Our first indication that we were in for a less than stellar experience came Stansted_airportwhen the agent at the bag drop told us we would not like flying Ryanair. Hmm, slightly ominous! As it turned out, Ryanair was fine. Stansted Airport on the other hand, not so much.

Stansted Airport employed the Las Vegas school of design, forcing you to run a rat’s maze mall, and wait in a shop-surrounded pen until the last possible moment before announcing your gate so you could finally dash to it, barely in time for boarding. Every element is designed to best separate you from all the euros/pounds you saved by booking that cheap flight.

From the moment we arrived and paid 3 euros for the privilege of jumping out of the car at the curb, it was evident that this was all a cash grab. There was great confusion checking our bags (the usual carry-on luggage sizes are just slightly too large for Ryanair). We had paid the extra fee in advance so we could check the bags, still making for a pretty inexpensive flight to Rome. It turned out both bags were on one boarding pass, which is why mine kept reading that it was over the weight limit no matter what I removed. By then I had transferred my toiletry bag to my personal item, which caused no end of trouble going through security.  At least we had read the fine print and checked in before arriving at the airport (45 pounds each otherwise) and printed the boarding passes as we were not travelling on EU passports (another 45 pounds each had we not done so). We suspected that there would be an additional “Ha! You didn’t read this!” fee as well, but managed to avoid that somehow.

“Security” insisted that all liquids be placed in one tiny bag which must close. I am quite familiar with the liquids restrictions and was in fact travelling back when they first went into effect, much to my chagrin at the time. I know darn well nothing can be over 100 ml. Never have I seen such anal fussiness about the overall quantities. At the beginning of our six week trip, we had a lot of liquids – extra sunscreen and such – so this was a challenge. They questioned my amount and I had to wave David over to vouch for some of it. The whole thing is a scam as it turned out I had inadvertently left some liquids in my purse and that didn’t cause any issue once scanned. They simply wanted to force passengers to disclose everything and throw out the “excess” in order to purchase new items in the over priced shops past security. Trays went every which way and it was tricky to keep track of our things. The whole process was just a little stressful!

Once through the security farce, we entered the rat’s maze of a shopping mall leading to the gates. It took a full five minutes of trying not to breathe, just to move past the duty free perfume area. I can’t imagine moving through there with any kind of scent allergy. Salespeople aggressively sprayed perfumes and colognes as we did our best to dodge them. The walk past the variety of other shops was about 20 minutes, led on by the occasional departures board and arrow pointing to the gates. We kept hoping for some sign we could leave mall hell and arrive in an actual airport.

The departures board listed flights, and our flight’s gate simply said “as shown”. We were mystified as to what this might mean. Eventually at the mall end, we found signage for three groups of gates, each an 8-10 minute walk further. Which way to go? Back we went to look at the departures board and scratch our heads with other passengers. Agents or info booths were nowhere to be found. I did see a place where passengers who had missed their flight could return to the front of the terminal. Another ominous sign!

Stansted_airportA fellow traveller finally explained that “as shown” was followed by a time. At the time indicated, our gate number would be revealed. Meanwhile, we were forced to wait in the shop-surrounded pen where there was no seating and no water fountains. Spend money! Buy everything! Oh and by the way, Ryanair will let you carry on an extra Stansted Airport shopping bag! Can you tell we were less than enchanted by the obvious scam? We eagerly awaited the revelation of the precious gate number.

Once we had the info, we dashed off toward the gate. No seating there, but none was needed as we boarded nearly immediately. It was with great relief that we settled into our small, non-reclining seats for our no frills flight. We declined to spend 5 Euros for a cup of instant coffee and were grateful we’d brought our own snacks and had begged a Starbucks barista to fill our water bottle. The flight itself left on time, arrived in Rome early and was uneventful.

Bottom line:  It cost us $300 CDN less each to fly from Victoria into London, rather than directly to Rome. The flight to Rome including the extra charge to check our bags was $65 CDN each. A substantial savings. We were lucky enough to have family to stay with outside London and a ride to the airport, or the savings could have been eaten easily.

The flights are cheap all right, but if unprepared you will pay dearly for the privilege of using Stansted Airport. If you must travel this way, read all the terms and conditions or be ready to be taken for a ride well before you are airborne.