Clear Steerage: European Airports and Airlines

I suppose that we all have our favorite airports, highly correlated to whether we arrived there on time, whether our connection flight was late, and how long the customs and security lines were, among other things. Speaking of lines, I still wonder why we have to go through security for our connecting flight when we have just disembarked from a ten to eleven hour flight across the Atlantic. If we were going to blow anything up, we would have done so already.

Generally, we judge airlines on how tightly they cram us together, and how bothersome the passengers sitting next to us, behind, or in front of us are. Most of this is not very rational, but I proceed with my story just the same.

I used to hate Heathrow, mainly because on our first flight to Europe, British Air let us book a connecting flight with only a 30 minute layover in Heathrow. I can claim naïveté, but what can the ticket agent say? Most people take 20 minutes just getting off one of those international flights, and you still have to get through security, and in Heathrow that is never less than 40 minutes. I’ve heard that it has gotten better- God bless the Brits, even in exit, but that’s the way it was back then. The main thing I remember from our unexpected four hour layover is that Heathrow is old and dank, with little to do.  Also the money is all wrong, neither dollars nor euros. If you want to buy a sweet roll, then you have to make an exchange and you’ll be left with a lot of change you can use nowhere else. Better just to starve for four hours? No.

Getting back to British Air, I quit hating them when I learned that they have a middle level of service called Premier Economy, or World Traveler Plus. It is reasonably priced and provides human comfort and dignity. I’ve taken it on Transatlantic flights, and suggest you consider it. Several airlines have the equivalent, and when economy prices are close on a competitive route, I lean toward the one that offers reasonably priced upgrades to premier economy. After flying Premier Economy, Heathrow seems much improved. Have they done some airport renovations in the last few years?

Most European airports are efficient and have interesting services to keep you busy during your layover.

Madrid, seemed like a hell hole on our first time through there. It was our last connection on a three legged flight. Yeah, that three hour layover was pure hell after nearly a day of travel on the first two legs. However, the airport seemed brilliant the last time we landed there on a quick hop from Barcelona. The Iberia flight was cheaper than taking the bullet train, and it was easier to pick up a car at the airport rather than in downtown Madrid. Plus the drive to Segovia from the airport is less hectic.  Days later, we returned to the airport to drop off the car and then took a taxi into Madrid where we stayed another four days, walking and using mass transit to get around.

Madrid taught me something: Don’t book a three-legged flight just to save a few bucks. Of course, if you have to, then you have to, but prepare yourself to be suspended in travel Purgatory.

A lot of people, maybe even most people who fly a lot, select their airlines and flights based on “frequent flyer miles or credits” given to them by their credit card or by various airlines or airline alliances. I’m sure I have a lot of these points if I just knew how to gather them up, or if I would just fill out the paper work and religiously log my flights. But I don’t. Once I tried to, but it became a twisted, confusing place that made travel tedious and stressful.

So how do I pick a flight? Here are my criteria:

  1. Low, but not necessarily the lowest price for economy seating. We don’t always sit in economy, but it almost always is the base price for our seats.
  2. 2. Fewest stops and layovers. Generally, I want a direct leg to the airline’s hub airport, then one, and only one, transfer to get to my final destination.
  3. 3. Safety rating.
  4. Timing: Do departing and returning flights reasonably match my schedule? For instance, do I want a flight that leaves at 6 PM when I have to check out of my hotel at 11 AM? Bothersome.
  5. Can I book “multi-city” flights without penalty? Seldom do we do a round trip. For example, we might fly into Amsterdam and then return home from Paris; or fly into Berlin and out through Rome, etc. When doing this, both the inbound and outbound flights will have a stopover in the airline’s hub port. You should be able to do this for about the same price as a round trip ticket to/from a single vacation city. However when you complicate the matter by trying to book one or more internal flights, it becomes exorbitant. Example: Fly into Berlin, fly from Berlin to Rome, Fly from Rome to Naples, fly from Naples to home. This will be expense and the flight choices will be limited. Instead book your inbound Berlin flight and your outbound Naples flight as one booking, then separately book your two “internal” flights as “one way” with whichever airlines match your price and the times you want. In our opinion EasyJet is the European version of SouthWest in regard to flexibility, number of flights, easy of use, price, etc.  But there are others that work well too: SAS, Norwegian, Iberia, and others.

I’m sure there are other issues that can come up and influence why you pick a certain airline and flight, but those above seem to be the most important to me.

Rather that used to be the way I planned flights. Recent events have caused me some new and I think well founded prejudices. For instance: Charles de Gaulle Airport, I am willing to fly into, but not through it-EVER AGAIN. Well, at least not until they have replaced their bus shuttle with an intra-airport tram, which I understand they have, but then why weren’t we directed to it, instead of the bus? Was it more airport and airline staff incompetence?

During our last connecting flight at Charles de Gaulle Airport we faced incompetence, indifference, and a shuttle bus with the speed of a horse and buggy. I’m sure that this is not the norm, but it was sufficient to cause me to preferentially route through other airports.

I will go into detail about when we missed our connection to Helsinki ( Finnair ) by minutes, the plane was literally still at the gate and they would not let us board. The next flight was three hours later, and because of various airport and airline incompetencies we made it with only ten minutes to spare:

Screw up #1: Finnair would not just reissue us a ticket at the gate because Air France issued the original ticket, so they sent us back to the main terminal on a 30 minute horse and buggy ride via the bus shuttle, where no one cares if passengers make their connections. Why couldn’t Finnair just rebook us at the gate and let us be bored for three hours?

Screw up #2: After being misdirected several times inside the main terminal, we finally found a proper Air France station. Great we still had two hours to make the next flight and there were only two sets of people in front of us. After 30 minutes, and no progress, we realized that the ticket agent was flirting with a male traveler which he clearly had not helped at all during their exchange. Finally, a female agent showed up and quickly processed everyone-but us.

Screw up #3: After trying multiple times, she admitted that she did not know how to generate tickets for Finnair, but she happily gave us “vouchers,” to take back to the gate.

Screw up #4: After another 30 minute horse and buggy ride, we arrived at the terminal security to learn that vouchers have no standing with security.

Manna From Heaven: Suddenly, a divinely inspired luggage agent from a third airline who had nothing to do with us, got on his cell phone and from nowhere our tickets appeared at the security gate. Ten minutes prior to departure, we boarded the last flight of the day to Helsinki.

I’m not going to give Charles de Gaulle the chance to do that again. Who knows; it could be the luggage agent’s day off and then where would I be in that sea of incompetence? Make no mistake, I would fly to Charles de Gaulle if I’m staying in Paris, but I will never make a connection through that airport again.

Frankfurt is also on the “Do Not Fly” list. On a transfer to Berlin, our bags were forestalled, they said because of a broken conveyor belt-ours along with 1000 others, for 5 DAYS!! I used to curse the people who dragged their oversized “carry-on luggage” onto airplanes. Why are they so inconsiderately filling the overhead bins so unnecessarily?  Now I’m one of them, with my bag chained to me so that they cannot make me check it.

Anyway, Lufthansa had the nerve to deny my claim of $500 for clothing bought because Berlin was windy, cold, and rainy, and I had one thin fleece, a T-shirt and thin slacks which I had worn onto the plane. Lufthansa informed me that “their liability is regulated by law,” i.e. they have no obligation to behave like a decent, responsible company. Think about that for a minute. When you fly, they are responsible for a lot more than just your bags. Okay, I get it, delaying bags for one or two days usually is just very annoying and let’s face it; it happens a lot. But isn’t a four or five day delay something of a different matter? So how does this “regulated by law” claim address that?  Well not my problem. I won’t waste my time with a company that can’t relate to their customers any better than that.

Lufthansa’s attitude toward customers makes the airline a “no fly” zone for me. Click the photo to link to the story about Lufthansa suing a passenger for not flying the last leg of his ticketed trip.

Lufthansa is a no fly for me.

If I have to go to Frankfurt, it will be SAS.

So not to end on a negative, most of the European airports are fine. At least the food is better and seemingly better priced than the American counterpart. The stores, of course, can fill your time on a long layover. Many have train stations in the terminal, or right next to it. More than once I have used this to our advantage, by spending the night in Basel, or Mainz, and then catching a morning train to the airport in Zürich or Frankfurt. Just be sure that the train service runs early enough to get you there in time.  Once at the airport train stop, it’s just up the escalator to check your bags, all except for your oversized carry on, of course.

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