Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

You know it makes cents
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Surprise! These days, the traveller is prone to too many unwelcome extras that add unexpected pounds to the price of a trip. But the latest foreign airline to fly from the UK takes the small print to a new level, by multiplying the promised fare by four.

Basiq Air is not a spelling error, but one final bid by KLM to make money flying between Stansted and Amsterdam. After its offshoots KLM UK and Buzz failed to make a success of the link, the Dutch airline is having a third attempt. This time, KLM has gone back to Basiq, its surviving no-frills subsidiary, which is defying the rules on advertising fares to try to boost business. "From £6: a dam good offer", runs the copy. So it would be - except that there is not a hope that you can fly between Britain and the Dutch capital for anything like that figure.

Advertising Standards Authority rules insist that all pre-payable charges are included in every quoted air fare. Basiq Air takes no notice. When you try to book on the new link, extras rack up fast. At the point when the counting stops, you are faced with a minimum of €66 (£47) for a return trip. And then, right at the end, you are stung for a non-negotiable £3.50 credit-card fee.

Ryanair is a past master at inventing extras. Should you encounter problems making an internet booking, you are told to ring a premium-rate helpline number where assistance costs £1 per minute. The Irish airline's latest idea is to make customers pay for the privilege of paying. Ryanair has long penalised credit-card holders, but now it charges a £1 handling fee for anyone paying with debit cards. The processing costs for debit-card payments are measured in pence, not pounds, but Ryanair chooses to call them "substantial administration costs" that oblige it to add these "small additional charges".

Ryanair's boss, Michael O'Leary, this week added the small additional sum of €24m (£17m) to his personal fortune by selling one-twelfth of his shares in the airline.

How refreshing that one airline should vow to include all fees and charges in its fares. The honest, new no-frills carrier is Now, which starts flying next month from Luton to a range of European destinations.

Except that it doesn't. The paper airline has announced that services will not begin until October. But in the intensely competitive market in which even the low-cost airlines are struggling to make money, that month marks the start of the low season, when airlines find it difficult even to give free* seats away (*free except for taxes, fees and small additional charges).

Even Hapag-Lloyd Express, part of the mighty TUI group, is to abandon Luton at the end of this month because of poor sales. Given the likely response to Now by Luton's main incumbent, easyJet, which has plenty of cash to burn on a fares war, I fear a more appropriate name for the new venture might be Never.

Of all the non-optional extras, Air Canada's latest desperate move to stave off bankruptcy is the most ludicrous. Passengers within Canada are asked to cough up an additional C$12 (£5) fee for NavCan. That might sound like a WC for building workers, but is in fact Canada's national air-traffic control system. NavCan charges airlines by the gross weight of the planes they fly, rather than per passenger. So to ask travellers for an individual contribution is absurd. But the implication that it is somehow an optional extra conjures up an amusing image of a concerted refusal by a planeload of passengers to pay.

Would the flight crew take to the air without the benefit of air-traffic control? Conversely, if people trying to fly to France clubbed together with a few extra euros for les aiguillers du ciel ("the signalmen of the sky", as French controllers are colourfully known), perhaps the disruption to British travellers flying across the Channel this summer could end.

At least on trains you know you are not going to be stung for any hidden extras. Or do you? One popular way to buy tickets online is through thetrainline.com, which has identified another "revenue stream" to boost profits. Buyers are automatically sold travel insurance for an extra £2 return, unless they specifically click to decline it. One benefit is compensation for expenses when your train is late, for which train companies are already supposed to give restitution.

Extras have even infiltrated continental rail companies. If you go to the Dutch Railways booking office at Amsterdam airport and buy a ticket to Antwerp - just across the border in Belgium - the fare is inflated by a 10 per cent "service charge".

After the signal success of It's a Royal Knockout, this week saw It's a Royal Day Out. On Tuesday, the Windsors' SWAT team covered the country from a South Wales caravan park to a Scotch whisky-tasting in Edinburgh; Charles clearly pulled rank over Andrew to ensure that he was sampling the malts rather than shivering in a mobile home.

The day ended with a reception at Buckingham Palace for the tourism industry. Among the travel luminaries on the Queen's guest list was Mark Ellingham, the founder of Rough Guides. The latest tome on England opines: "Revelations about the cruel and heartless treatment of Diana by both the prince and his family damaged the Royals' reputation perhaps beyond repair."

Another guest of Her Majesty was P-Y Gerbeau, the Dome troubleshooter whose verdict on public sector involvement in the tourist industry is summed up thus: "The only enterprises where governments have ever been successful are public executions."

Off to the Tower with them both.

The BBC began rehearsals for its coverage of the death of the Queen Mother in the Seventies, even though, happily, she lived until 2002. In France, where the monarchy has not been in favour for a couple of centuries, they have dispensed with all the planning by announcing the premature demise of one of Europe's best-regarded monarchs.

Thalyscope, the dismally named in-train magazine for the high-speed rail network of Holland, Belgium and bits of France and Germany, is published in Paris. Generously, considering the city of origin and the target market, its prime language is English.

Given pride of place in the latest edition is the following erratum: "May we offer our sincerest apologies to Queen Juliana of Holland and all our readers for the error we made in last month's issue on page 44, in which we unwittingly assumed the much-loved former sovereign had passed away."

Meanwhile, the other Royal Family's residence is now an in-flight highlight on some Ryanair flights to Stansted. About four minutes away from touchdown at the Essex airport, the steward leaned across the three of us occupying row two starboard and urged his colleague to look out of the adjacent window. "Just down there, with all the twinkling lights."

When the wind blows from the east, the approach to Ryanair's UK base takes jets past David and Victoria Beckham's home. And just in case you miss it, there's a second opportunity for travellers on the Stansted Express to London - as you travel towards the capital, Posh and Becks' residence is on the right (west), just south of Sawbridgeworth.

Injured footballers, ageing monarchs and other passengers at Amsterdam airport are invited to take advantage of a new service - one of those electric buggies that can ferry travellers from one gate to another.

Many airlines offer this facility as a courtesy, particularly to less able travellers. In Amsterdam, though, to get you to the gate on time now costs €3 (£2.10).

In these difficult times, the aviation business has to make money where it can. It appears that Basiq Air's in-flight magazine has resorted to product placement. The journal carries an interesting feature on a day in the life of a pair of pilots flying to Nice and back. First officer Eric van der Sande is pictured drinking Diet Coke, which I hope earned the airline a crate or two of the fizzy stuff. However, the magazine may not instil confidence among anxious flyers by showing Captain Hille Went contentedly clutching a can of the Dutch national drink, Heineken, even though it is no doubt at the end of his shift. Neither does Basiq Air's slogan have the ring of total confidence: "We do our very best to take you to your destination."

Comments