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Cheap fares fuel passion for trips abroad

Flights as cheap as bus fares are changing the rhythm of European life with weekends away sometimes more economical than staying in one's home country.
Marc Burridge, a British engineer forced by friends to dress up, and his friends headed off to Bratislava, Slovakia for his bachelor party. Cheap airfares in Europe have made trips like this one possible for hundreds of thousands of Europeans.
Marc Burridge, a British engineer forced by friends to dress up, and his friends headed off to Bratislava, Slovakia for his bachelor party. Cheap airfares in Europe have made trips like this one possible for hundreds of thousands of Europeans.Mary Jordan / Washington Post file
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Marc Burridge was wearing his trousers again, no longer dressed in the platinum blonde wig, orange skirt and black fishnet stockings that he wore on the flight over from London. But the ruby-red nail polish, another part of his costume for his weekend bachelor party, was still visible as he curled his fingers around a Glock handgun and started firing.

"We certainly couldn't do this at home," said Burridge, 32, a British engineer, as he stood at a snow-covered shooting range just west of this Slovakian city near the Austrian border. Doing things they couldn't do at home -- handguns are banned in Britain and fishnets for men are frowned upon -- is part of the reason Burridge and his eight friends came to this city along the Danube. But the main reason is price: The two-hour flight from London can cost less than $40 roundtrip.

"Cheap flights have opened up all these places to us," Burridge said. "The prices are so low that it can be more expensive to stay home." He noted that a pint of beer in Bratislava costs $1, compared with $5 in England, so the weekend's savings on beer alone could maybe pay for his airline ticket.

Flights as cheap as bus fares are changing the rhythm of European life. Growing numbers of Europeans are buying second homes in other countries because they can afford to travel to them frequently, creating building booms along seasides from Croatia to Portugal. Low airfares have also given rise to Euro commuters -- the increasing numbers of people who work in one country and spend weekends with their families in another.

Some Britons are flying to Hungary, which has become a hub for good-quality, affordable dental care, and finding the bill for a crown and the airfare is less than a trip to a private dentist at home.

Above all, cheap flights have redefined the European weekend. Some off-peak tickets are now offered for $25 on popular routes such as London to Salzburg, Glasgow to Paris and Dublin to Valencia. Millions of people, especially in Britain, Ireland and Germany, now fly off for what are called weekend "city breaks" in other countries as often as they once drove to the nearest coast or lake.

'Democratized flying'
Ryanair, the largest European low-cost carrier, said it carried 35 million passengers last year, up from 7 million in 2000. Another low-fare giant, easyJet, ferried 30 million people, up from 6 million in 2000.

"It has democratized flying," said Stephen Hogan, spokesman for the Brussels-based Airports Council International, who said a flight from Dublin to Paris in the mid-1990s cost about $600 if booked in advance. It now costs as little as about $50. "It makes the dream of Europe possible -- the free movement of people within countries."

Of course, some people wish many of these travelers would stay home. Pubs in Dublin, once overrun with Britons throwing stag parties, are now banning rowdy groups of binge-drinking British men. Barcelona, another favorite destination, is cracking down with new fines on disorderly drunken behavior. Some villagers in France and Spain say they preferred life before the invasion of English-speaking property owners.

The cheap flight era was greatly aided by the creation of the single European market for air transport at the end of the 1990s. European carriers obtained practically unlimited freedom to choose their routes, capacity, schedules and fares, said Jan Skeels, secretary general of the European Low Fares Airline Association.

As national governments cut back on protections for their state airlines, affordable air travel really boomed after 2000. And while some analysts predict that rising fuel prices will soon end the party, airlines disagree, saying they are already discussing ways to keep it going by turning profits on new services such as in-flight mobile phones and gambling.

Airlines also keep fares lower by flying short distances -- generally never more than 2 1/2 hours -- to fill the same seat several times a day. They also use secondary or regional airports.

The cheap-flights craze has critics. Many say the publicized fares -- often advertised for literally a few dollars -- are deceptive because they don't include considerable taxes and fees. The least expensive flights tend to leave around 6 a.m., and hour-long bus rides to outlying airports at that hour can dim the appeal. These carriers also have minimal staff and rely on online booking; they often charge per-minute rates to talk to an airline employee by phone. And a growing chorus is saying emissions from increased air traffic are harmful to the environment.

But the boom goes on, especially in the 10 countries -- including Slovakia -- that joined the European Union in 2004. In the first year after Slovakia joined, air passenger traffic to Bratislava soared by more than 70 percent, bringing in hundreds of thousands of new travelers, airport officials said.

Cheaper to leave London
One recent Friday afternoon at Stansted Airport, 35 miles north of London, Louise Ashford, 19, a British college student in the check-in line for a Ryanair flight to Bratislava, said she was going because "it was the most interesting cheap flight I could find."

Ashford said she had visited Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Nice and Malaga, and read on the Internet that Bratislava -- in a country that was part of the Soviet bloc until 1989 -- "has cool architecture."

As she walked onto a Boeing 737 jet, four of her male friends practiced saying, " S tyri piva " -- Slovak for "four beers." Edd Claringbold, a zoology student at Nottingham University, said he could easily spend $180 on a night out in London, and that was his total budget for the long weekend in Bratislava -- flights, $1 beers and $10-a-night hostel included.

"It's cheaper to fly out of London than to stay in London," agreed Ashford, settling into a seat -- there are no seat assignments -- in Row 27. "We are saving money by going abroad."

Ten rows ahead, Rozario Chivers and his girlfriend, Jenny Savander, were also eagerly awaiting their first night in Bratislava. "I don't know much about the city. A friend of a friend said it was good, and so off we go," said Chivers, 35, a Web site designer. With $72 roundtrip tickets, he said, he thought it was certainly worth a long weekend.

Bratislava, which was part the former Czechoslovakia until 1993, has a small, charming city center with grand, centuries-old buildings, an ancient stone castle and new high-end restaurants with white-linen tablecloths. Mayor Andrej Durkovsky said that a couple of years ago tourists were typically "senior age tourists mostly from German-speaking countries coming here by boat" and leaving the same day. But now, he said, the city, and particularly its hotels and restaurants, are "cashing in" on planeloads of tourists who "are discovering Bratislava, putting it literally on the international map."

Barbara Lisa is among the locals who started a company in response. She runs Stag Bratislava, which caters to the fast-growing custom of British men going abroad for bachelor parties. She arranged weekends for 2,000 of them last year and estimates that several thousand more booked through other tourist companies. The men in one memorable group dressed as Superman, Batman and other comic book superheroes.

"This is very good for Bratislava," said Lisa, who expressed confidence that Burridge and his good-natured friends will get the word out about her city. Right now, she said, many foreigners can't locate it on a map: "When I would say I am from Slovakia, people would say, 'Czechoslovakia? Yugoslavia?' "

On the weekend Burridge and his friends were in town, Lisa and her cadre of female guides shepherded five groups of British men who picked from activities ranging from "steak dinner with stripper" to driving a Soviet-era tank. Burridge's group decided to go to a shooting range where they fired Glocks and Scorpion submachine guns. After shooting, they raced go-karts and, between beers, chatted about how much fun it was to be spending a weekend 800 miles from home.

That night, Burridge was dressed as a woman again and his friends each wore dramatic black wigs for a trip to Charlie's disco, because, as one explained, "We all have to look foolish."

Burridge, who was born in Wales, where there are more sheep than people, was ordered to carry an inflatable sheep around for the night.

Even though Charlie's was dimly lit, the locals eyed them up and down as they ordered vodka drinks. "It's about fun and doing things you won't do again," said Burridge, his blonde wig slightly askew.

The next morning, as he headed to the airport for the flight home, he said he was a bit under the weather. But, he said, "I want to get married after this."