Travel Jottings

Celebrating the best bits and bobs to be found while exploring Britain, Ireland and beyond. Much is inspired by real outings, whether they were walking, cycling or photographic in nature, while virtual blundering in the name of planning them has turned up some gems too. Regardless of how they were found, I hope that they keep coming so I can continue to share new things with you.

Crossing the Irish Sea: flying or sailing?

Aircraft wing

Even though I hardly use the airline in question, I could be termed a member of the "Ryanair" generation. Since I left Ireland to live in Britain before the "Celtic tiger" years came and went, air travel has done most of the back work when it comes to crossing over the Irish Sea. Until a few years ago, I hadn't actually used a ferry as part of a journey between Cheshire where I now live and my home country. Before that, the ferry option fulfilled a use when I first moved to Edinburgh and for a short visit home after my brother and I had gone touring part of of Scotland; then it was the Larne-Stranraer link that did the honours.

Apart from that Holyhead-Dublin foray, I have stuck almost exclusively with air travel since I moved to England around the turn of the century. That brings me to the elephant in room: Ryanair. My main reason for flying with Aer Lingus is for the sake of a better experience and a larger baggage allowance but Ryanair has a history all of its very own as an upstart in the world of air travel.

While they profess to being a low fares airline, that isn't to say that every other possibility of making money isn't being explored or used, or that fares will be low if you need to travel at short notice. Whether or not it was a publicity stunt, making announcements like charging for the use of toilets would be typical of the face that they present to the travelling public. Well, generosity certainly isn't a feature of the image either and that applies to baggage allowances too. Still, baggage handling is a very slick affair now with bags sitting on the carousel by the time that you get to the baggage. The same approach to efficiency applies to arrival times too, if those self-congratulatory pre-recorded messages are to be believed. Intrusive pushy sales pitches seem to have been replaced by glorified hawking of cigarettes and scratch cards along with a trolley-based catering service for which you have to pay. These days, Ryanair epitomises the quintessential glorified airborne bus service; miss a plane, and they overbook all of them to the hilt, and you're on the next one. If anything, it helps to promote priority boarding because the standard queue doesn't guarantee that you get on at all. Even if your plane is delayed, they leave it up to you figure out when the flight is going and that happened to my brother once when he was returning from Malta.

All in all, Ryanair illustrates the way that air travel has taken a gigantic utilitarian gallop downhill from the glamorous image that it once possessed. Executing a transformation from the full package offer that was prevalent only fifteen years ago took some brutal changing of people's perceptions. Ryanair's "take it or leave it" stance might have been the only way to pull off such a stunt and the "in your face" attitude and persona of a certain Michael O' Leary complemented the picture perfectly. A Scot once opined to me that O' Leary just seemed to enjoy winding up as many as he could but I suppose that's one way of ensuring free publicity and they're not afraid of doing anything to generate more of the stuff, even if condemnation often follows closely behind. They must think that there's no such thing as bad publicity...

My patronage of Aer Lingus started in a far more comfortable era, if you can count travelling on a Fokker 50 aircraft as being comfortable. My first ever flight was my very first visit to Edinburgh in the middle of the nineties and I have been flying with them ever since. Then, it was very much a full service carrier with fares to match. Fortunately, my being a student did make me eligible for reduced fares though it did cost a fair bit of my time; my being bereft of debit or credit cards meant that I spent many a Saturday afternoon queueing in a student travel agency. All that someone needed to do in order to cause a big queue and a long wait for everyone was to get the idea of booking that trip of a lifetime and occupy one agent up for a few hours. Doing everything online these days means that I have consigned that experience to the distant past.

It has to be said that the web doesn't just allow you to save time and money but it allows carriers to cut costs too. The combination of the bursting of the dotcom bubble and the atrocity that was 9/11 precipitated a watershed for airlines with Aer Lingus transforming itself from a full service airline to a low fares carrier in the interests of its own survival, a nicer version of Ryanair if you like. The complimentary food service was withdrawn and replaced with a trolley bar selling food and drink. The network got standardised with aircraft like the Fokker 50 and the BAe 146 being replaced by a fleet of Airbus 320's and internal flights in Ireland being transferred to Aer Arann, who latterly operate a number of them under contract to Aer Lingus. The streamlining has continued with the introduction of online check in though it is possible no longer to avail of self-service baggage handling at selected airports. With the decade that's ahead of us, the efficiency drive isn't likely to stop either.

To give the whole impression of there being low fares, everything has been made a for cost option and I may be talking very generally here. Because of my experience, Aer Lingus will be my example but Ryanair is far from being that different. So far, I have mentioned onboard catering but baggage is also treated in the same way. In order to encourage you to add it at booking time, it is cheaper then than at the airport on the day.With Aer Lingus, you can even add excess baggage on if 20 kg isn't enough for you, not at a bad development even if it is costly. Advance set booking and travel insurance are more extra cost options. The days of the single package for all are well and truly dead and you can scale things back nowadays if that's what you want to do.

That makes the airline less easy to use for those who aren't regular travellers. A particular example of this was that new system allowing you to check in your own hold baggage at Dublin Airport. During my not so frequent brushes with the thing, I could manage the computer terminal for the task but it was the actual baggage tag attachment that caught me out. Self check-in machines already were something that I had used a fair bit but the baggage ones were new to me. At least, they accepted credit and debit cards when it came to paying for exceeding your allowance but a machine shows no discretion for Christmas travellers, etc. either. Still, it's a slick system when you're used to it and Ryanair could learn a trick or two if previous experiences were typical.

The future prospects for the airline industry do look rocky and it does take a hit whenever economic activity slows down so only time will tell as what will happen next. Ryanair's advances on Aer Lingus with their claims that the flag carrier was safest with them may have come to nothing but Ryanair is scaling back their operations with curtailment in the number of flights and the knock on reductions in staffing.

With that in mind, the ferry option comes to mind. For me, that means crossings from Holyhead, Birkenhead or Liverpool. Getting to Pembroke or Fishguard would mean a seven hour train journey for me so that's an itinerary for when I want to sit back and enjoy the ride rather than head anywhere in particular. Travelling as a foot passenger means that P&O's Liverpool option can be ruled out with its focus on car and truck travellers. For overnight travel, the Holyhead alternative isn't so good with sailing times of the order of three hours but it's not bad for daytime and goes down to two hours for the faster ferries if the weather doesn't stop them running (they are less tolerant of choppy seas).

As intimated earlier, I did give Irish Ferries (Stena Line offer other alternative options) a go for a Holyhead-Dublin return crossing. Holyhead is a four hour train journey away. Thankfully, the terminal building is located very conveniently at the end of the train station. The outbound crossing itself was so smooth that you'd barely realise that you were moving at all. In contrast. the return sailing felt less so with more swaying from side to side but this was with a catamaran. Because of the speed at which it was going, standing out on deck is not an option after leaving the confines of the ferry port. Dublin Bus service 53B connects the Dublin Irish Ferries terminal with the city centre for onward travel should that be in order. I may picked a weekend when seas were quieter but the ferries did what was asked of them and I detected a certain camaraderie that is absent from air travel. I suppose that longer travel times allow people to mix more and gregariousness and Irishness have a tendency to go together, especially when alcohol gets consumed. Just don't be surprised to see some emerging "plastered" (merrily drunk and without inhibitions) after a sailing. The whole experience certainly was a relaxed one with no pressure for you to place your baggage into the hold for collection later and without extra cost either if my impressions are correct.

Even after that pleasant sailing from Wales and back, I've continued to stick with the airborne crossing for visits to the folks across the sea.However, the sea travel option returned to the fray when trying to get home for Christmas 2010 when hefty snow showers were closing Dublin Airport repeatedly. Even if I did get stranded for several hours on the tarmac at Shannon, I did get to my destination in the end. However, Shannon is not so far from where I was headed and it was frustrating to have to return to Dublin again because Aer Lingus weren't leaving off passengers with checked-in luggage at the airport. While it hasn't put me off using the airline in the future, it did sour the travelling record a little but the return on New Year's Day 2011 was a painless one.

After the pre-Christmas experience, I am minded to check out options such as flying to Shannon or Cork to see how they work out. After all, even with the dead time before and after the actual flights themselves, flying probably is the quicker way to go. That's not to say that the sea option won't be in mind for emergencies again so long as rough seas don't go disrupting sailings. After all, an overnight sailing does have its advantages when it comes to onward travel from a ferry port.