Why I Don't Fly With Low-Budget Airlines

I just returned from my week in Barcelona, and the trip was quite enjoyable. However it was also a very interesting lesson in contrasts. Different carriers provide a very different experience.

Before I continue, let me be clear: I don't like to waste money, or throw it around frivolously. But I hold value as much more imporant than economy in my travel decisions — especially with regard to carriers.

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During the volcano debacle this summer, I remember thinking to myself about what an excellent opportunity it would be for people to see which airlines hold customer experience in high regard, and which do not value their customers.

I was scheduled to fly at that time, and fortunately my flight was serviced without any delays the day after the airspace over Europe reopened. But I remember spending a lot of time watching the news and Googling for updates, anxious to see if my flight would be delayed, and naturally, reading stories of the difficulties others were having. The most significant impressions made on me during that time were: 1) Lufthansa and KLM actively worked to help people, 2) all the news about British carriers was bad news, and 3) American carriers are pathetic.

Star Alliance

I've chosen to be a loyal customer of Lufthansa for my international travel, and I've been very satisfied with the choice. Lufthansa is a member of Star Alliance, but I've even chosen to use Lufthansa's rewards program, rather than that associated with Star Allance.

When I was booking my trip to Barcelona, the return trip was cheaper if I chose the return flight on United Airlines, even though I was booking it through the Lufthansa web site. After trying a few permutations of dates, I gave in and booked the cheaper flight. It was enlightening!

Emergency stop!

Shortly after we'd taken off, I heard that scary announcement: "is there a doctor on board?" One of the passengers had a very bad allergic reaction to something. The cabin crew tried to make her comfortable. There was indeed a doctor on board and he seemed concerned enough about her situation that the crew didn't want to have her stuck over the ocean and we ended up making an emergency stop in Canada.

My first thoughts were about how well the crew handled the emergency situation and cared for this poor woman, but soon enough, my thoughts shifted to my own growing situation: my flight out was scheduled to land in Dusseldorf and then connect to Spain two hours later. Emergency stops also mean bureaucratic questioning of the flight crew by the authorities, along with refueling and getting a new flight plan... to say nothing of the time spent by medical crews to remove an ailing passenger. Needless to say, I could tell after the engines were restarted 90 minutes later that I would miss my connection to Barcelona.

But to my surprise, 30 minutes before landing in Dusseldorf, the pilot announced that everyone onboard who had missed their connection was already rebooked and thanked everyone for their patience. Every detail for every passenger was already taken care of. When I went to the Lufthansa service desk, they printed me a new boarding pass in minutes, and gave me some money to eat lunch before my flight.

Contrast

The return flight on United Airlines was really just a hodge-podge of connections from other Star Alliance carriers. By contrast, no one's seat was booked. Every single passenger scheduled to fill this 777 had to wait in line while the representatives at the desk figured out seating in the computer, passenger by passenger.

Everyone was already frustrated and unhappy before they ever got to the plane. Then we sat at the gate for almost 2 hours, with almost no communication from the flight crew about the cause of our delay. After an hour, though, the stewardess did bring us water.

We departed Munich late, and landed in Chicago late, and the last part of the pilot's welcome message was, "well, at least we're in one piece." No thanks for the patience, and not a word about connecting flights, but a quip to trivialize our discomfort. I don't know about you, but when I fly, I take it for granted that I will arrive in one piece. That's not a bonus, and it's not a phrase that a pilot should ever say.

Little details

The "in-flight entertainment" on Lufthansa provides movies, television shows, music, and airport information, all easily accessed and controlled on demand, by touchscreen monitors. You can pause, stop, rewind, go to the restroom, come back, and continue. Or change your mind and start something else.

The "in-flight entertainment" offered by United has a handful of movies and tv shows that all start playing at once, on different channels. You pick one thing and watch it... that is, if you can figure out what you're picking from. There is no pause. There is no way to start a new movie. At the end, after everything is done playing, the stewardess rewinds the tape (seriously? movies on tape in 2010?) and it all starts over again. Good luck!

Lufthansa gives you a clean, warm, wet cloth to clean your hands and face before eating, United just gives you a sandwich in a plastic bag. Lufthansa's meals come with real stainless steel utensils, United gives plastic. Lufthansa offers several fruit juices and vegetable juices, United has orange juice and bloody mary mix.

Also, in case you didn't already know this, United Airlines has a policy of overbooking their flights. For every flight, they sell 5 more tickets than the number of seats! This makes it quite common that people will get bumped or asked to wait until the next day to fly.

Possibilities

These are just some of the details that I noticed, and it says nothing of the horrible experiences people have on budget airlines. When a flight connection is missed, I want the experience I had on Lufthansa, rather than being blatantly ignored by Easyjet. And when someone's health is at risk, I want the confidence of the experience I witnessed last week.

Also, the rewards I earn from Lufthansa's Miles and More program add up to free flights, which I simply wouldn't get if I was pinching pennies trying to find the cheapest flight every time. Or, I can use those miles for first-class upgrades if I feel like traveling in style.

With a budget carrier, all you get is a numeric bit of data that satisfies some internal economical contest. There are no points for being the cheapest traveler on earth. You don't win a prize. And if anything should work out in an unexpected way, you stand to lose a lot.

After this week, I won't even take the discounted offering from my preferred carrier if it means connecting with an inferier flight. To me, it's worth a few extra dollars (or euros or whatever) to be comfortable and happy.


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  • I just joined the Miles and More program last week. :) We're going to Lisbon in October and we're fly on TAP (the official airline of Portugal) which is a Star Alliance member. It cost 140€ roundtrip as compared to 70€ on Easyjet, but I don't mind paying extra now that I know just how despicable budget airlines can be. And we get assigned seats, free drinks and free checked luggage! It'll be like Christmas!

  • I also noted the new policy of not assigning seats until the last minute. I believe it's a way for them to make more money, you have a choice to pay extra to get a little bit of extra leg room. I expect there are only very few people taking this option so the airline is stuck with all these people they want to cram in the real economy seats. This can actually work in your favor especially if you value leg room over window or isle seat. To maximize the chance of somebody buying one of these slightly more comfortable economy seats the airline will keep these empty as long as they can. So these will be assigned last. When you get to the gate, don't hurry to get a seat, that plane is not gonna leave without you (except of course in the case it's heavily overbooked) and your patience might earn you a bit of extra leg room at no extra charge.

  • When I flew Lufthansa three weeks ago, the in-flight entertainment was one film on a tiny screen that was about fifteen feet away from us (and this was an eight hour flight). The service and food was fine, no complaints there, but their baggage handling was a nightmare. I know you swear by only bringing a backpack with you, but because of my longer stay (two months), I ended up bringing more than that. I had a checked bag, a small carry-on bag, and a laptop case. When I got to my connection gate at Frankfurt, they told me I would have to check one of my two carry-on bags because the flight was full (even though I'd had no issue on my previous flight that was full). Then they forgot to put any luggage on the plane at all... my checked luggage and my carry-on were both forgotten in Frankfurt, along with the baggage of everybody else on the entire flight. I got to Prague and had only my laptop (my extra clothes had been in the carry-on bag just in case my luggage got lost). When I filed my report, they said that they would only pay compensation of anything that I had to buy after 72 hours... and after about 70 hours, they delivered my luggage and wouldn't pay for any of the extra clothes or supplies I had to buy. It was extremely frustrating and even though those three days weren't that huge in the grand scale of a two month trip, I spent three of my six days in Prague in the same clothes.Maybe I had one of the few, isolated problems with Lufthansa and maybe I packed too heavily and it was partially my own fault, but I was pretty pissed off at Lufthansa for refusing to at least give me some compensation for the things that I bought.

  • I've never flown Lufthansa, but Alitalia was the most horrible flight experience I've ever had. First, we were delayed by an hour because the captain's chair was stuck in a horizontal position, and then when we took off (it was supposed to be a non stop flight from O'hare to Rome) after 4 hours we were diverted to JFK because their weather radar had broken and they can't cross the Atlantic without it. Then they had us disembark in JFK and we all stood around in the terminal for two hours while the Alitalia ground staff refused to tell us what was going on. We didn't fly out again until 3 pm the next day, over 24 hours after our original flight. Our only compensation, a $200 Alitalia travel voucher which expires after one year. When basically the same thing had happened to us earlier with United, they got us to our destination by putting us on an American Airlines flight and then gave us another set of free tickets for our trouble.Now don't get me wrong, the rest of the trip was excellent, and I had a great time having a "real" reason to speak my Italian again (I call up my friends in Italy every once in a while for a chat, but chatting is much different than using the language for business or survival purposes), however the next we go, we'll use a different carrier (maybe Lufthansa!)

  • I once experienced a delay with Lufthansa because we received delayed clearance to take off (i. e. not their fault). They also rebooked everyone in-flight and informed us accordingly. Other airlines I have flown with over the years (such as KLM) just sent us to their service desk which you had to go hunt down. That sure impressed me.Once I also had a very positive experience with Iberia. Despite a pilot's strike in Spain, they did the best they could to find a pilot and plane to fly us from Berlin to Madrid. We arrived about 5 hours late, but they provided us with vouchers for a free meal (which KLM didn't do) and were extremely friendly.

  • I will be anxious to learn of your impressions of the flying experience in comparison to budget carriers.

  • The idea of an airline taking the initiative to rebook every affected passenger before the plane even lands is significant to me. I've heard and read so many horror stories of people waiting in airports dealing with difficult situations... I was quite worried when I thought that I would join those ranks. But by chosing Lufthansa I was spared this experience. That's worth a lot to me!

  • I'd be happier using Italian for the purpose of enjoying Italy, rather than to argue with an airline employee. :)I think Americans are particularly accustomed to poor service. Everything here is so bad, but we're used to it, and we have nothing good to compare it to. But when traveling internationally, one actually finds that service matters!

  • Even if you're checking bags, you should always, always, always have at least one full change of clothes in your carry-on. And second, laptop bags are a horribly wasteful choice of luggage item. A backpack with a computer slot woud have provided you with space for a change of clothes and basic toiletries, and you'd have had a 100% different opinion of your experience while everyone else waited for their luggage but you were fine and enjoying your trip.Yes, I swear by traveling only by carry-on... whether that's a backpack or a duffel or whatever you're comfortable with. (You can, after all, have a carry-on larger than my backpack.) When my flight was rescheduled and had additional connections added on, I never had any reason to worry about losing my luggage because it was always with me.

  • In my case, I noticed that the lady in front of me had been rather rude and difficult with the representative, so when it was my turn, I was very polite and I also asked her "how do you stay so positive and so friendly with such a stressful job?" I could see her instantly warm up to me, and she found me a nice seat with extra leg room and let me know that she was doing so. :)

  • heh, arguing with the airplane employee was not the fun part, I had better arguments once I got there. For example, I argued with the car rental clerk over whether or not Batman lives in Milwaukee.

  • That's priceless.

  • I had two full changes of clothes in my carry on, but they made me check it before the last leg of my flight because the flight was full... there would have been plenty of space for it, though.

  • Absolutely agreed, and I was going to link to Jennie's bit on EasyJet, but I see you've already done it. Their behavior is just disgusting, and you'll notice that she just updated her twitter status with the news that EasyJet is now refusing to issue any refunds at all. Unbelievable.Thanks for doing that review, I now know to book Lufthansa or a similarly high-quality carrier (I hear AWESOME things about Singapore Air, the Asian carriers are supposed to be the very best in the world...have you ever flown with one?) whenever possible. I've got no problem paying extra when it's worth it, and air travel is one of those things it's worth paying extra for to avoid the kinds of disastrous problems and terrible treatment that you see so frequently among certain carriers. And I agree, American carriers are just a pathetic joke, they can't do anything right--I'm American, mind you, AND I've been on many, many flights via American carriers; one of the most pleasant flights I was on was a Lufthansa flight to Germany about 10 years ago, I STILL have a favorable impression of that airline due to that.Cheers,
    Andrew

  • Lufthansa allows one carry-on item. You should have read the information on that ticket you bought. If you had put your computer in your carry-on bag, the whole scenario would have been different.

  • American carriers are pathetic. It's a sign of how pathetic we are as a country, when we allow ourselves to be treated that way.

  • It's incredible what good customer service will do even in the worst of situtations. I've travelled a fair deal in my life (both my parents are imports to BC so seeing family meant flying to Alberta or Ireland) and have my fair share of horror stories (I'm looking at you, United, who made us sit in a plane with no AC for two hours while you fixed it so you didn't have to put us up in a hotel for the night after already delaying our flight three hours... and that's just one complaint) but it still amazes me how common decency just seems to take a back seat in so many situtations. It's the simple 'treat people how you would like to be treated'. When people are happy with the service you provide, they're going to come back. When they're not, well, you'll never see me on another United flight.

  • Yeah, I'm particularly unimpressed by United.

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