Monday, March 7, 2011

The Cardboard-Box Solution To The Budget-Airline Blues

The travel guru is making an admission.  Recently I got caught up in too-good-to-be-true budget-airline fares, and paid an uncomfortably high price to fly European-style low-cost.   I spent not one, but two, nights on a cold, marble airport floor in Belgium.  Here’s what happened. 

I was in Poland, and wanted to go to Bulgaria next.  At the time the overland options seemed complicated and unappealing, including a 30-hour-straight bus ride or a train with a series of late-night changes in several countries along the way.  I did a little digging into flight alternatives, and discovered that I could take two budget flights—from Poland to Belgium, and then from Belgium to Bulgaria—for about $100.  I thought that was cheap, plus I’d never been to Belgium, so it seemed like a smart plan—even when factoring in the little, hidden “booking fees” that always creep in at the end.

Two weeks later I began to focus on the logistical particulars, and this is when I realized that perhaps mistakes had been made.  My plane to Brussels was scheduled to land at 8:20 p.m. – not in Brussels itself, but in “Brussels-Charleroi.”  The hyphen there is deceiving:  as far as I can tell there’s actually no substantive connection between Brussels and Charleroi.   Charleroi is an entirely separate place that lies a 13 € shuttle-bus ride southwest of Brussels proper.  The costs of flying budget were beginning to emerge.

Then there was the inconvenient-hour factor.  I was scheduled to land at night.  Assuming my plane was on time (which, of course, it wasn’t), the next shuttle from Charleroi would deposit me at the Brussels Midi train station well after 10:00 p.m.  I had done some checking and learned from sources on the ground that unless you want to get robbed at knifepoint, you don’t want to be coming out of Brussels Midi looking for a hostel at that time of night.  And I heard that a woman getting into a cab alone at that hour might not be a good idea either.  Perhaps these stories were overblown, as sometimes they tend to be, but I didn't want to chance finding out.

In my mind, I now had two options.  I could pay for a room in Charleroi for the night, or I could stay in the airport.  This was Belgium, and so the cheapest hotel room would cost $60-plus dollars; a standard room was upwards of $100.  I consulted, a website where people who had previously spent the night in your target airport tell you just how big of a nightmare it’s going to be.  And while the reviews for Charleroi weren’t great, at least I knew it was possible, and of course, free.

Our plane was delayed by almost two hours, so I didn’t land in Charleroi until well after 10 p.m.  I was proceeding through baggage claim when I had a vague recollection that the advice given on was to stay in the baggage-claim area to sleep.  I could see that if I left baggage claim, I couldn’t return, and I didn’t know what conditions awaited beyond.  I thought for a moment and decided to stay put.  I found a row of armless seats against the wall, and stretched out with my backpack under my head.  

Around midnight, a friendly security guard told me I couldn’t stay there.  He showed me to the door, literally, and when I passed through, I saw that I was not the only one with the idea to spend the night in the airport.  The place was chock full of passengers strewn on floors, chairs, benches, and tables, and in every uncomfortable position known to man.   Some had upturned and lined up the plastic security bins to use as makeshift mattresses.  This was necessary, I soon learned, because the marble floor was freezing.

Because I had lollygagged in baggage claim for so long, I missed all the good, warm spots outside in the lobby.  I wandered around looking for a place, and then went into the disabled bathroom to brush my teeth.  I began to identify myself with Will Smith on that bathroom floor in the Pursuit of Happyness, but then remembered that I’m actually not down on my luck, but just pathologically frugal.  Another problem I need to work on.

I finally found a semi-private cubby hole on the far-east end of the airport lobby, tucked between a 6-foot advertisement sign and the window.  It’s a place that gets no foot traffic, so the floor was relatively clean.  Soon I understood why my side of the airport wasn’t too popular.  Fifty feet from me sat a video arcade whose games emitted loud noises and jingles and songs every few minutes.  Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to work we go, the Snow White game sang and whistled, every 5 minutes.  

Off to work, I thought, as I lay in disbelief.  Here I was, a professional woman with a fancy law degree, sleeping on an airport floor to save a buck or two.  Sure I had legitimate safety concerns supporting the decision, but let’s be honest:  it would have killed me to spend $70 plus a cab ride for just a few hours in a hotel bed.   That’s four whole days in Bulgaria! I would rationalize.  I thought about all the people who might say, after reading this, “For the love of God, I would have given you the money!”  But of course, that’s completely beside the point.

What I could really use is a cardboard box, I thought, as I struggled to get in some winks between old-time car honks and the Seven Dwarfs.

I did have a plan out of there.  Earlier I figured that the fastest and best way back to civilization would be to catch a 4:55 a.m. bus to neighboring Luxembourg.  It was scheduled to arrive in Luxembourg City around 7:30.   I’d be able to get a couple hours of shut-eye, and I’d arrive in the safety of daylight.  

I boarded the bus at 4:45, the only passenger.  The driver must have seen that I was in a bad way.  When I handed him my ticket, he said, “I’ll wake you up when we get there.”   Within seconds I fell into a coma.  Two and a half hours later, I felt a hand on my ankle.  “Are we there???”  I shouted, screaming myself awake.  I opened my eyes to see the driver jump back about a foot.

Several days later I had a ticket on the same budget airline, leaving from the same airport, with the same inconvenient-hour problem.  My flight to Sofia was scheduled to leave around 8:00 a.m., which meant that, in order to catch the 4:30 a.m. shuttle bus to the airport from the same seedy train station, I’d have to be on the dark streets of Brussels in the middle of the night.  I concluded that it would be safer (and of course, cheaper) to arrive at the airport the night before and once again join the throngs on the airport floor. 

And this is where the cardboard box from the last post comes in.  I picked up the box from outside the cafe in Brussels, folded and secured it with rubber bands, and proceeded to the station to catch an evening train from Brussels to Charleroi.  I arrived at the airport around 10 p.m., returned to my spot, unfolded my box, and set about making my bed.  I fashioned a pillow from a scarf and sweater rolled in a cloth bag, put my coat on backwards for a blanket, popped in my relaxing, bedtime-music earphones to drown out the Dwarfs, and settled in for the night.  And I must say, with the cardboard box in the mix, it wasn’t half bad.

You're so money and you don’t even know it, I thought, drifting off.  The guru was back.