "Assistance". I wait there for 25 minutes until I'm finally seen.

I hand my ticket over, and the BA check-in man yells at me for being late. (I wasn't.) He makes a call to check it's all right for me to travel. (It is.) He shouts at me one final time, telling me I have to get there at least an hour before the flight. (I did.)

I grab my ticket and break into a sweat. Going through security, I glance down at my ticket. It reads "Gate closes at 9:30am." It's 9:10am. Was that public ticking off really necessary? Where are the friendly staff with the toothy smiles you see in the ads?

Nevertheless, I charge through what appears to be a simulacrum of Old Bond Street (Mulberry, Tiffany and Gucci are all there) to find my gate. The flight is not even close to boarding, so I wander off to get a Starbucks, look at some jewellery I can't afford and spritz on some perfume.

Fortunately the staff are a lot friendlier on the flight. They all look very smart and I can't remember the last time I was called "Madam". Any time I want another coffee (way there) or glass of wine (way back), they're happy to help. The usual hot breakfast is served in the morning: eggs, breads, fruit and juice. On the way back it's just a packet of raisins and nuts but that suits me because I'm not hungry anyway.

We're offered a selection of newspapers on the flight: The Independent, the Daily Mail or the Financial Times. I also have a flick through BA's on-flight magazine, High Life.

The economy seats are pretty standard but comfortable. There's sufficient leg room and I don't feel squashed. I have a nice chat with my neighbour. In fact, the whole trip is very pleasant (except my getting lost in Venice in the three hours I'm there, but that's another story).

So, is it worth the extra cost for a two-hour flight? I suppose it depends on what you're after. But I find the journey an enjoyable experience, rather than just a basic means of getting from A to B. Sitting comfortably, staring at the Alps below, ordering another drink, I felt strangely content.

Ryanair by Holly Williams

Total cost: £287.68.

Card payment fee: £5.

Hand luggage: free.

Hold baggage: one 15kg bag: £40; one 20kg bag: £60.

Food on board (in euros): "Gourmet" tea/coffee/hot choc: €3; beer: €4.50; "refreshing"' water: €3; pastries: €2.50; sandwich: €3-4.50; all-day breakfast bap: €5; pizza: €5; peanuts: €2.

Toilets on board: free.

In-flight entertainment: free Ryanair magazine; copies of The Independent sold for £1.

Toilets in airport: free.

Flight time: two hours.

Total journey time, from Brixton to Piazza San Marco: seven hours.

The first bleary train from Liverpool Street to Stansted airport arrives at 5.35am, having been a bit slow to get going – but aren't we all at this hour. Making my 6am boarding is pretty tight, and a surly security guard makes me take my tie-up sandals off. There's no way you could smuggle anything, except contraband string perhaps, in these, but there's no time to argue, or to re-tie – I'm running through Stansted barefoot. It's a classy start to a classy journey.

I make it, and bag an emergency exit seat on the plane. This means more leg room; I can stretch those bare feet out nicely, and my knees remain ungrazed. All in exchange, I'm told, for pulling the emergency handle if we land in the sea.

The air hostesses are in Ryanair colours: a bright blue skirt suit with a lemon-yellow blouse. The make-up is also traditional: thickly applied in bold hues. (Is Ryanair-blue eyeshadow regulation?) Service is polite but desultory and the safety demonstration very bored, but then no one is watching except me. It's a little stinky: on boarding, there's a sulphury smell, and while in transit we keep getting whiffs of damp.

I try to purchase a breakfast bap, but as I don't eat bacon this proves impossible: it's made pre-flight and cannot be de-baconed. I go for coffee and a pastry, the only vegetarian breakfast option, and a bottle of "refreshing" water – I do hate un-refreshing water – which comes to £8.50. The croissant is edible but cardboardy, and little improved by the watery coffee. Across the aisle, the stewardess chats away as she serves my neighbours their three cans of beer, no glasses. It's 7.20am.

The toilet isn't too horrible. Although very tiny, it smells better than the cabin – perhaps because of the handwash, a three-in-one that cunningly combines handwash, moisturiser and air freshener. I don't really want to wash my hands with Airwick, but there's not much choice.

We land on time, as Ryanair informs us, with a trumpet fanfare. Of course, we don't actually land in Venice – it's Venice Treviso. Poor old Treviso; according to the tourist leaflet, its main claims to fame – other than being a Ryanair stop – are that it's the home of red chicory, and the "Fountain of Tits". (I quote directly.) It's another €9 for a return coach trip to Venice, which takes about an hour each way.

The return flight isn't so smooth. There are about 20 seats for maybe a couple of hundred people in the room by the departure gates, and the general consensus is to camp out on the floor. Classy moment No 2.

The Stansted flight is announced at the same time as one to Bristol , and some bright spark notices the gates have been swapped. We enquire, and send the staff into a flurry of worry; they swap the gates back. A hundred people shuffle across the room. Sometime later, after more whispering and phone calls, the staff swap the gates – again. We mutter and shuffle – again.

And then – the affront! – Bristol-bound travellers get to go first. The Stansted side stands frustrated for some time, using boarding cards as ineffective fans and huffing a little – but there's an air of resignation too. We manage to leave by 10.45pm, only 20 minutes late. Still, there's no fanfare at the end of this flight.

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