Frankfurt to Rome for $19: Cheap Fares Fuel Europe's Passion
for Weekend Trips Abroad
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 5, 2006
"Cheap flights have opened up all these places to
us," Burridge said. "The prices are so low that it can be more
expensive to stay home." He noted that a pint of beer in Bratislava costs
$1, compared with $5 in England, so the weekend's savings on beer alone could
maybe pay for his airline ticket.
Flights as cheap as bus fares are changing the rhythm of
European life. Growing numbers of Europeans are buying second homes in other
countries because they can afford to travel to them frequently, creating
building booms along seasides from Croatia to Portugal. Low airfares have also
given rise to Euro commuters -- the increasing numbers of people who work in one
country and spend weekends with their families in another.
Some Britons are flying to Hungary, which has become a hub for
good-quality, affordable dental care, and finding the bill for a crown and the
airfare is less than a trip to a private dentist at home.
Above all, cheap flights have redefined the European weekend.
Some off-peak tickets are now offered for $25 on popular routes such as London
to Salzburg, Glasgow to Paris and Dublin to Valencia. Millions of people,
especially in Britain, Ireland and Germany, now fly off for what are called
weekend "city breaks" in other countries as often as they once drove
to the nearest coast or lake.
Ryanair, the largest European low-cost carrier, said it carried
35 million passengers last year, up from 7 million in 2000. Another low-fare
giant, easyJet, ferried 30 million people, up from 6 million in 2000.
"It has democratized flying," said Stephen Hogan,
spokesman for the Brussels-based Airports Council International, who said a
flight from Dublin to Paris in the mid-1990s cost about $600 if booked in
advance. It now costs as little as about $50. "It makes the dream of Europe
possible -- the free movement of people within countries."
Of course, some people wish many of these travelers would stay
home. Pubs in Dublin, once overrun with Britons throwing stag parties, are now
banning rowdy groups of binge-drinking British men. Barcelona, another favorite
destination, is cracking down with new fines on disorderly drunken behavior.
Some villagers in France and Spain say they preferred life before the invasion
of English-speaking property owners.
The cheap flight era was greatly aided by the creation of the
single European market for air transport at the end of the 1990s. European
carriers obtained practically unlimited freedom to choose their routes,
capacity, schedules and fares, said Jan Skeels, secretary general of the
European Low Fares Airline Association.
As national governments cut back on protections for their state
airlines, affordable air travel really boomed after 2000. And while some
analysts predict that rising fuel prices will soon end the party, airlines
disagree, saying they are already discussing ways to keep it going by turning
profits on new services such as in-flight mobile phones and gambling.
Airlines also keep fares lower by flying short distances --
almost never more than 2 1/2 hours -- to fill the same seat several times a day.
They also use secondary or regional airports.
The cheap-flights craze has critics. Many say the publicized
fares -- often advertised for literally a few dollars -- are deceptive because
they don't include considerable taxes and fees. The least expensive flights tend
to leave around 6 a.m., and hour-long bus rides to outlying airports at that
hour can dim the appeal. These carriers also have minimal staff and rely on
online booking; they often charge per-minute rates to talk to an airline
employee by phone. And a growing chorus is saying emissions from increased air
traffic are harmful to the environment.
But the boom goes on, especially in the 10 countries --
including Slovakia -- that joined the European Union in 2004. In the first year
after Slovakia joined, air passenger traffic to Bratislava soared by more than
70 percent, bringing in hundreds of thousands of new travelers, airport
One recent Friday afternoon at Stansted Airport, 35 miles north
of London, Louise Ashford, 19, a British college student in the check-in line
for a Ryanair flight to Bratislava, said she was going because "it was the
most interesting cheap flight I could find."
Ashford said she had visited Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Nice and
Malaga, and read on the Internet that Bratislava -- in a country that was part
of the Soviet bloc until 1989 -- "has cool architecture."
As she walked onto a Boeing 737 jet, four of her male friends
practiced saying, " S tyri piva " -- Slovak for "four
beers." Edd Claringbold, a zoology student at Nottingham University, said
he could easily spend $180 on a night out in London, and that was his total
budget for the long weekend in Bratislava -- flights, $1 beers and $10-a-night
"It's cheaper to fly out of London than to stay in
London," agreed Ashford, settling into a seat -- there are no seat
assignments -- in Row 27. "We are saving money by going abroad."
Ten rows ahead, Rozario Chivers and his girlfriend, Jenny
Savander, were also eagerly awaiting their first night in Bratislava. "I
don't know much about the city. A friend of a friend said it was good, and so
off we go," said Chivers, 35, a Web site designer. With $72 roundtrip
tickets, he said, he thought it was certainly worth a long weekend.
Bratislava, which was part the former Czechoslovakia until
1993, has a small, charming city center with grand, centuries-old buildings, an
ancient stone castle and new high-end restaurants with white-linen tablecloths.
Mayor Andrej Durkovsky said that a couple of years ago tourists were typically
"senior age tourists mostly from German-speaking countries coming here by
boat" and leaving the same day. But now, he said, the city, and
particularly its hotels and restaurants, are "cashing in" on
planeloads of tourists who "are discovering Bratislava, putting it
literally on the international map."
Barbara Lisa is among the locals who started a company in
response. She runs Stag Bratislava, which caters to the fast-growing custom of
British men going abroad for bachelor parties. She arranged weekends for 2,000
of them last year and estimates that several thousand more booked through other
tourist companies. The men in one memorable group dressed as Superman, Batman
and other comic book superheroes.
"This is very good for Bratislava," said Lisa, who
expressed confidence that Burridge and his good-natured friends will get the
word out about her city. Right now, she said, many foreigners can't locate it on
a map: "When I would say I am from Slovakia, people would say,
'Czechoslovakia? Yugoslavia?' "
On the weekend Burridge and his friends were in town, Lisa and
her cadre of female guides shepherded five groups of British men who picked from
activities ranging from "steak dinner with stripper" to driving a
Soviet-era tank. Burridge's group decided to go a shooting range where they
fired Glocks and Scorpion submachineguns. After shooting, they raced go-karts
and, between beers, chatted about how much fun it was to be spending a weekend
800 miles from home.
That night, Burridge was dressed as a woman again and his
friends each wore dramatic black wigs for a trip to Charlie's disco, because, as
one explained, "We all have to look foolish."
Burridge, who was born in Wales, where there are more sheep
than people, was ordered to carry an inflatable sheep around for the night.
Even though Charlie's was dimly lit, the locals eyed them up
and down as they ordered vodka drinks. "It's about fun and doing things you
won't do again," said Burridge, his blonde wig slightly askew.
The next morning, as he headed to the airport for the flight
home, he said he was a bit under the weather. But, he said, "I want to get
married after this."