Riot police, 10-hour waits and hunger: the price of a cheap flight

France had just been playing out a goalless draw with Germany, and the stop was made in order that a pleasantly empty train could be pressed into service as a football special.

This was hour one of my stopover. With 14 more to go, and a beery football fan a few inches from my face, things had got off to a bad start.

The film The Terminal is (very) loosely based on the true story of Alfred Merhan, who found himself in bureaucratic limbo in the transit lounge of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris where he lived for several years. The same experience is available through an online ticket provider. To find a cheap flight to Dubai, I had logged on to Expedia.co.uk. The price of £322 return on Air France looked good - but on closer inspection the connections were absurd. I was booked to fly from Heathrow to Paris on Saturday evening, with the onward connection to Dubai the following afternoon. It is always worth allowing plenty of time for connections, but 15 hours is excessive.

How did this strange state of affairs come about? Just by searching for the lowest price. Economy seats are allocated in a series of "classes", each with a different price. There was no problem with availability on the Paris-Dubai links, but the cheapest seats on the proper connecting flights to and from the French capital had already been sold.

At this stage, a human travel agent would have searched around for alternatives: paying, say, £50 more to shift to the next class up, or looking for a low fare on a rival airline. But Expedia's computer did exactly what was asked of it, and searched the database until it found the nearest flight on which the cheap seats were available. Since there are many worse things than a night and half a day in Paris, I clicked and booked.

Once upon a time, the airline would have provided meals and accommodation for any passenger with extended connecting times. These days, you're on your own. And when I found my way to the Hotel du Brabant, close to Gare du Nord, I realised I should perhaps have spent a bit more than €35 (£25) for a night. Serves me right for booking the cheapest room.

THE HOMEWARD flight from Dubai had a connecting time in Paris of a mere nine hours after I reached Charles de Gaulle at 6am. But as Air France has half-a-dozen flights to Heathrow before that, surely the airline would let me standby at the gate, and take an earlier flight if a seat were available.

"Not at the fare you've paid, squire", was the essence of Air France's response. By now I was beginning to wonder whether my human rights would soon be governed not by the Montreal Convention (on airline passengers' rights) but by the Geneva Convention (treatment of prisoners of war).

One more penalty for the cheapskate was in store: the rolling delay, where one promised departure time after another elapses, with all enquiries being met with a shrug. People who had paid more for a London-Paris return as I had for the whole trip to Dubai were not impressed.

As the stopover moved into double figures, I consoled myself that at least Air France still provides meals and drinks. When we finally took off, I waited eagerly for the trolley to arrive for a sandwich and - with the sun by now well over the yard arm - a glass of wine. One more hiccup: "Due to strike action by our catering staff, we won't be able to offer you our usual standard of service".

At least BA warns you in advance and even provides a meal voucher so you can eat at the airport - if time permits, which in my case it most certainly did. Serves me right for buying the cheapest ticket.

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