28 January 2010

Which airline for UK - Venice flights?

Easyjet, British Airways or Ryanair? Cost or comfort?

I fly frequently between London and Venice, with both budget and convenience as priorities. Here's some advice based on my experience:

Obviously flying from a UK airport which is convenient for your home will be important, and your choice of airline may be limited accordingly. I'll discuss the big three airlines below, but it's worth checking your regional airport schedules e.g. BMI Baby fly from East Midlands Airport to Venice.

From the London area you can choose between British Airways, Ryanair and Easyjet. (Alternatively, a new option flies from London City Airport but stops in Geneva en route, operated by an outfit called Baboo - read more).

British Airways fly to Venice Marco Polo from London Gatwick with a few additional flights from Heathrow. Easyjet also fly from London Gatwick to Venice Marco Polo; their terminal at Gatwick is more convenient for trains. Ryanair fly from London Stansted to Treviso, a bit further from Venice.

These three airlines all operate several flights a day, giving you a reasonable range of times to choose from.

British Airways - BA is still the most comfortable option, and it is my first choice. The atmosphere at the bag drop/check-in desks and at the departure gate is calm, with no tension or frantic queueing - and, it has to be said, frequently a quieter class of customer including business travellers and frequent flyers. BA's staff are helpful and polite, the seats are a bit more comfortable than the budget airlines and you get better treatment at the airports with better departure gates and easier aeroplane access. On board you will still receive a tiny snack and free drinks. There is often a fair bit of space on the plane.

BA's prices are actually very competitive on this route, especially considering that you can check in luggage free. Their website quotes you the full price with no sneaky extras, provided you pay with a debit card. Compare the difference between booking two single flights and a return, as the prices of the legs can vary. You can book a single from around £50. Keep an eye on the newspapers, as the threat of strikes is a disadvantage at present.

Easyjet - Like BA, Easyjet fly from Gatwick to Marco Polo, Venice's local airport. I would say they are the second most comfortable option. Sometimes their prices are good value, sometimes higher than BA. I only choose Easyjet when there is a significant saving to be made. Easyjet add on extras during the booking process, and you must pay for hold luggage. Their carry-on rules are slightly more generous than Ryanair, though you must still only bring one item. I pay for 'speedy boarding' if I have a flight case, as it means I can board first, choose a seat and stow my case in the overhead locker without fighting for space.

Ryanair - You can still sometimes pick up a true bargain with Ryanair, though you won't get an accurate price until you've progressed through all the extra charges they add on. The aeroplanes are cramped and the constant selling and their attitude to customers can be very irritating. However, I've found their flights quite reliable and if I find a very cheap offer, I will still fly with Ryanair. They fly from Stansted to Treviso, which is something to bear in mind (I'll discuss this below).

Which London Airport? This depends on your transport options. For me, Gatwick is cheaper to reach than Stansted, thanks to the First Capital Connect train service. Both the Gatwick Express and Stansted Express will add significantly to your journey cost, so consider the cost of reaching the airport as well as the price of the actual flight.

Which Venice airport? Venice Marco Polo is a 20-minute bus ride from Venice, with both express and regular city buses into Venice, costing €3 and €2 respectively. There are also ferries operating to different points in the historic centre. Venice Treviso is a 50-minute bus journey away, with ATVO buses meeting the flights at a cost of €9 return. Marco Polo is more convenient, and has a larger and better equipped terminal building. Treviso can get very uncomfortable, especially if there are several flights departing in a short space of time. I would suggest you book priority boarding for your return flight as Treviso's departure gates are cramped and queues are disorderly.

The biggest difference is in winter. Even if Ryanair flights to Treviso are cheap, I still have a preference for Easyjet/BA. The Venice area is prone to cold foggy weather, and in my experience Treviso flights are more likely to be cancelled (I believe this is because the airport has a short runway and less hi-tech equipment). If you're arriving, this could mean a diversion to somewhere miles away like Bergamo; if you're departing your flight will simply be cancelled. If - as happened to me before Christmas - you are struggling through the Veneto snow to reach the airport, Marco Polo is much more accessible.

I've had flights cancelled by each of these three airlines and wasn't particularly impressed by the customer service shown by any of them. British Airways are theoretically more contactable than cost-cutting Ryanair or Easyjet, but I've still had trouble getting through on the phone. All the airlines rebooked me on another flight free of charge; Easyjet were chaotic but finally sent some passengers to a hotel overnight (I recommend contacting them on Twitter in emergencies; BA were very charming when I did manage to get through on the phone.

To summarise: cost is the biggest factor and you should always compare their prices - sometimes BA is actually cheapest. Factor in associated travel costs and additional charges. And consider whether it is worth paying a bit more for perks like a more tranquil flight, or a better-equipped airport. Look at single as well as return flights. These are more flexible and you may find your cheapest option is - for example - to fly out to Venice with BA but back with Easyjet.

As a final comment, after years of low-cost flying, I try to avoid early morning flights (inconvenient travel to the airport, sleep disruption and - in the winter - more chance of bad weather delays). I also prefer not to take a late evening flight when onward travel is a problem (sometimes Ryanair flights deliver you to Stansted too late for the last train) or in the winter when there's a possibility ice or snow might cripple services. And of course it is much, much better to fly with hand luggage only. It's cheaper and saves you from lengthy queueing at check-in or bag-drop desks - you can just head straight through security with your online check-in printout. And if you wait till last, or pay for priority/speedy boarding, you won't have to queue at the departure gate either.

The good news is that Venice is wonderful all year round and that you can find return flights for £80 or less if you book in advance and shop around.

> Italy Heaven's guide to Venice
> Venice Marco Polo Airport
> Venice Treviso Airport
> British Airways
> Ryanair
> Easyjet
> UK - Italy flights

19 January 2010

Latest photos of Venice

It's cold and mostly grey in Venice, though there are bursts of sunshine and a pleasantly 'local' feel without all the tourists. The last few days have been atmospherically foggy.

Here's a selection of photos from this evening and the last few days.

Piazzetta di San Marco, nearly deserted at 7pm:

Three photos of a special blessing of animals outside the church of San Nicolo dei Mendicoli, on Sunday, the feast day of Sant'Antonio Abate, patron saint of domestic animals. Around 20 dogs and a handful of cats.

12 January 2010

Italy Heaven on Twitter

In the downtime after one of my recent snow-cancelled flights I signed up to Twitter and despite my doubts I've found it a useful tool for travellers. If you're already on Twitter you can follow Italy Heaven here: http://twitter.com/italyheaven. If you're not signed up, but you're curious, read on.

Twitter is a very basic means of communicating within a network of people. You can
1. Publish very short comments or status updates ('tweets') from your computer or mobile phone
2. 'Follow' other users - that is, read their tweets.

You don't need to contribute anything yourself in order to benefit from Twitter. Once you're signed up - it is free to use - you can search through the website finding people or businesses to 'follow'. You could find them through keyword or name searches, from their website or from lists created by other Twitter users.

When you log in to Twitter, your Twitter homepage will consist of a list of tweets from users you are following, in chronological order. By refreshing the page you can keep completely up-to-date with tweets.

Since joining Twitter I've found it very useful for keeping abreast of travel news, weather updates, airport closures and special events. Instead of visiting many different websites to find out the latest from BA, Gatwick, train companies etc, I simply need to check my Twitter page, which I can keep open on my computer. If you travel a lot, or are planning a holiday, this kind of service is very valuable. Italy isn't very well connected to Twitter yet, but you will still find some news websites and plenty of English-language Twitter users providing destination information.

My two big successes so far are:
1. getting through to Easyjet customer services from Venice Airport when all else failed (http://twitter.com/easyJetCare)
2. getting a bargain opera ticket in a special offer 'tweeted' by the Royal Opera House (http://twitter.com/RoyalOperaHouse)

Twitter is essentially very basic. Tweets are only up to 140 characters, and are public. There are conventions and techniques for more advanced use, if you wish to get more involved. You can offer or request information, make new contacts, chat with strangers, 'retweet' interesting posts... if you want to. Even if you don't want to interact, though, I'd still recommend it as a useful source of information. I wouldn't go so far as several newspapers, which have tried to plan holidays entirely on Twitter. But it is a good tool.

Italy Heaven tweets at the moment are mostly about new features on the website, to suggest off-the-beaten-track destinations, provide Italy travel updates, or simply comment on my own travels (lately mostly consisting of cancelled flights). Since I'm still trying out the feature, there may be more uses in the future. You can see my latest tweets in a feed at the foot of the Italy Heaven homepage, on this blog or at http://twitter.com/italyheaven. See my 'following' list for some useful Twitter profiles relevant to Italy / travel.

> Twitter
> Twitter can help you plan your holiday - Telegraph
> Twitter trip to Paris - Guardian
> Using Twitter for travel complaints - NYT

Seagull & pigeon armies of Venice

Venice is in a large lagoon with lots of interesting birdlife. But the birds we see most commonly in the town are the species with more irritating habits. Scrawny sparrows fly off with bits of your meal in their beaks. But the worst are the seagulls and pigeons. As I write this I am fighting a defensive battle with a combined squad of seagulls and pigeons who are attacking the rubbish (garbage) bag hanging on my front door.

In Venice the rubbish is collected by workers who are also responsible for installing high-tide walkways and distributing grit, so in adverse conditions the rubbish is the lowest priority. Rubbish collectors wheel handcarts around the streets, collecting rubbish bags put out by residents between 6am and 8am (a rule to keep the city tidy and deter rats and seagulls). Local people do their best to keep the rubbish out of reach of pests, but the birds are pesky and inventive. Around my doorway, the pigeons gather awaiting a seagull with long enough legs and a strong enough beak to peck at my rubbish bag. I hear the knocking noise, go to the door, chase the seagull and attendant pigeons away, try to tie the bag up a bit higher. A few minutes later they're back. If I'm not attentive my rubbish ends up strewn over the canalside; the seagulls pull the bags apart and the pigeons scavenge for leftovers.

One night, when I lived in a narrow lane, I was woken by the most bloodcurling screams I'd ever heard. It was a young seagull pulling a rubbish bag apart; I understood then why we're not supposed to put rubbish out overnight - the neighbour who was responsible emerged guiltily at dawn to sweep up their litter. The wider lanes and canalsides are worst - there is room for seagulls to fly down and manoeuvre.

For a while I tried remonstrating with a neighbour who blithely throws bread down to wheeling seagulls from her first floor window. This is, quite reasonably, against the local laws (which now even ban pigeon-feeding in St. Mark's Square) as it encourages the litter-strewing nuisance and is hardly good for the birds. I gave up; she obviously loves attracting the birds which are a nuisance for ground-floor dwellers. Now it's back to getting up early, putting out the rubbish, and listening out, at the ready to defend it from winged marauders. Venice is a lovely place to live but it does have its inconveniences.