Simon Calder: He'll need a holiday after that ...

The man who pay his way
  • @SimonCalder

If you go down to the airport today, you're in for a big surprise about the amount of one-way traffic leaving the UK. The summer rush that begins this week will be overwhelmingly outbound. In a replay of the "Millennium Bug" scares – you remember, how computers would spontaneously combust at midnight on 1 January 2000 – London is in the grip of entirely misguided fears that the capital will be overloaded with tourists and traffic. Less than a week before the Opening Ceremony, inbound tourists have been deterred but Brits' holiday plans are unaffected by the Olympics.

Should you plan to leave the sinking ship, mind how you go. Richard Gordon, from London, has already been to Spain and back – but he returns with a cautionary tale that demonstrates the essential iniquity of air travel. While an airline can delay or divert flights without penalty, woe betide any passenger who slips behind schedule. Mr Gordon's journey home after visiting his parents in southern Spain is an early contender for travel nightmare of the summer.

We join him on a sunny Sunday afternoon on the A7 autopista heading towards Murcia airport, a boarding pass in his pocket for the Ryanair flight to Stansted, and a smile on his face – until he realises he's missed the turn for the airport, and gets entangled in the city's outskirts. He reaches the airport at the time the plane was due to leave. It is still on the ground.

"The security staff kindly let me through to see if I could catch it, but I was not allowed to board," he says. The average passenger would have cursed, booked for the following day, and found a hotel. But Mr Gordon was due back in London for a night shift. The Ryanair staff tried to help: "They suggested I pay a €110 transfer fee to take a flight to Stansted from Alicante, and said the taxi journey would take an hour and cost €80." Mr Gordon paid up and jumped into a cab. But an accident 25km south of Alicante airport delayed them: "I eventually arrived at the airport, 20 minutes before the second flight, with a €110 fare." He was now €220 down.

At least his plane was there … except that he had not been given a new boarding pass, merely a piece of paper entitling him to check in at Alicante. Ryanair flights close firmly exactly 40 minutes before departure. Mr Gordon had missed his second plane of the day.

That empty feeling

Road signposting in Spain varies from barely adequate to non-existent – this is surely a nation for which Satnav was invented. But Mr Gordon holds the car-rental firm, Goldcar, responsible: "On the way to Murcia airport, I was preoccupied with my rental car's 'return empty' policy. This can leave you trailing vapours or handing back a rental car with excess fuel."

The "out full, back empty" rule now prevails at the cheap end of the rental market. Goldcar promotes the policy by saying it "saves you time when returning the car .... You will not have to worry about looking for a petrol station near our office." It also means that you have no control on the amount you pay for a tank of petrol – in Mr Gordon's case, €60 for a Fiat 500. The company says the charge "varies according to the capacity of the model of car and the actual market price of petrol" – plus "refuelling service costs".

Another big Spanish rental company, Centauro, charges "from 60 to 140 euros per tank", though for rentals of three days or less you are able to rent "out full, back full".

As Chris Gray of Which? Travel says: "Consumers should not be in a position where booking a car rental commits them to paying an unavoidable charge with no refunds, with no idea how much the charge may be."

Later that same day

To miss one flight is unfortunate; to miss two is very expensive: easyJet had a flight from Alicante two hours later, which cost Mr Gordon €166. As the cost of a missed turning accelerated towards €400, Mr Gordon realised that back at Murcia he had left his jacket in the rental car in his haste to return it. "My parents had to drive 90 minutes there and back to retrieve it," he says. That's a total of six person-journeys to and from Spanish airports so far for Mr Gordon and his family, and he still hadn't boarded a plane.

He eventually touched down at 1am, too late to start work, so he had to take an extra day (or night) as holiday. And as a final assault on his good humour, the plane arrived not at Luton, from where he had a train ticket, but in Stansted. At that time of night, the only way is Essex.