RIGA,STOCKHOLM - A few weeks ago, a friend who had just flown from Dublin to Riga via one of Ryanair's 737-800s told me a good story. Her Ryanair flight home was just what she expected, having heard account after account of planes crammed with obnoxious stags and nightmarish plane delays. Sure enough, she entered her flight to the chanting of drunk Irish men, belting out "Latvia" over and over again.
"They probably didn't even know anything about Latvia," she said. "Just that it was a place to party."
There were two intimidating Russian guys sitting two rows ahead, one with a mess of tattoos, who glared at the tourists, waiting for one to step over some undefined line, a spilled drink or an accidental kick on the way to the toilet, so he could lay a punch to the Irishman's face.
"But that's not the best part," my friend said.
Half an hour earlier, one of the Russians was stumbling drunk in line at the Dublin airport, along with 100-some other passengers, waiting like cattle to be herded onto the plane, only seconds after the previous flight was herded off.
As everyone waited, and the Russian's buzz wore off, he started manically tapping his cigarette between his dirty fingers. Then he jumped out of line and lunged at the EMERGENCY EXIT door to light up, setting off an ear-piercing alarm in the process. Everyone in line groaned, the Russian cringed and his friend 's a bull-faced man with a scar the size of a string bean across his shaved head - laughed and motioned for him to sneak back in line. By the time my friend had entered the plane, the Russian, not having managed to taste a cigarette, looked set to kill.
Stuck between the two Russians 's "probably ex-cons" 's in front of her and hormone-sweating bachelors behind, my friend said she felt safe. No one had bothered to clean the seats for the new passengers and there was a nice wad of bubble gum on the side of her armrest.
With a Winston Churchill caricature serving as its corporate spokesman, Ryanair seems to have its own ambitions to steal British Airways' claims on England's national pride. When Tony Blair used Ryanair for an Italian vacation recently, the airline called it a wise use of tax dollars.
From the democratic way people get seats on a flight on a "first come, first served basis," to the dirt-cheap fares, the airline seems to be making its pitch to those on the lower end of the U.K.'s class system as being members of the true England.
Until the last few decades, if there was a romance of air travel it was centered on its luxuriousness. Airplane seats used to be more comfortable. A few years ago, Stephen Spielberg captured the now-forgotten stardom Pan Am pilots earned for themselves in the '60s in "Catch Me If You Can." In the pre-9/11 world, who didn't like casually hanging out in airports watching the world's middle- and upper-classes running from one comfortable corner of the planet to another.
A country always did whatever was necessary to hold on to its flag carrier, a sign of a certain degree of wealth and stability. The failure of such a business could be emotionally devastating. The streets of Geneva must not have been a happy place when SwissAir folded four years ago.
But that's all really besides the point. With low-cost airlines like Ryanair transforming the face of Europe, we may have invented a new adventure for the cheap traveler, on par with taking a rickety overpopulated train into Bombay, or a wild bus through the dirt roads of Mexico.
Roundtrip to Stockholm, 3.98 lats
About a week before my friend told me her story, I had booked a roundtrip ticket to Stockholm from Riga. I probably would have still bought my tickets even if I had known the details of her trip and I'm glad I did so.
If my trip wasn't quite so eventful, it may be because it didn't involve those weekend beer-and-sex tourists who manage to spread their unique charm throughout Riga and Vilnius' old towns. Stockholm, compared to Riga, is an insanely expensive city; a cheap bottle of Coca-Cola costs 17 Swedish krona (1.84 euros). The tourists who run off to Sweden for the weekend from poor Latvia may be humbled by the lack of power their hard-earned lats will carry in the country.
It was 3.98 lats (5.80 euros) for the actual roundtrip ticket, and another 35.51 lats for the taxes, fees, charges, and something called an Aviation/WHCR levy. Ryanair's in-flight magazine brags that it has the lowest rate of baggage loss in Europe. It would. At the moment, the airline charges 3.5 euros for every bag you want to check; the price goes up to seven euros if you don't pay for the bags in advance. As of Sept. 1, the rates will jump to 4.5 euros and 10 euros, respectively.
I traveled light: a bicycle bag filled with two changes of underwear, a shirt, glasses, a slim novel, my passport, my electric toothbrush, and 's as this flight was not involving England and was unaffected by the new regulations on liquids for carry-on luggage 's a tube of toothpaste.
The in-flight magazine says that "the on-time airline" (as one of its slogans goes) manages to bring its passengers to their destination within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival times on about 86 percent of their flights. The one-hour delay on my flight put it in the other 14 percent.
The journey was an hour long, the length of which I spent pressed against a Canadian teenager. And I learned the way the airline actually manages to make money. A cup of coffee cost two euros. Hot chocolate cost 2.75 euros. Five euros for what I imagine must be a particularly bad glass of white wine.
Oh, and the things they sell: a collectable Harry Potter coin for 19 euros, a cologne featuring David Beckham's name for a little over 27 euros. Who buys these things? And after we answer that question, who buys these things on a Ryanair flight from Riga to Stockholm or on a Ryanair flight from anywhere to anywhere else? The whole point of Ryanair is that it's for people who can't afford to pay for anything. The flight offered a raffle among the on-board consumers for a free return ticket. But it wasn't quite enough for me to shell out for anything.
The flight touched down at Skavsta, a small airport that sits a mere one hour, 20 minutes outside of Stockholm. (The bus cost 130 krona/199 krona for a one-way/roundtrip ticket, so I guess we can add that to the price of airfare.)
It sounds inconvenient, but it was, for a first-time visitor, a pleasant way of easing myself into the country. I saw the Swedish countryside, flat green fields, cows and clean red-painted wood house after clean red-painted wood house.
"It's the dream of every Swede to own a red house," a woman I stayed with in Stockholm told me later that night. Thank you, Ryanair. If I had gone with someone more reputable, I would have flown directly into Stockholm proper, I would never have seen the countryside and I would never have known what the Swedish dream home looked like.