Taxi of the Sky
Savvy traveler spills cheap flight tricks from Austin to England, Scotland, and beyond
For a Brit in Austin, there is no shaking off those loyalties to the Old Country. Eventually, try as you might to resist, one must heed the call and return to bask in the irreverent humor, archaic swearwords, the etiquette of apologizing one-upmanship, fish and chips, and frigidly windswept rugged coastlines.
The problem, though, especially if you are a budget-conscious freelancer, is those flight prices can really hammer your liquidity.
A stoic approach
Thank goodness Austin is now on the radar of Norwegian Air Shuttle, the pioneer of low-cost, long-haul air travel and brainchild of a former Norwegian paratrooper. As a result, if you book ahead enough, say two months, and maintain the approach of a Greek Stoic philosopher (to be explained further), you can get a one-way ticket across the Atlantic for around $200.
A stoic approach means forgoing the usual in-flight niceties/necessities, as that’s how Norwegian’s so-called unbundling business model works, selling just the seat and then charging an additional fee for what would normally be a given on a long flight.
So if you want that cheapest fare, you can’t choose a seat, and make sure you pack scientifically and have finished that brick of a book before you go. On this flight, the only luggage is a carry-on weighing no more than 10 kilograms (about 22 pounds), and each checked bag of 20 kilograms (about 44 pounds) costs another $45.
And if you don’t want your rumbling tummy disturbing your fellow passengers you would be advised to take a Tupperware meal, as the airline staff won’t be feeding you (an in-flight meal is another $45).
I’ll admit how after all that — or, rather, after not having any of that — when you land the next morning at London’s Gatwick Airport it can rather feel like you have taken a very long, very cramped taxi ride through the night.
But I can also tell you, having caught the 5 am bus from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, all the way up to the northern city of Gondar, traversing hundreds of miles over the course of 12 hours, crawling along the hairpin turns of the Blue Nile Gorge — terrifyingly without barricades — as chickens cluck at the feet of everyone packed in like sardines, and someone two rows up pukes, yet no one is willing to open a window for some inexplicable cultural more, that there are much, much more uncomfortable ways to travel.
Make it a Scottish affair
Another option is to take a domestic flight to New York City and then catch the Norwegian flight into Edinburgh, Scotland’s attractive, lively capital, as I did returning one Christmas. (My family home being in the north of England means Edinburgh is the same distance by train as London; there is much more to the U.K. — encompassing England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — than the tourist trap of London and the surrounding southern England region.)
New York is always worth seeing, but when its frosty avenues are sparkling with lights and Christmas trees piled on sidewalks outside corner stores it’s even more magical. And an advantage of flying into Edinburgh is that in addition to seeing the city’s medieval Old Town around a giant castle and elegant Georgian New Town, everything is a bit less hectic and emotional than the London arrival experience, which can be overwhelming at the best of times.
A final additional advantage is it means us Brits get to hear more Americans saying the name of Edinburgh in your cutely incorrect way, bless you. (It is pronounced Edin-BRUH, not Edin-BERG.)
Admittedly, Norwegian's New York to Edinburgh flight can be a bit jarring when you first board and realize it’s no bigger than the sort of plane plying U.S. domestic routes. (The Austin to London flight is on a more spacious 787 Dreamliner, replete with in-flight movies you don’t have to pay to watch with your Tupperware meal!)
I am not being sponsored by Norwegian, I assure you. Rather, as someone who has spent much of his life fretting over airline websites, jumping back and forth comparing options, while struggling to plan months ahead to beat those algorithms, I appreciate not having to break the bank to return home.
Yes, it’s a first-world problem, I know, many people never leave the country they are born in, but it remains a problem nevertheless, and hence the value of any solution. Hence, I apply to airlines the same principle behind why I have always liked mom-and-pop diners: they deliver what you are after, while letting you walk away feeling you got a fair deal. When I see adverts for penthouse-like airline cabins, I can’t see the point of shelling out thousands of dollars for an event that will be over in less than 24 hours and most of which you may sleep through.
A little less taxi, a little more penthouse
But if you must have a bit more comfort, British Airlines, the U.K.’s relatively smart, flag-carrying airline, has responded to the Norwegian competition by making its fares more competitive, according to British friends who have made the pilgrimage home with them.
Also, a note of caution on Norwegian: articles in the financial papers suggest Norwegian’s rapid expansion is straining its business model, making it vulnerable to a take-over by the likes of British Airways, and which might explain why its prices for ancillary options have gone up from $25 at the start of the year.
The Norwegian ethos
For now, though, Norwegian still offers a great deal, especially if you manage to travel like a monk. But it’s not just the money. I like the Norwegian ethos, the likes of its slightly retro staff uniforms harking back to the days when flying was a real treat and joy.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, this is the captain speaking,” exclaimed the Tannoy system as the sun rose outside the plane’s window this July as I headed back to England.
What a great touch. How often do you hear that sort of old-fashioned straight-forward politeness these days? The captain proceeded to give the most detailed flight route description I have ever heard — again much appreciated. It was geographically interesting and sounded reassuringly professional. I don’t really care about my in-flight experience so long as I get home, to that great kingdom of Albion, safe and sound.
And then when I want to return to the second-greatest land in the world, I apply the same principle.