Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Letter from Butiama: the downside of budget travel

This is one of numerous articles I wrote for the Sunday News (Tanzania) column "Letter from Butiama" between 2005 and 2011. Publication date: 12 March 2006.
Budget air travelers once used to sit in the economy class of airplanes. Today I understand there are several creative names given to classes with passengers who are not in first or business.

The market niche of budget travelers has existed and will continue to do so and various airlines have targeted this group, consisting of people who demand minimum service, fight for elbow space amongst themselves, occupy a relatively smaller area per passenger compared to other classes, and are mostly interested in getting from point A to B, even when they have to travel by way of Mars. They reach their destination drained of energy.

Passengers willing to pay a higher fare demand space, comfort, and the shortest possible route to their destination. When they get off the plane they seem like they have returned from a long holiday instead of having arrived at the end of a long journey.

I took advantage of economy travel in the past and it has its ups and downs, mostly downs. Ethiopian Airlines used to offer a morning departure from Dar-es-salaam to Tokyo, via Kilimanjaro International Airport, Entebbe in Uganda, and a stopover of several hours at Addis Ababa. In the afternoon passengers took a flight with the same airline to New Delhi, India, with an overnight stopover. The next day, in the afternoon, passengers would take an Air India flight to Singapore, arriving late in the evening and later, at night, board a Japan Airlines flight to Tokyo and arrive the next morning.

Three airlines, four transit countries, and two days later one would arrive in Tokyo in need of a short holiday.

I took that flight once, and switched back to the more expensive option of the defunct Swissair that involved one airline, one transit country, and one day later, arriving in Tokyo energized.

The trouble began when I presented my ticket to board the Air India flight out of Delhi. I was told my name was not on the passenger list, economy class was full, and had to wait for the next available flight in two days. I protested that I had a confirmed ticket from Dar, but was asked to stand aside for the next passenger. I raised such a commotion that I was given a seat in business class.

I once heard the same story about my name disappearing from the passenger manifest of an Alitalia flight in Milan, Italy, but, as a student, it did not bother me to spend an extra day to see Europe. At the New Delhi check-in, I was a young busy businessman with a lot of outstanding work on my desk.

Apart from disappearing names, the other down side of budget travel is the limited range of accommodation one can choose from. I once stayed in a hotel in Tokyo that had such small rooms that if I had to stretch in the morning I had to stretch parallel to the bed’s length. If I stretched sideways, I would touch the walls.

The compact room was nothing compared to the treatment I received from staff at a hotel during a stopover in Zurich. When checking out I asked for the bill and was told that “the computer was malfunctioning” and it would not be possible to issue a bill. I asked to speak to the Manager and was told I was speaking to the Manager, so I insisted that I had to account to for my travel expenses and that I had to have some document showing my expenditure. That was also not possible.

When I persisted, she turned to a colleague at her side and made a racist remark in Italian, a language I understand and which is one of the official Swiss languages.

I reacted, In English, beginning with the words, “Madam, with all due respect…” What followed had nothing to do with respect. I went on to reveal to her my honest unreserved opinion of what I believed she was. It was too much for her and she lamented, in Italian, to her colleague. I then took the trouble to repeat, in Italian, my honest reserved opinion of what I believed she was. For my honesty, I returned to Dar without the bill.

After my disappointing experiences with budget accommodation, I have tended to choose internationally recognized hotel chains when in transit. They are used to handle clients black, white, pink, and orange skins. If they are racist they, at least, are sophisticated enough to suppress their attitudes.

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