I set out last Wednesday morning on a trip to Spain’s westerly neighbor, Portugal. I caught an early bus from Bilbao to Madrid, arrive with time to spare,and hopped on the shuttle to the airport.
Once at the airport, I headed straight for what RyanAir calls “visa check.” You see, if you fly RyanAir, you can conveniently print your plane tickets online ahead of time (which you conveniently get to pay 6€ to do, or else pay 60€ once at the airport if you opt not to…blackmail, much?) and THEN all you have to do once at the airport is go through a “visa check” (which is, essentially, the same thing as checking in…) before you go through security. This check consists of a RyanAir employee looking at your passport, asking you if you packed your own luggage (nope, my mom did!) and then drawing arbitrary squiggles somewhere on your printed ticket to indicate you have been “checked.”
I breezed through security and found my gate just on the other side. Over an hour to kill before boarding! I headed to a nearby cafetería for some tortilla española and a caña. I ate my lunch slowly, critiquing the tortilla with every bite (I’m a connoisseur now, you know) and mentally patting myself on the back for being so ahead of schedule.
Time to get to the gate. With RyanAir, there are no seat assignments and no boarding groups: just a clusterfook of travelers huddled around the waiting area at the gate hoping to make it on the plane WITH their luggage. I was in line behind a Portuguese couple, and listening to their chatter I started to get pumped–a new language, a new culture, a new COUNTRY to explore!
I hastily shoved my purse into my cabin baggage (RyanAir doesn’t allow a “personal item” like every….other…airline) and got ready to juke for a window seat. I gave the ticket lady my ticket and started shoving my bag into the size-tester box (a ridiculously obligatory step with RyanAir. If it doesn’t fit they’ll kindly check it at the gate for only 40-50€!) As I was busy proving my obviously small bag wasn’t an 26″ upright, this conversation happened:
Ticket Nazi: “This isn’t the right ticket”
Ticket Nazi: “Yes. This is Madrid, ma’am. This ticket is from Porto to Madrid.”
Me: “I’m entirely aware that this is Madrid. So you’re saying they validatedd the wrong ticket?”
Ticket Nazi: “I’m saying you don’t have a ticket to get on this plane.”
Me: “Oh, but I do. Here it is, see? With the same name, passport number…”
Ticket Nazi: “I can’t let you on the plane without a visa check confirmation on this other ticket. You need to go out, get it validated, re-enter security and come back. You need to run! Last call! Plane leaves in 20 minutes!”
Sprinting. In heeled boots. Holding a 20 lb suitcase. Through an entire terminal. Calves killing from yesterday’s run. Couldn’t find an open exit. Saw a security checkpoint, got desperate and asked two Policia Nacional how I could get out. They saw my desperation, had mercy on me, and actually let me go backwards through a security checkpoint whilst running. In hindsight, this may be the single nicest thing a stranger has done for me in this country. I budged to the front of a line of 50-or-so people at the visa check and told the lady she had stamped the wrong sheet and needed to stamp this one. She apologized, didn’t even look at my passport (may try this approach if ever need to travel illegally :-p) and stamped my ticket.
More sprinting. At security again. Ducked under the barricades and cut in front of two large families. Pretended not to speak Spanish while being cussed out for it. Wearing only leggings, a tank top, and socks, but somehow the metal detector goes off when I pass through. The TSA lady pats me down and comments on how sweaty I am. Happens when you’ve maintain max HR for early 15 minutes while fully clothed, I guess. I shove my iPad and liquids back in my bag and run, shoes and coat in hand, to the gate.
No one at the gate. No. One. Look at my watch. It’s 3:38. 7 minutes til takeoff. I had just sprinted through an entire terminal, to visa check, through security and back to the gate in a record 13 minutes. Where is Ticket Nazi and her equally condescending sidekicks? Why does the gate’s screen now say “Santander” and not “Porto”????
Well played, RyanAir. Well played.
There is a reason why my (original) fare was a steal at only 40€ round trip (including taxes and fees!) RyanAir boasts being “The low fare airline,” and that is exactly what they are. Nothing more. Their fares stay low because they nickle-and-dime customers for everything they can. This is no secret. The shadier side of this is that they also depend a great deal on customers’ mistakes and oversights as sources of profit. They create an incredible obstacle course full of hoops to jump through if you choose to fly with them, and any mistakes along the way will cost you. I like to think I’ve mastered these hoops as a pretty experienced traveler, but in this instance I got dooped. Any other airline would have taken the blame (it was, after all, started by one of their worker’s oversights) and re-booked me free of charge, no questions asked. But RyanAir has a very different business model that essentially lacks a customer service component altogether. And their crazily low fares let them get away with it. So hear this, savvy travelers: every time you book a steal-of-a-deal flight with RyanAir, know that someone, somewhere is paying for it. Someday, it might be you!
I made it (on a much more expensive newly-purchased outbound flight) to Porto, Portugal the next morning. And I suppose it was worth all the hassle 🙂