Owen Scott survives the humiliation at 'loony' airport but is unable to breathe a sigh of relief.
Europe is famous for its cut-price, short-haul travel. EasyJet and Ryanair are the doyens.
If you book far enough in advance, the fares can be absurdly cheap. But, as I recently found, there are trade-offs.
Cut price is a whole different way of travelling, with the pitfalls less to do with the flying, more to do with the airports.
I had booked to fly to Portugal with easyJet. On a previous occasion I'd left from Gatwick.
This time it was from Luton, one of London's other satellite airports. Never again. I would rather swim the Channel and walk. For me, the name Luton is now synonymous with loony. Luton is under major refurbishment, which means passengers are subjected to unspeakable humiliation — herded like cattle and housed in conditions little better than wartime Nissen huts.
First off, security. It was like moving through a giant sheep dip. You have to strip off to the bare essentials and throw all your worldly goods on to trays which hurtle, luge-like, along conveyor belts at terrifying speed. This was a nightmare version of Rainbow's End — which is tautological, I know. Apart from breathlessly trying to keep up with my assortment of trays, I seemed to escape major scrutiny from the surly-looking security officials. Then one spotted my mystified scowl and decided I was a terrorist. In my mind's eye, I heard the eye-watering thwack of rubber gloves and braced myself for an intervention. But, my state of virtual undress was my trump card; I was the only tattoo virgin on display in the entire sheep dip. A very rare specimen indeed. A more obvious terrorist — with full body art and piercings — attracted the guard's attention and I was spared the rubber-glove treatment. Relieved, I raced off in search of my receding trays.
More horror was to come though. The departure lounge area was a mystifying oblong of temperature extremes. At one end the Sahara, at the other, Siberia. Naturally, most people congregated at the Saharan end, where a mass of humanity circled food stalls and sluiced themselves at pit stops dispensing beer in hosepipe torrents. The food stalls had fancy sounding foreign names, but sold almost exactly the same products — wraps, sandwiches and health bars, which were little more than sugar-soaked floor scrapings from a muesli factory.
Scores of people stood before the electronic information panel looking for their boarding gate.
Next to my flight it said: "Flight delayed, check for more information on the easyJet app." I hadn't downloaded the effing app. And didn't want to. The internet access, in any case, made dial-up seem like light speed. And, besides, those who did did try to download the app, were obliged to divulge eye-wateringly personal details about themselves. I wanted to keep my scrabble-playing habit a secret.
Seating was scarce. I saw a space on a bench and outsprinted an 80-year-old.
Triumphantly catching my breath, I warded off the ninja-like strokeplay of the octogenarian's stick. An Eastern European youth seated next to me cheerfully began singing an ethnic song in fractions of tones unfamiliar to the Western ear, while jiggling vigorously on our shared perch. I'd taken out a mortgage on this bum-patch so decided to endure the vibro-bench treatment until my bladder signalled an accident might be imminent and it was time to brave the queues for the loos.
Finally, on the plane, I was delighted to see I'd been allocated an aisle seat. Revelling in my good luck, I waited patiently for two unknown fellow passengers to seat themselves. I looked down the plane and spotted two behemoths steaming my way. Please God, NO.
Silently and desperately, I intoned every snippet of a distant prayer I might have uttered in my youth, hoping it would provide me with a force field of protection from possible asphyxiation. But I knew prayer was futile. I'm the person in supermarkets fatally drawn to the trainee-cashier check-out.
Sure enough, the behemoths soon dwarfed me, gesturing towards the two other seats in our row. Manoeuvring themselves into the space, with the grace of ballet-dancing hippopotami, I observed once they were settled my seat mysteriously seemed to have disappeared. All that remained was a mere sliver of runway for me to attempt to land my relatively modest backside. With a sideways motion, and considerable skill, I managed to touch down with just one cheek, as if landing in a crosswind. Meanwhile my companions proceeded to order two sets of seatbelt extensions from a flight attendant, while I attempted to find mine.
In the following two-and-a-half hours, my companions cheerfully chomped their way through a quantity of "cookies" (why have biscuits suddenly become cookies?) and a large tube of Pringles, washing the lot down with a series of Bacardis and coke.
Such are the joys of European budget travel.
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