Budget Travel: When Anxiety Clashes With Frugality

germanwings-2 cnn screenshot

The recent crash of Germanwings 9525 shocked me into an anxiety spiral the way every plane crash does. I find flying to be a terrifying adventure; I don’t much like heights. While I know all about the physics that allow planes to safely surf the clouds, my brain still pictures a cartoon hand bouncing a toy plane around the sky, much like an adult does with a fork full of food, singing “Here comes the airplane!” to encourage their child to eat.

When planes fall out of the air I race to the internet to find out why. I paw through all of the stories featuring horrific imagery and even more horrific headline choices. (“PLANE OBLITERATED” isn’t exactly respectful to the families of victims, CNN.) I am looking for answers. I want the secret to avoiding the pain and suffering of losing a loved one in a crash, the trick to avoiding my own tragic end. I follow plane crash stories hoping to find an expert who will say, “Due to the velocity of their free-fall, all passengers would have lost consciousness before they even knew what was happening. They passed peacefully.”

As we now know, that was not the case with this particular accident, which was in fact not an accident at all. However, in the hours following the story breaking, as the news outlets were scraping the barrel for information when nothing was yet known, the fact they kept repeating was that Germanwings is a budget airline.

Presented with this angle, it is up to us the readers to put the facts together. At that time the facts were a) a plane crashed and b) it was a budget airline. The only logical conclusion to draw from that is that low-cost travel alternatives must not be safe. This is a neat and clean solution that gives nervous people like me something to cling to. My anxious mind took these facts and flashed back to a travel decision I made a few months ago.

Several months ago I booked a trip to Peru, including a domestic flight through the Andes on an airline that was $300 cheaper than my other options. I booked immediately, and second guessed my choice only after the fact, trying to find the catch. I read for hours about how this airline takes off in bad weather when other airlines are grounded, how the planes rattle for the duration of the flights, and—in the most offensive tones—that the cabins are decorated with a scheme that is straight out of the early 1980s.

Despite the airline’s clean safety record, I did not sleep for two nights. I often have a hard time rectifying my anxiety with my frugality. I agonized over my desire to scrimp on airfare and my willingness to put that savings ahead of my own perceived safety, and then I agonized further about how lucky I am to be having that kind of debate about vacation plans in the first place. Based on this assortment of glorified Yelp reviews from individuals just as qualified as I am to judge the safety rating of a passenger jet, my anxiety and I concluded that I had foolishly chalked up the sum worth of my life and health to be worth $300.

We live in a society where we depend on others to help keep us safe and healthy. We trust that our neighbors will report the smell of gas before the block explodes, or that cars will do something as simple as stop at a red light to let us cross the street on foot. There is both a freedom and a crippling fear that comes with examining this too closely. We must hope that the engineers designed a plane that can withstand any amount of stress, that the mechanics fully checked out the plane before each flight, that the air traffic controllers aren’t minimizing the impact of severe weather in order to prevent delays and angry passengers taking to Twitter to complain. There is little margin for error, and these individual professionals don’t get to have a rough day, fail to communicate, or just ignore a problem until it goes away.

Every day we are learning more about the circumstances that led to the Germanwings crash. News outlets are no longer listing the seat price tags as a fact from which we should conclude a root cause. With the latest facts in mind, as I boarded a plane last week, I couldn’t help but hope that everyone from TSA agents to the gate staff, and of course the in flight crew and pilots, were feeling confident and competent in their jobs and their lives that day.

I had no choice but to trust in strangers to take care of me and bring me safely to my destination, and just like the thousands of other planes all around the world that day, we made it. Similarly, I did not cancel my upcoming flight in Peru; I did not rebook with the fancier airline. I am sticking with my budget choice, 80’s decor and all. People my age with good backs, slim wallets, and even slimmer carry-ons have been keeping cost-conscious carriers like Ryanair in business for years, even while proclaiming that the plane’s wings are attached with duct tape and darkly joking that they might not make it to their destination. Meanwhile, seemingly senseless tragedies take down standard carriers like Malaysian Airlines: the ghosts of their misfortunes are hindering sales and forcing a corporate restructure.

I wish that it was as simple as asserting that spending $300 extra would guarantee my safety in the air, but the truth is I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Technical glitches happen, and humans make mistakes or bad decisions. Commuter rail conductors take corners too quickly, daredevils drink and drive, and inconsiderate fools text while behind the wheel. Accidents are terrifying; they remind us of our own mortality. We all think we are invincible until the moment that we aren’t, and facing that reality is sobering. While I look for something to help me cope with the randomness of tragedy, I find solace in knowing that no matter how I choose to spend money, there are some things I can never control.


Sarah Feldstein eagerly awaits apparition so that she can be free to travel the world without setting foot in an airport.



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