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The upcoming Easter weekend is one of the busiest of the year for Britain’s airports. Yet millions of people will be getting on a plane feeling exhausted, stressed and ripped off after three hours or more in airport limbo.
Three factors have made air travel more stressful. One is simply that more of us are flying. Passenger numbers in the UK have doubled over the past 20 years, according to the Civil Aviation Authority. The attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, and repeated attempts to bomb or hijack aircraft since, have resulted in much tighter and more time-consuming security.
The ownership of airports has also changed. The old British Airports Authority was privatised in 1987. In 2006 it was taken over by a Spanish group and subsequently broken up. Now private equity groups and infrastructure funds are big investors in airports, attracted by the growth in passenger numbers and the ability to borrow cheaply against the physical assets. They have also noticed that having thousands of people milling around in a big shed for three hours provides ample opportunities for ancillary revenue generation.
Airports are never going to be relaxing places. But flying should not be the expensive ordeal it often is. Here are my tips to cut the costs — and the stress levels.
1. Avoid airport-only train services
In London, a single one-way ticket on the Gatwick Express costs £19.90 with no railcard reduction (though you can save by booking online). A single ticket on a regular train to the airport costs precisely half that and takes as little as 10 minutes longer. If you travel from central London to Heathrow on the Underground and pay by contactless card, an off-peak single is just £3.10. The Heathrow Express costs as much as £25 or as little as £5.50, depending on how and when you book.
2. Watch out for drop-off or pick up charges
These are becoming increasingly common: Stansted, Luton and Birmingham are among those that levy them. The usual justification is that they reduce congestion around the airport and encourage the use of public transport. Most passengers regard them as just another travel tithe. It is usually possible to avoid them: Stansted allows you to park free for an hour in mid-stay and take a shuttle bus to the terminal. But that can turn a two-minute drop-off into 45 minutes of messing about.
3. Book parking in advance
Comparison sites such as Park4Less, BCP and Airparks can save you a lot on airport parking, though watch out for extras such as charges for paying by credit card. Bear in mind that the cheapest option might not look such a bargain if you have to wait 20 minutes for the shuttle bus. If you have an early-morning flight, it is sometimes worth staying at an airport hotel the night before — hotel and parking deals sometimes cost little more than the parking itself.
4. Don’t change money
There is no surer way to get ripped off than to change money at the airport. But you can get surprisingly good rates by ordering in advance and collecting at the airport. Last week, Moneycorp’s website was offering €1.144 to the pound for collection at Stansted. Walk-up customers would get €1. On £500, that’s €72 less.
5. Say no to ‘fast track’
Low-cost airlines, experts at extra fees, have long charged passengers for the privilege of choosing their seats. Airports have started to copy them. Instead of employing more security staff to reduce overcrowding, some now charge passengers £5 each to jump the queue. Every time I see this, the Yorkshireman in me roars: no bloody way.
6. Use special assistance
If you have a disability or a chronic illness that makes walking long distances or standing for long periods a struggle, make use of special assistance. It is one of the few things at airports that is still free. You generally need to request special assistance when you make your booking, or when you check in online.
7. Be wary of ‘duty free’
This is big business for airports, which get valuable extra revenue from turnover-linked shop rents. One airline executive described Stansted’s circuitous new shopping area as “a branch of Ikea”. Dufry, a Swiss listed company that owns many of the UK’s duty-free shops, expects worldwide passenger growth of about 5 per cent a year — millions more people hanging around for hours with nothing to do but shop.
Remember that (for now, at least) if you are travelling within the EU, you will pay normal UK excise taxes on anything you buy at an airport “duty free” shop. For those venturing outside the single market, purchases of alcohol and perfumes are usually cheaper, though it is often far from clear whether the full tax saving is being passed on. Sometimes, the price differential with the High Street is small or even negative.
Mobile internet has made it easier to identify things that are poor value, but retailers mitigate this by promoting spirit varieties that are “exclusive” to duty free. Drinks manufacturers, who get around a tenth of their sales through duty free and use “premiumisation” strategies to maximise their own sales, are only too happy to oblige.
8. Bring your own food
It sounds obvious, and it is. You cannot take bottles of water through security but you can bring any amount of sandwiches — saving you big airport mark-ups on food and beverages.
9. Or use airport lounges
A colleague who travels frequently between the UK and Ireland tells me that airport lounges like Aspire or No. 1 Lounges can be a lifesaver, especially if there are delays or cancellations. One-time use costs about £20 and usually includes drinks, newspapers, wifi and some much-needed peace. If you fly a lot, annual memberships cost about £250.
10. Fly from smaller airports
Granted, these are not always convenient. But depending on where you live and where you are going, they can be far less stressful than the big hubs. I am a frequent user of London Southend, which has a handful of check-in desks, no queues and is 12 minutes by taxi from my house.
There again, why fly at all?
It is well known that travelling between central London and Paris or Brussels is no quicker by plane than by the far more civilised Eurostar. But other places in northern Europe may also be quicker than you imagine by rail, especially if you can change trains in Brussels or Lille rather than Paris. Prices are keen if you book well in advance. Mark Smith’s website, seat61.com, is a great source of inspiration.
Jonathan Eley is deputy head of Lex; firstname.lastname@example.org