Monday, October 17, 2011

VivaAerobus: Greyhound with Wings?

(Mexico City) -- What do you do when the cheapest option (for a product or service) is the one that you dread the most, the one you fear is the worst from a quality/service perspective? Do you still go for it? Or do you pay more for what you perceive to be the better quality service?

That's the dilemma I faced when preparing for an short excursion to the popular surfing town of Puerto Escondido, located on the Oaxaca coast in southern Mexico.

I had four options:

1. Aeromar, a small regional airline that flies an unusual brand of turboprops. Cost: $460
2. Low-cost airline Interjet, flying on an Airbus A320 to nearby Huatulco. Cost: $185
3. Autobuses ADO, resulting in a trip of some 14 hours each way. Cost: $110
4. Ultra-low-cost airline VivaAerobus, flying a Boeing 737 to Huatulco. Cost: $100

(Note: Figures in USD, for round-trip travel from Mexico City.)

So the winner was VivaAerobus. They do fly direct to the Puerto Escondido airport, but in my case, the Huatulco airport offered better schedules and fares. This meant a 1.5 hour bus ride from the airport to Puerto Escondido, adding a whopping $3.50 to my bill.  Whatever.

(Side note: Who in their right mind would fly Aeromar on purpose? Their fares are atrociously high, and riding in an Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 is always preferable to a bumpy ride on a cramped turboprop.)

So, if VivaAerobus is the clear winner (based on price and travel time), why was I hesitant to fly them?

Because I've heard quite a few negative stories from others who've had bad experiences with the airline. Good stories? The only one I'd heard was from a friend who said, “Yeah I flew with them once. It was cheap. It was ok.” Quite the rave review.

Viva has been described as “RyanAir Mexico”. Or as I prefer to put it, “Greyhound with Wings.”

For the record, either term is more accurate than you may think.

The Ryan family of Ireland (founders of RyanAir) do indeed own a significant chunk of VivaAerobus (their consortium, RyanMex, holds 49% of the company). So of course, it IS modeled after RyanAir, with fees for everything you can imagine. And a lot of things you can't even imagine.

On the other side of the ownership is Mexican bus conglomerate IAMSA (operators of ETN and Primera Plus, among other brands), holding the remaining 51%. In that regard alone, my Greyhound comparison isn't far off the mark.

They're a no-frills airline.  Their aim is to get you from point A to point B. And make money at it. Period.  Nothing fancy.  Just like Greyhound.

So, my hesitancy aside, I thought I'd take a chance and book a ticket. I was very curious about this upstart no-frills airline (founded in Monterrey in 2006), and did want to try them out at some point anyway.

The airline currently flies to 27 destinations throughout Mexico, with connections to six U.S. cities (Chicago, Houston, San Antonio, Miami, Orlando, and Las Vegas).

The Booking Process

Booking a flight on Viva is generally done via their website. At least, you'll want to do that, otherwise you'll have to pay a fee to talk to a customer service agent.

More tips: Read each page carefully when booking, or you could end up paying much more than you need to pay. There are a number of extra fees that you may accidentally pay if you're not careful.

If you're going to check a bag, be sure to add that option during the booking process, adding 100 pesos (USD $8) to your cost. If, on the other hand, you wait until the airport to tell them you're checking a bag, you'll pay a penalty of 480 pesos (USD$40)!

When booking, you have two payment options: Payment in full (by credit card, or in cash at any Banamex branch or Oxxo convenience store), or payment in installments (three or six payments, if you're a credit card holder at a Mexican bank).

“But surely I'll have to pay interest on those installments,” you may be asking yourself. Well fear not! Viva says there's “no interest” on their payment plans. That's right! Um … but did I mention that instead of interest, you'll pay an extra administrative fee instead? Yup.

On top of this, you may also find yourself paying for a fee to line up at the airport, for insurance, for emergency medical service, for text message notifications, etc. These fees CAN be avoided, so long as you uncheck the appropriate boxes when making your booking.

Two fees you cannot escape, however, are their “electronic payment fee” (even if paying cash!) and their “airport documentation fee”.

At the Airport

On the positive side, I found their check-in process to be problem free.

Boarding the plane itself was a bit like a cattle call, though. The “herd” all made a rush to line up even when it clearly was not their turn to board (Viva boards people in groups, first those who pay for VIP service, then those needing special assistance, then groups 1, 2, 3, and 4). I don't fault the airline for the behavior of the passengers – I fault the inability (or unwillingness) of a large number of those people to listen to the boarding announcements.

So though I found myself questioning the intelligence of some of my fellow passengers, I was however impressed with how quickly the plane filled up. As seats are not assigned, the sooner you get on the plane, the more choice of seats you have – or so I thought.

But when I boarded, a flight attendant had us take the first available seat. So, the plane filled up from front to back. Given that this was a short flight (one hour and ten minutes), I really didn't care where I sat anyway, so no big deal.

And you know what? This was the most efficient boarding process I've ever seen. Everyone was seated in no time at all. Normally, I end up waiting for a number of people who take their sweet time, as though they can't figure out where their seat is. They hog the aisle rather than getting out of my way and taking their seats like their supposed to do.

On Board

You won't find free snacks or beverages on board, but there is a full menu available – for a cost, of course. This is a key way the airline makes money.

Though the flight attendants didn't have anything free to offer me, they were pleasant and friendly.


In the end, Viva got me to my destination, on time and without any problems. And my return flight was similarly uneventful.

Greyhound with wings? Not a bad description.

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