I was charged $180 to check in.
ATHENS, Greece- The airline waited until the very last moment to open check-in. At approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes prior to departure their service agents filed in behind the counters. I took a gamble on flying Wizz Air — a Hungarian budget airline that’s known for one thing: their unconventional and shockingly brazen ways to extort money out of passengers.
I watched as the girl in line in front of me was handed a little slip from the check-in agent and then pointed over to the row of airline ticket offices that lined the rear of the departures hall. I overheard her being told that she would need to pay an airport check-in fee.
I was called up to the adjacent counter.
“Do you have your boarding passes?” the thin blond woman asked.
“No. That is why I’m here at check-in.”
“That is a problem. I see that you are a Priority customer but that you also said that you would check-in online.”
I paid like twice the amount of money to fly “Priority” to limit the possibility of having some kind of “problem” that would inhibit me from getting on the plane. But it was clear that this preventative measure was about to backfire.
The check-in attendant then broke out the same little slip of paper that the girl in front of me had received and wrote my name on it.
“You need to go there and pay the check-in fee and then come back here to get your boarding passes.”
“How much is this going to cost?”
“It’s 35 euro each.”
I was rattled. 35 euro X 4 = 140 euro.
Whatever explanation that I was about to hear, $180 is far too much money for an airline to charge a family just to check in to the flight that they already purchased tickets for. $180 was over 50% of the total booking cost — even with the additional “Priority” fees added in.
This was especially true because even if I had printed out the “online check-in” confirmation I still would have needed to stand in line to, apparently, be checked-in a second time — as the printed boarding pass did not permit passengers to go straight to the gate, as it does with other airlines. So, basically, the only additional service that I would require for not checking in online would have been the physical printing of the boarding passes — which perhaps would have cost the airline somewhere in the ballpark of what? Ten to fifteen cents?
I began protesting the fee.
“Everybody else here knew that they had to check-in online except for you,” the woman behind the counter tried to reason.
“What about the girl in front of me? She was given the same slip of paper and told that she had to pay.”
“Everybody except you and her.”
I looked to the counter to my left. Another guy was being given the 35-euro check-in slip.
“What about him?”
The attendant didn’t respond.
I continued arguing my case.
A couple was next in line at the counter next to me. They too were given the slip.
“What about them!?!”
They were nailing everybody for the additional fee. If I was the only idiot here I would of had to suck it up and admit that I made some kind of error, but as passenger after passenger had apparently committed the same oversight there was clearly something not right about this. This was something systematic — either a massive error on the part of the airline or a trap that was intentionally set up to extract a little more money out of a relatively large number of passengers.
I’ve been traveling for 19 years and have taken hundreds of flights on budget airlines all over the world. I’m aware of how they operate — especially in Europe, where regulation on them appears to be non-existant. So with all of this experience how did I manage to get caught like this?
It’s simple, really. The airline provided no information or instructions on how to check-in online. There was no email informing me that online check-in was open, there was no directions on how to check in online in the fine print of my itinerary, there was not anything on the webpages when I purchased the tickets that told me how to actually perform an online check-in.
“Can you explain to me how I could have checked-in online?” I asked the girl behind the counter.
“You just use the Wizz Air app.”
“There was nothing that said I needed the Wizz Air app to check in to this flight when I bought the ticket.”
“Then there was something about it in your confirmation email.”
I handed over my phone with the confirmation email open and asked her to point out where the online check-in link was, as yet another passenger at the counter next to me got the slip.
“If all of these people weren’t able to check in online then there seems to be something wrong with how your airline is communicating this message.”
She scrolled the confirmation email up and down and admitted that she found nothing about checking in on it. I showed her all of the emails that I had received from Wizz Air. There wasn’t a single one that said anything about online check-in.
These are the instructions on the Wizz Air website for online check-in:
“You will receive an email with a link to online check-in. Click it and follow the instructions provided. You will be then asked to complete the personal details of all the passengers flying Wizz Air with you.”
This email with the check-in link was never sent. It seems as if it was really not possible to check in to this flight without the app.
“It’s the company policy. There is nothing that I can do about it.”
It was pointless to argue that most airlines now have kiosks where passengers can print out their boarding passes and baggage tags themselves for free … or that passengers can just walk up to the check-in counter and hand over their identification without needing anything else … or that paper print-outs are an archaic hold over from another area of air travel, as this type of modernity and convenience would more than likely have cut into Wizz’s profit margin.
In all, at least 17 passengers out of the 60 or so that were on my flight got nailed for the extra 35 euro fee. People were angry. The check-in counters were awash in arguments. The people in line behind this continuous battleground were either filled with rage because they had to wait for so long, filled with apprehension that they were going to miss their flight, or filled with trepidation because they knew that they would be next to receive the dreaded slip.
Is this the experience that Wizz Air wants its passengers to have?
Wizz Air is bad. Real bad. A simple review of their reputation online turns up pages entitled Scam, Abusive, fraudulent airline, Wizz Air Baggage Check Scam, WizzAir, you don’t do business like that! :(, and even an entire website dedicated to sharing all the ways that Wizz Air sucks.
European budget airlines are an interesting breed. They act as if they are churn and burn businesses — they try to take as much money as they can for today as if they don’t expect to be around tomorrow. They don’t seem very interested in building a clientele, in keeping customers loyal, or providing an enjoyable flying experience. While the North American and Asian budget airlines can sometimes be slightly annoying to fly with, they don’t explicitly try to rip you off and are more often than not the best value.
Wizz Air doesn’t seem to get that air passengers have choices and that our final decisions are often based on experience: what happened the last time I flew with them? What have I heard other people say? Are they that airline I read that negative blog post about?
You have to kind of laugh at this scenario. You have these companies who presumably spend large amounts of money in advertising to get prospective passengers to feel good about their brand and what they offer and then these guys on the business end who completely sabotage these efforts by trying to scam a little extra money out of their customers. Now, when I see those billboards for Wizz showing happy, partying air passengers I’m not going to be able to hold back a scoff: those are the bastards who cheated me.
Each time Wizz scams a passenger they are essentially saying, “we never want you to fly our airline every again” and they often get what they apparently wish for.
We have to think for a moment about who really loses the most here. Sure, I’m out $180, but I’m a frequent flier who very regularly takes flights in Europe — where Wizz Air operates. Oftentimes, when I fly I’m buying full price fares for four passengers and I have three check-in bags. I’m a cash cow for airlines. If I wasn’t scammed out of that $180 I would probably happily fly with Wizz again and again and again. But now that’s simply not going to happen.
“The only thing that we can do is not fly their shitty airline ever again,” a fellow scammed passenger said as we waited in line together to pay the fee.
When I returned to the check-in counter I asked the lady working there if it was like this every night. She shyly looked away and nodded her head yes.