Tag Archives: Barcelona

Flying à la carte with Wizz Air

We flew from Budapest to Barcelona return on Hungary’s discount airline Wizz Air.  I think the name was meant to conjure images of speed but I can’t help thinking of urination when I hear it.  With the bankruptcy of Malev Hungarian Airlines in February 2012 (after 66 years of continuous operation), Wizz Air is now the leading airline and flag carrier of Hungary.  Officially, it’s a 2 star airline (that’s 1 star less than Air Canada whose service Canadians love to complain about) and it hasn’t made a profit since it began operations in 2004.

Hot pink, purple, and white plane flying through purple clouds

Wizz Air Plane

Wizz Air follows the ‘everything is extra’ business model, similar to Ryanair in Europe or Southwest Airlines in the United States.  This means that, in return for your hard-earned money, you are entitled to board an airplane to your destination with 1 carry-on bag.  And that’s it.  Everything else is extra.  And I mean everything.

Booking Fee — Want to use a credit card to pay for your flight? It’s $12 per flight per passenger or $48 for two people on a return trip.  Debit card is only slightly cheaper, so these fees are unavoidable.  How, when I pay for my booking once (for all flights and passengers), can they justify levying the fee per flight and per passenger?

Call Centre Fee – Want to book your flight over the phone rather than using their web site?  $15 per flight per passenger.  That’s $60 for two people on a return trip.

Airport Check-in Fee – If you want to check-in at the airport rather than online (or if you’re forced to because you don’t have access to a printer), it’ll cost you.  $10 per flight per passenger ($40 for a couple return).

Flex Fee – Think you might want to change your flight, but not sure?  You can avoid the Flight Change Fee later if you pay an extra $15 at the time of your original booking.  Basically you’re paying a fee to buy insurance to avoid potentially having to pay another fee.  It’s brilliant!

Name Change Fee  — If you make a mistake on the spelling of your name (which for security reasons can prevent you from getting on the flight), it’s $60 per flight per passenger to change it ($120 return).  But you’d better do it on their website.  It’s $90 per flight per passenger ($180 for a return ticket) if you do it at the airport.  Ouch!

Xpress Priority Boarding Fee – Wizz Air does not normally assign seats, so how early you board can mean the difference between sitting with your traveling companions or not.  People start lining up at the boarding gate immediately after they clear security.  Want to board early?  $6 per flight per passenger ($24 for a couple on a return flight).  $12 per flight per passenger if you change your mind and decide to skip the line at the airport.

XXLong Extra Legroom Fee – If you’re over 5’10”, the small and close seats on Wizz Air won’t do for you.  If you want to sit in an exit row for the extra leg room it’s $12 per person per flight ($48 for a couple return).  You still don’t get an assigned seat though, just a seat somewhere in the exit rows.

Food and Drink – Nothing is included, but a fine selection can be purchased on the plane for a fee.  I wonder if they charge for water?

Cancellation Fee – You can cancel your flight for a fee of $90, but none of their many extra fees are refundable, so you’re not likely to get any money back.

These fees are in addition to more common fees like Baggage Fees and Flight Change Fees.  Wizz Air has these too.  In fact, the fees mentioned above are just a sample of the 62 different fees that Wizz Air has listed on their web site!

If you have a question about any of these fees or the service you’ve received, you can of course telephone Wizz Air’s customer service center.  Calls to customer service cost $1.50 per minute for you to talk to someone in India.  They probably earn $1.50 per hour.  All calls are charged, and complaints must be made by email.

Do I sound bitter?  I’m not.  More fascinated by the business model.  Wizz Air competes in an ultracompetitive marketplace where consumers are attracted by low base ticket prices.  I know that I’ve been excited in the past by advertisements for flights or cruises with what appear to be low prices, only to learn that when all taxes and fees are included the total price is double or even triple.  When people search for flights online, the lowest airfares are typically displayed first.  Consumers very often choose the flights with the lowest base price.  It’s only after they’re invested in the reservation process that they learn of the extra fees.  Admittedly some of these fees are optional for some people, but some are impossible to avoid (i.e. booking fees) effectively resulting in a higher price than advertised.

With base ticket prices so low, Wizz Air has to make most of its money in fees.  They’re like contractors who underbid with the expectation of making their profit through change orders once they’ve got the work, or like steak houses that charge extra for the baked potato and for the vegetables.  And they’re not alone.  We took a flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Vienna, Austria on Berlin Air last September.  The base ticket price for this one-way, 1 hour flight was only $11 (can you believe it?), but with taxes and fees it grew to over $100.

We made the choice to fly Wizz Air despite all the extra charges.  Even though we paid the Booking Fee, the Xpress Priority Boarding Fee, and the XXLong Extra Legroom Fee, our total price was still half that of the next cheapest competitor.  With such low prices, we were worried that they would cut corners somewhere else (e.g. poor service, old planes, etc.) but the experience wasn’t any different than we’ve had with other small airlines.  Just fine for a short flight, and all flights in Europe are short flights.

Will this excessive level of extra charging be coming to North American soon?  Many discount carriers already charge fees for services that are free (or were once free) on other airlines.  I hope that it doesn’t get to this extreme, but the same basic business model applies, so I don’t see any reason why it can’t or won’t.  Hopefully consumers will stay focused on the total price and service and won’t be overly mesmerized by a low base price.

Note — I used an exchange rate of $1.50 per Euro to keep the price conversions simple.

Climbing in Montserrat

We took a short break from our travels to meet up with our friend Lee who was in Barcelona, Spain on business.  We left the S&M Motel safe and secure in a campground in Budapest, Hungary and arranged for a taxi to pick us up there at 3 AM in order to make our 6 AM flight.  Diane and I had arranged to meet Lee at the Barcelona Airport at 9 AM where we were picking up a rental car.  Unfortunately, Lee was waiting at the Budget car rental desk at Terminal 1 while we were waiting at the Budget car rental desk at Terminal 2, but this misstep was quickly resolved with a phone call and a shuttle bus ride.

We spent our first day and night in Barcelona.  After some wine in our hotel room and a mohito at the hotel’s 360 degree rooftop bar, we headed to the tapas bar Quimet y Quimet highly rated by locals and traveling ‘foodies’.  It is small and crowded, standing room only, which is OK because there are no chairs.  The walls are stacked high with wine and other delicacies.  They specialize in tantalizing seafood, many of which have been preserved in tins.  Exceptional food.  Some of the best we’ve had in Europe.  Particularly memorable were the olives wrapped in anchovies.  A taste explosion.  My mouth is watering as I write this.

Crowded taps bar with bottle lining the walls

Quimet y Quimet

Completed food orders are passed through the crowd from the small bar area where the food is prepared. Like most tapas bars in Spain, the many small paper napkins used are discarded and accumulate crumpled on the floor throughout the evening.  We drank the house dark beer and then switched to some terrific red wine.  Afterwards we found our way to a nearby bar recommended by the woman serving us at Quimet, where we ate spicy olives and continued drinking.

Two tapas on white plate with sun-dried tomatoes, shrimp, and caviar

Amazing Tapas

Patrick and Diane standing in tapas bar with Patrick preparing to drop a white napkin on the floor

Enjoying ourselves at Quimet y Quimet

The next morning, nursing our hangovers, Lee and I ate at the hotel breakfast buffet.  Diane wasn’t ready to face a buffet, and stayed in bed until we returned.  We got packed, loaded the car, and drove about an hour to the village of Monistrol.  It is located at the base of Montserrat, a multi-peaked mountain formation that is well known as the home of Santa Maria de Montserrat, a Benedictine Abbey.  The sanctuary there is home to the Virgin of Montserrat, a statue of Madonna and child, one of the many Black Madonnas of Europe.  Diane and I had visited on a dark day last November, and were glad to see it again in better weather.

Black madonna in with gold clothing, seated with child on her lap

The Virgin of Montserrat

After a stop at the local climbing store where virtually no English was spoken, and at some local shops to get food for lunch, we drove up the winding road to the parking area, then caught the Funicular de Sant Joan (a funicular railway) up to the top of the mountain.  From here it was only a short walk to the base of the Gorros, a series of small peaks made of the pink conglomerate rock found throughout Montserrat.  We started to climb the 5-star route Bandalona on Gorro Frigi, but soon lost the line and ended up finishing on Opera Prima.

Lee wearing shorts, t-shirt, and white helmet balancing on side of Gorro Frigi

Lee climbing on Gorro Frigi (photo credit: Diane)

The climbing in Montserrat is predominantly face climbing, where purchase is gained on the many small rocks that appear to be stuck into the rough surface of the peaks.  The other climbers nearby were a group of young people from, of all places, Newfoundland.  They complained bitterly about the runouts between protective bolts, despite the fact that the routes on the Gorros are considered to be the most well-protected of Montserrat’s notoriously run-out climbs.

Small climber in the middle of a large grey wall

Patrick Climbing on Gorro Frigi  (Photo credit: Diane)

After 5 pitches we reached the top then climbed down the back side to join Diane who was waiting for us near the base.  After a celebratory beer, we walked down to the Monastery the long way, via the climber’s refuge at Saint Benet (another climbing area here).  There we met the refuge guardian Angel (not the kind with wings, but a real man named ‘Angel’ whose job is ‘guardian’ of this climber’s hut), who tried to be very helpful despite his limited English.  He told us that there are over 6000 climbing routes on the peaks of Montserrat, with only about 5000 published in one guide book or another.  A lifetime of climbing within a few square kilometers.

The next day we decided to climb El Cavall Bernat, a huge free-standing needle that is the symbol of the area.  This monolith, standing over 700 feet tall, is a test piece, a right of passage for local climbers.  All those who climb it are considered members of Grup Cavall Bernat, an honorific climbers club founded in 1978 whose sole requirement for membership is having climbed the peak.  We chose to climb the most stunning profile of the mountain known as Punsola Reniu.

Large grey tower with orange line showing our route

El Cavall Bernat with Punsola Reniu route marked.

We got a late start since breakfast at our Hostel Guillemes, per the Spanish schedule, was not available until 9 AM and afterwards we needed to buy some food for lunch.  By the time we drove up the mountain to the parking area, racked our gear, and completed the steep hike to the base (about 45 minutes), it was late and it was hot.  We were baking in the sun as we started to climb around 1 PM.  I backed off the first pitch, not confident in my psych having not climbed outdoors in almost 2 years.

Climber part way up tower with rope running, up as viewed from base of tower

Patrick on the first pitch. Notice how steep the upper pitches are!

Lee was a rock star.  He led and we made short work of the first 3 pitches, gaining on the party of 2 who were high up on the face above us, the only other people visible.

Climber in sunshine approaching the top as viewed from the summit

Patrick on the last pitch of Punsola Reniu

By pitch 3 we made it into the shade, a welcome relief from the heat of the afternoon.  The difficulty of the climbing and the steepness of the route both increase steadily.  The final pitch leaves the belay station, turns a corner, and requires mandatory free climbing to the summit which is adorned with a statue of the Madonna and Child.

Metal status of Madonna with child on concrete base on the summit

Madonna and Child on the summit

Patrick on left in blue jacket with orange helmet. Lee on right with red jacket and white helmet.

Patrick and Lee on the summit!

Diane spent her day wandering the small town and enjoying lunch out.  After rappelling off the summit and completed the long down climb and hike out, we showered and then joined her for dinner at the same bar in the town square that we’d eaten at the night before.  Spanish beer with calamari, cockles, meatballs, potatoes, and bread.

On the morning of Day 3 we changed to a different hotel as our room was no longer available.  The next hotel wasn’t nearly as nice, but it was cheaper.  Lee and I rode the funicular up and climbed Magdalena Superior, another one of the Gorros peaks.  Another spectacular line of increasing difficultly and a great top out.  We rappelled the route and were back to the hotel before Diane, who we learned afterwards was getting her hair done at a local salon by a young woman who spoke almost no English.  Diane said she used a lot of hand gestures and pointing to communicate, which seemed to work well because her hair looked great.

That night we ate at the hotel’s restaurant.  Diane chose it after hearing from several local sources that it was good.  We shared a fine dining verison of patatas bravas (potatoes with spicy tomato sauce that translates as ‘wild potatoes’) and a succulent appetizer platter followed by an amazing pan of lobster paella.

On our last day of climbing, Lee and I still had the energy to climb a via ferrata (translates from Italian as ‘the iron way’), a style of climbing where the route is augmented with cables or rungs to make the climbing faster and safer.  The first such routes were established to allow troops to move through the Alps more quickly and safely.  Teresina ascends Sant Jeroni, the highest peak of Montserrat.  It was great to climb so quickly and freely and to finish by pulling over the railing of the viewing platform that hikers can only walk to.

The next morning we caught an early flight back to Budapest.  A very enjoyable 5 days.  It was great to be climbing again, especially in such a spectacularly beautiful location.  The warmer weather was fabulous; we haven’t had much so far this trip.  It was terrific to climbing with my friend Lee and to complete some outstanding routes, each of which topped out on a different peak.  A wonderful getaway during our extended travels.