For British expats living in Europe, home is no more than a weekend break away. As a result many of us have the visit home down to a fine art. At Geneva (my local) or any other European city airport you will see the weekend-away brigade rushing for their flights on a Friday evening, executive wheelie-bag in tow.
After several years of evolution the “budget” flight phenomenon now has its own complex set of unwritten rules, otherwise known as “jetiquette”. We expats, for whom flying is part of our weekly routine, cannot help but notice the little slips that betray those less regular travellers than ourselves. Who has not smiled with amusement as the panic-stricken tourist scrabbles frantically for their passport?
My fellow expats, it is time to lead by example, to educate those who need our help. Let us examine how to master the “budget” flight, step by effortless step. In order to measure our success I suggest a simple point scale. You earn points for good style and lose points for embarrassing faux pas. For now let us assume you are travelling home alone. Accompanied flying is an entirely different discipline.
The aim is to exploit each stage of the journey ruthlessly to your advantage and yet make the other passengers regard you as a paragon of chivalrous virtue.
The journey really begins when you receive that party invitation or remember Great Aunt Mildred’s birthday. Unfortunately easyJet/Ryanair/Flybe/random others have realised you want to go home for the weekend and put up prices accordingly. Grudgingly you book your “budget” flight anyway. Never confess that you spent more than £100 on any “budget” flight (-20 points if you do).
The first tactical consideration is the choice of flight. Delays are more likely later in the day. Friday evening may seem the best bet but you might regret it when the bar closes in the departure lounge and you’re still there.
Packing for a weekend should take no more than 15 minutes (male version) (10 point bonus). Now that there is no longer a 5kg limit on hand luggage you have merely to make sure that your bag is within the size restrictions. Failure will result in total humiliation at check-in (-20 points).
Arrival at the airport should be between 120 and 70 minutes before the flight. Any earlier leads to boredom, any later may cause stress (-20 points in either case).
The choice of check-in queue is a key strategic decision whenever there are two or more lines. Forget the length of the queue and go for the line with the least luggage. Anybody carrying vast amounts of junk is bound to argue about excess baggage. Correctly selecting the faster moving line is worth 10 points. You will of course have the flight booking details jotted down: tickets are so 20th century. Forgetting your passport or arriving too late results in instant disqualification.
At Geneva and many other airports there are more shops and cafés in the main concourse than in the departure lounge. If you’re early check in, pick up your boarding pass then spend some time browsing the expensive tourist tat. Generally there’s no need to queue to go through customs until 30 minutes before boarding time. Finding yourself on the departures side too early is an error of inexperience (-10 points).
At the security check remove your coat or jacket then take your wallet, phone, and any other items out of your pocket and put them in your hand luggage. It will help prevent a costly beep (-20 points) when you go through the scanner and reduce the risk of being searched.
An easy bonus is on offer to all those who take food and drink with them. Airport cafeterias universally sell poor quality food at rip-off prices. They know that you’re trapped and desperate. There is nothing as satisfying as pulling a tasty snack from your pocket as you sit in the airport lounge. Everybody around you will gaze in admiration (10 points). Carry a drink in a plastic bottle as an accessory for 10 more.
At the departure gate don’t expect boarding to start on time. Airlines conspire against you because they don’t trust you to arrive promptly. Boarding is usually 15 minutes after the advertised time. You will notice lots of people calling home to report delays. Premature calling is embarrassing (-10 points). You’re not late, at least not yet. Maintaining a relaxed air as you enjoy your delicious snack earns a nice little 5 point bonus.
Upon hearing the call for boarding many of your fellow travellers will anxiously rush forward. Ignore them. It’s an error that nobody who really understands “jetiquette” would make. You won’t get home any faster by being at the front of the queue. I promise.
After the poor wretches travelling with babies have been let through, everybody else will be massed together in an unseemly huddle, ignoring the half-hearted calls for order by the harassed staff. You will probably hear snide comments about foreigners not understanding British queuing. Rise above it all in the knowledge that queue-jumpers are already out of contention. Breathe deeply (10 points) but do not allow yourself to slip too close to the back, or you will be doomed to a middle seat. Now is the time to switch off your mobile phone.
If boarding has not begun 25 minutes after the appointed time then you really are late. Every 30 minutes of delay will cost you 30 points. It’s not fair but then neither is life. You can claw back 10 points by making no more than two phone calls to announce the news. There’s a small 5 point bonus for producing suitable reading matter at this point. Discarded newspaper “Style” sections definitely don’t count.
Seating on most of these flights is unallocated. An aisle seat allows legroom and access to the toilet, whereas a window spot will guarantee a degree of peace. I am in generous mood so you may choose either without penalty. Taking a middle seat, on the other hand, will cost you 20 points and deservedly so. I prefer to be next to the aisle because you can often pick your neighbour. Go for the aisle seat in a row where there is just a single person sitting by the window and you have a fair chance that the middle seat will remain empty (10 points). If you are likely to need a toilet break you must sit in an aisle seat and wait until the drinks trolley has passed (-10 for transgressions).
Your hand luggage should fit comfortably in the overhead compartment. Don’t forget to take out your reading material and sustenance before take-off. Opening the overhead compartments during the flight is a big no-no (-10 points). Any small items may be placed under the seat in front of you but doing so will restrict your already cramped legroom.
“Jetiquette” demands that you pay polite attention to the safety briefing, even the bit about life-jackets, which seems a little unnecessary for those journeys across Europe involving nothing more watery than a few large puddles.
During the flight you lose points for making any purchases (I’ll allow a coffee, with reluctance). You should be equipped with suitable reading matter but not inconvenient broadsheet newspapers (-10 points). Opening your magazine just as your neighbour starts to look bored earns 10 points. Using a computer smacks of desperation.
To talk or not to talk? It’s quite a dilemma. If seating is allocated you have more leeway to start a conversation since fate has thrown you together.
If you do decide to talk the opening lines are easy. You can remark that the plane is surprisingly full/empty for the time of day; that it looks as if you will be on time/late. Let your comments be positive and your manner relaxed. You will quickly gauge whether the conversation is worth pursuing. Snoring is generally a bad sign, as are headphones. Collect 20 points if chatting away makes the flight pass more quickly. Lose 20 points for any mention of politics or needless whinging.
Flights that take off anything less than 30 minutes “late” miraculously tend to arrive “early”. This is because all airlines regard their passengers with contempt and brazenly lie about journey times.
When you have landed and come to a complete halt you may jump up and remove your bag from the overhead locker. Casting aside other people’s possessions or elbowing your neighbours is to be avoided (-10 points). You can earn 10 points by magnanimously allowing anybody else in your row to go ahead of you. You will, of course, leave them for dust inside the terminal.
There is a 50 point bonus if you swap e-mails (no phone numbers allowed) with your neighbour, provided that no betrayal is involved. Any swapping of contact details must take place before you leave the plane as the crowds could easily thwart destiny afterwards. And you may feel a little awkward if you leave it until your new friend is embraced by a tearful partner in arrivals.
With hand luggage in tow you can speed through the crowds with the disdain of Michael Schumacher lapping the back-markers. Collect 2 points for each person you pass and use any available moving walkways. Your passport will be immediately accessible for the security check. If you have to wait for a suitcase (you had better have a good excuse) there is no point rushing because you will face an agonizing wait at the baggage reclaim.
Ten minutes staring at that motionless, rubber conveyor belt can seem like an eternity. “Jetiquette” demands that you switch on your mobile phone at this point. If it’s absolutely necessary you may make one brief call. You lose 20 style points if the clothes that seemed appropriate at the departure airport now look ridiculous under the ugly glow of the arrivals terminal. Many otherwise competent travellers make this unfortunate mistake.
Usually your bags do eventually arrive, although not without a couple of heart-stopping moments first. Lost luggage will cost you 50 points, damaged luggage 30 points. Mitigate the damage and claw back 20 points by carrying half a change of clothes in your hand luggage.
Now it’s time to look as innocent as possible and walk through customs. The EU channel is generally deserted and green channel searches are unusual. Being stopped costs 20 points. Discovery of any illicit items merits disqualification.
30 points are on offer for the first person from each flight to make it through customs. Sail through as quickly as you can and accept the well-deserved welcome from those who await you at the airport or beyond.
“Jetiquette” takes a little practice but with experience 100 points will be a breeze. If you didn’t score so well this time console yourself with the thought that some of your fellow travellers at least learned from watching you. And there’s always the chance for revenge on the return flight on Sunday.