Fees may turn us all into backpackers

09/20/2009 12:00 AM

09/20/2009 12:06 AM

Why does it matter? Why should a fee affecting flights within the U.K. and Europe be of significance to readers on my side of the Atlantic? It's because decisions by the U.K.' s leading low-cost airline have a disturbing tendency to influence later decisions by U.S. airlines flying domestically. Ryanair was the first to institute a la carte pricing in air travel, and the system it inaugurated has since been copied — triumphantly, enthusiastically, wholeheartedly — by American carriers.

Why has Ryanair raised its luggage fees to such heights? It's because, says an airline representative, it's "part of our ... program to encourage passengers to travel with carry-on luggage only."

After all, he continues, you can easily avoid the charge. "All passengers can avoid these optional checked-in baggage fees by traveling with carry-on baggage only."

What exactly has Ryanair done? It has raised the fee for checking one suitcase at the airport to $30. (You can reduce that charge to $15 by doing so online, in advance.) These are one way, of course. Flying round trip, you pay $60 for one suitcase, or $30 by checking it on your computer, online.

As for checking a second suitcase, that's out of the question. It will cost an additional, stratospheric $70 one-way, $140 round trip, if done at the airport. Those charges for baggage are now higher than most Ryanair rates for the air ticket itself.

So all of us will now need to become backpackers, placing our changes of clothing onto our backs and lugging them like mules into the plane. Recently, on a radio broadcast of "The Travel Show" that my daughter Pauline and I present, we had a call from a distinguished travel figure who is the head of InterIslandTravel and co-owner of CheapCaribbean.com, and who has become a backpacker.

He is Greg Thorne, the last person you'd ever expect to place a backpack atop the smart, custom-tailored Italian suits he normally wears. And he called to sing the praises of a "Checkpoint Friendly Consumer Backpack" ($99.95), sold by Brookstone. It merits that name, he said, because of a special see-through mesh pocket for laptop computers, which permits Transportation Security Administration inspectors to pass your computer through security without requiring that you first take it out. According to other comments on Brookstone's Web site, it's also flat enough to slip underneath your airplane seat and has all sorts of special compartments for carrying your lunch and other items you'd prefer to store separately.

I haven't seen Brookstone's backpack for adults (my words) for myself, but I will certainly be thinking about it for the Ryanair-influenced future of aviation.

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