The Young family’s annual summer holiday could not have got off to a poorer start, thanks to Ryanair. As veteran customers of the budget airline will know, you have to jump through an endless number of hoops beforehand to avoid having to pay punitive fees at the airport. In fact, the cost of failing to navigate the advance check-in website correctly is so high, ‘fees’ is the wrong word. Fines, more like. Fees are what you have to pony up in order to avoid paying the fines, since checking in is far from free.
Anyway, Caroline got one thing wrong in spite of peering at Ryanair’s website for at least two hours the night before, debit card in hand. So we got hit with a hefty fine at Stansted airport for not having already checked in our second piece of baggage. The check-in clerk agreed that the system was so absurdly overcomplicated that it had clearly been designed to trip people up — and then merrily transferred the remainder of our life savings to her employer.
But that was the least of it. Caroline had also rented a car via Ryanair’s car-hire ‘concierge’ service — a seven-seater at a cost of almost £700. I thought that was a tad excessive, but Caroline had been assured it was cheaper than doing it at our destination, as well as more convenient. Not unreasonably, therefore, we arrived at the Budget desk at Milan airport expecting to be handed the keys to our Ford Galaxy without too much fuss.
Turned out, we couldn’t drive away until we’d put down a €5,000 deposit. Weirdly, Ryanair hadn’t mentioned that. Caroline forked over her debit card, but that was no good. Had to be a credit card. I duly handed the desk clerk my Barclaycard, but that was no good either. The credit card had to be in the name of the person who’d rented the car. OK, fine, I said. Just change the name on the rental agreement to mine.
In response, the clerk looked at me as if I’d just suggested she strip naked and dance a jig on the counter. Was I completely insane? She couldn’t possibly do anything as irregular as that. No, if we wanted to drive the car away, Caroline would have to call Ryanair and persuade them to insert my name on the rental agreement instead of hers.
It was 8 p.m. at this point and our four children were taking it in turns to tell us how hungry they were, but there was no alternative. So Caroline called Ryanair and waited 45 minutes for the phone to be answered. When she got through, she was told by the ‘concierge’ that he couldn’t switch the names because the rental period had already begun, but he could cancel the booking and refund the cost of hiring the car minus an ‘administration fee’ of €130. Fine, Caroline said. But won’t we then be stranded at the airport? Not necessarily, he replied. He could hire another car for us from another rental agency in my name so I could put the deposit on my credit card. Caroline agreed to that, only to then be told that there were no other seven-seaters available. Did he want her to rent two five-seaters instead? OK, but wouldn’t one of them have to be in her name and, if so, wouldn’t the same problem recur? Not if he could find an agency that would agree to put the deposit on her debit card, he said.
Eventually, he found one — Centauro. On the downside, it was about a mile away and we’d have to walk there carrying all our luggage. But at this point anything seemed preferable to remaining in the hellish airport.
Needless to say, when we got there, it turned out the ‘concierge’ had only rented one car, not two — a Fiat Tipo. Did they have any other cars available? Not tonight, Josephine. OK, I said. We’ll just have to squeeze in.
Luckily, Caroline and the children had collapsed on a bench outside Centauro’s HQ — it was in some godforsaken industrial estate — so the desk clerk wasn’t able to do a head count. I texted Caroline, telling her to keep the kids out of sight, and ploughed on. In the end, we made it to our Airbnb on Lake Como — but it was after midnight and we’d driven for almost two hours with four children crammed into the back seat. They were not happy bunnies. Things could only get better from here.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.