Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

What a difference 22 years makes
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The Independent Travel

One of the stranger ticket-buying experiences I have had took place in Barcelona during the Falklands War. I wanted a one-way flight to London. At the time, the cheapest ticket cost £150. Everyone I talked to pointed in the direction of a young Argentinian, said to run the best bucket shop in town.

Upon hearing that I was keen to get back to work in order not to be sacked, Ramon launched into a frenzy of ticket-procurement, making urgent phone calls to another agency, then driving me across town to pick up a ticket. This document asserted that I had flown from London to Barcelona a week earlier on British Airways, which I hadn't, and that I was booked to return that very afternoon. For this work of fiction - without the London-Barcelona coupon, which was removed - I paid £70, equivalent to a week's wages.

How different the world looks now that you and I can simply click our way around Europe for next to nothing.

My "Send £1 to Dublin" campaign was launched a year ago this week after Ryanair had its no-frills knuckles rapped by the European Commission. The Irish airline's deal with Charleroi airport in Belgium, which amounted to a subsidy for every passenger that flew there, was ruled unfair. Ryanair's chief executive, Michael O'Leary, warned at the time that routes would be cut and fares would rise.

The send-a-pound campaign was not overly successful. Indeed, I appear to have been the only person to have sent one, and Mr O'Leary posted it back - a move he may have regretted this week when his airline announced sharply reduced profits. In the previous third quarter, Ryanair had made an average profit of £5.50 per passenger; this time, that figure dropped by £2.

The Irish airline has frequent "fly for 99p" offers; one is underway this weekend at www.ryanair.com. As you know, the catch is that you end up paying significantly more than the headline price. "Taxes" can add £14 to the price of each flight. These mainly comprise spurious fees and charges that are enough to cover the airline's marginal costs - the amount to carry one more passenger.

The internet reduces transaction costs almost to zero, so it is perfectly rational to try to entice passengers on board a flight with a very low fare. What is less rational is to cut prices below marginal cost. But this week I flew from Luton to "Barcelona", as Ryanair likes to call Girona, for a total fare of £5. The airline is obliged to send this straight to the Government for Air Passenger Duty - unless I become one of the 2 million or so passengers who each year mysteriously fail to show up for their Ryanair flights. The flight home from a different "Barcelona", this time Reus, was even cheaper: €5 (£3.50). Along the way, I kept tabs on my spending, from snacks to paying the world's worst busker €1 to go away.

Apart from musicians whose rendition of "No Woman, No Cry" is enough to make you weep, Barcelona looks good and feels grand in winter. On a crisp, clear February day the Catalan capital is at its dazzling best. You can walk along the Ramblas without colliding with a squadron of Swedes bearing backpacks the size of Volvo estates; and in the sublime Picasso Museum the only sound is your echoing footsteps.

Coming home, the flight was all you need for a two-hour hop: punctual, clean and safe. But there were just 29 passengers, giving each six seats each. It was a shame - not least for the planet - that there were so few of us to enjoy the experience.

As concerned environmentalists gathered to discuss climate change, I totted up my spending on the trip: £123. Of this, Ryanair took just seven per cent. For flying me 1,400 miles, the airline charged around half a penny a mile - compared with 30p a mile earned by Midland Mainline for the train to Luton airport. I had spent more on elevenses at Taller de Tapas than I had on the flight home. It appears that however low the fares go, seats are still difficult to shift - partly because there are so many extra costs to add on to a trip.

At Reus airport, just before I boarded, I asked how much the flight would cost for someone turning up at the last minute wanting to go to London.

The answer: €272, just short of £200. Travelling on impulse can be expensive.

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