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Hidden Costs; or, “The Hypothetical Traveller”

August 28, 2010

Very often, when something is cheap, it really just means the cost is being borne elsewhere.

Take closing post offices for example – yes, it saves some money for Royal Mail, but it means the customer then has to pay the cost of travelling further (petrol, bus fares, time). (Jon at the Vendée blog puts it much better than me.) Or cheap supermarket meat – saves you money on your weekly shop, but then you end up paying extra for one of their expensive marinades to make it taste of something. Not to mention the social and environmental costs of factory farming, easily quantifiable or not.

Or take cheap flights, for instance. Say I was inclined to go to Italy for two weeks in late October. I could book a cheap flight with a low-cost carrier with a dubious colour scheme. They were advertising flights for between £25 and £35 depending. However, this would also require me to get to Stansted or Gatwick at some ungodly hour: between £10 and £20 in train fares, not including getting the tube to Victoria or Liverpool Street. I would have to pay around £9 to take something other than hand luggage, pretty much essential if you’re going for two weeks and might want to shave your legs. I wouldn’t have got a seat reservation. Bizarrely, I might even have had to pay to check in (and I’m not sure checking in is optional). Then, I would (purely hypothetically) either have had to fly to Milan, or to an airfield several miles out of Turin, and had to pay around £15 to get to central Turin by train or a bus conveniently run by the airline. All of which means an apparently bargainous £30 flight could actually end up costing me up to £70. Not to mention the cost to my sanity (and ability to be productive once I got there) of getting the Gatwick Express at 3 a.m. to check in at 5 a.m. for a 7 a.m. flight.

However, were our hypothetical traveller minded to do the journey by train, she could get the Eurostar for £34.50 to Paris. She could leave at 9.30, checking-in half an hour beforehand, meaning that she could get the train to St Pancras at roughly the same time she usually leaves for work, for about £1.50. After a leisurely lunch in Paris (value for money compared with airport food, anyone?!), she could then travel from one very central rail terminus to another. Does it still only cost €1.40 for a Métro journey? I find this hard to believe, but let’s assume this leg of the journey won’t cost her more than £2 max. She could then get another train to Turin for £36, and arrive straight into central Turin by 9 p.m.

(Had our hypothetical traveller not recently turned 26, this would have been even cheaper. SNCF think I’m an ‘adult’ now, the misguided fools!)

Probably about the same amount of time travelling all told, costing roughly the same in terms of money. And much better value in terms of ethics and general pleasantness. I mean, can you put a price on NOT HAVING TO GET TO STANSTED FOR THE DAMN 5 A.M. CHECK-IN? It would also make our hypothetical traveller feel less hypocritical about travelling halfway across Europe to participate in a symposium on sustainability, relocalisation, energy depletion and ‘immaterial values’. =)

All of which is a roundabout way of saying I cracked and am going to Terra Madre and the nutrition and biodiversity conference in Rome.

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DISCLAIMER – While we thoroughly support your decision to say ‘Fuck you, Ryanair, I don’t want to live in your world!’, this blog does not endorse getting drunk and maxing out your overdraft on the Eurostar website at 1 a.m..

Management accepts no responsibility for having to eat beans and rice until Christmas, non-existent social lives, or awkward moments when applying for financial assistance from your university.

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Postscript – Our hypothetical traveller seems to recall booking some tickets home too. But it was a close thing.

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