The Beautiful Madness of Europe’s Budget Airlines

by Nathan James Thomas

In the latest entry in our The Recovering Backpacker column, Intrepid Times founder Nathan James Thomas reflects on what’s been lost and gained as budget airlines offer ultra-cheap flights across Europe.

When I was about ten years old, I spent a week on a cattle farm deep in the wilderness of New Zealand’s North Island. When the cows had to be organized, they were rounded up by dogs and chased into a maze of iron bars. The farmer and his henchmen wielded hollow rubber pipes that they would use to hurry the slower ones. The beasts would defecate in stress and terror, and the pipe was soon coated in bovine feces as the animals stood quivering and bellowing, head to buttocks.

This distant childhood memory rose unbidden to the forefront of my mind as I stood for the 17th consecutive minute in a concrete staircase somewhere in the bowels of London’s Stansted Airport, shoulders aching from my backpack, surrounded by grumpy, half-drunk fellow travelers, most of whom had probably spent more money on pints at the airport than on tickets — the average Ryanair ticket-price for a flight between European countries is barely $30. 

Before railways were everywhere, most people hadn’t traveled more than a few dozen miles (if that) from their home. Suddenly, people could live further from work. They could visit other cities. And cities themselves began to grow, fueled by the rapid accessibility of supplies. Today, we can witness first hand how connections from budget airlines like WizzAir and Ryanair have transformed European cities. Kutaisi, once a Georgian backwater, now boasts a radiant town square with nightclubs and restaurants (including a pristine, palatial McDonald’s) catering to tourists. Whole districts of Alicante in Spain have become British suburbs. A world of once sleepy towns have been woken up, jolted into alertness by tourists corralled there by irresistibly cheap plane tickets. 

Imagine a store that contains your favorite luxury item — shimmering jewels, the finest silk clothes, cars that would make a petro-state dictator pulsate with envy. And imagine if, somehow, everything in that store cost less than a meal out in your local city. What happens next? What happens when something that was once distant becomes cheaply and effortlessly attainable? Would those jewels still look so desirable if everyone you saw on the street was wearing them? Would that Mercedes still seem so glamorous and cool? 

When, as a teenager, I flew alone from distant New Zealand all the way to Europe, the journey took almost two full days and cost an agonizing amount of money. This is why Kiwis and Aussies stay so long. Why we hit city after city and snap photo of sight after sight, desperate to get our money’s worth before the long journey back home. Some learn along the way that ticking sights off lists generated by Lonely Planet authors is not really the way to go about it. Not all do, of course, but the momentum is there that can be transmuted — seeing sights can morph into talking to people, which can change from telling your story to asking questions and listening, and before you know it you’re traveling.

Is this likely to happen when you’ve hopped over from London to Spain on a ticket that cost less than last night’s cab fare back from the bar? Is cost and exertion required to make it matter to have gone abroad — to create some sort of ritual whereby we invest the yearned for destination with a sense of significance and elusive desirability? Has the magic, the thrill, of international travel been debased by its accessibility? Marketers know that scarcity is value. Restrict the supply of diamonds, the prices go up. And what is more alluring to the traveler: the streets of your childhood, or a distant, unattainable Timbuktu?

I must confess, none of these musings were on my mind during my last Ryanair flight, a few weeks ago. Of course, it was from London to Alicante, Spain. Of course, it was a Saturday afternoon. Of course, the plane was full. Hoarse-voiced lads staging arm wrestling competitions at the gate, repeating lewd jokes over and over again, their prefrontal cortexes long since deactivated by JD Wetherspoon pints. Waddling couples colliding with both rows at a time as they wheezed and shuffled down the aisle. 

A pale young man sported the worst haircut I’ve ever seen in real life — like a black octopus glued to his skull. His girlfriend, drenched in make-up as if she’d smothered her pillow in foundation the night before, was seated in the window seat. I had the aisle, and my wife bravely took the middle. The octopus-hair man was seated someway back. Behind us were three women between 30 and 50. Two knew each other. One didn’t. All were quite drunk, especially the youngest, who had gleefully left her children behind. “I hate my children,” she said — I do wish this was exaggerated, but it is not — while knocking back Ryanair’s finest in-flight white wine. Part-way through the journey, the boyfriend and his hairdo came to visit his girl. He leaned over me, and they began shrieking at each other. “You’re broke,” she yelled at him. “You’re dead!” he retaliated. Unfamiliar with this ancient British mating ritual, I simply turned up my headphones and reached for gin & tonic.

The flight may have been cheap, but the journey was anything but easy. Perhaps it’s good that it was, in a sense, something to endure. A threshold. A psychological barrier. A chasm. It wasn’t glamorous. But I felt it. It made here and there seem more distant. It made the warm sun and the palm trees seem somehow earned. And it made me grateful to have arrived.

Cover photo credit

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