How Stelios killed xenophobia

As recently as the 1970s, the Continent was a place of disease, oversexed men and dodgy lavatories.

''Typical of the cartoonists' view of them," trumpets an old travel guide, "the majority of Frenchmen are short and dark." How quaintly 19th century, you might conclude. Yet this is the opening salvo of the chapter on France in a guidebook only 25 years old. The 1978 edition of the Travellers Survival Kit: Europe continues with the alarming revelation: "French lavatories can be very insanitary, and may well be of the stand-up-over-a-hole variety."

In 1978, foreigners began at Calais, and a rum bunch they were, too. "The control of the sale and consumption of alcohol is very lax," scolds the Survival Kit in the chapter on Austria.

That is the sort of dangerous Euro-decadence that parts of the UK press continue to rail against. But by taking advantage of cheap air and rail fares to go in search of freely available drink and dodgy plumbing (a perilous combination), the British traveller has subverted the anti-Europeans.

One reason that Europe seemed so scary for so long ("As with all southern countries, a cholera-typhoid jab is a wise precaution," warned the first Rough Guide to Portugal only 20 years ago) was because it was so darned difficult and expensive to reach. In 1978, simply to take cash abroad involved laborious, Soviet-style bureaucracy to deal with exchange-control regulations.

Having made it out of the UK, your problems were only just beginning: even to take a radio into Italy required a payment of 200 lire for a three-month licence. But this was probably safer than taking a girlfriend, because "Italian men believe that foreign women are promiscuous and legitimate prey".

At the time, Sir Freddie Laker's Skytrain had only just taken off between London and New York, while Jim Callaghan's Labour government was heading straight for the ground. And Stelios Haji-Ioannou, son of a shipping billionaire, was a 12-year-old growing up in Athens - capital of a nation where "while the women slave away fetching water, cooking and so on, the men will be sitting in cafes and playing with their worry beads".

Yet instead of waiting for the olives to ripen, young Stelios soon began to take business very seriously. At the London School of Economics, he combined his studies with working for his father's company. Then he decided to change the face of Europe.

Actually, all he really wanted to do was to get rich quick. With the vision of someone unacquainted with the airline industry, except as a traveller, Stelios could see European aviation was ineffective at delivering what the customer needed: readily available cheap flights. Using £5m borrowed from his father, he was able to launch easyJet's first overseas route just seven years ago, from Luton to Amsterdam - where, upon arrival, passengers could acquaint themselves with "a progressive, even amoral, younger generation".

For most of the first century of powered aviation, the traveller was expected to subsidise a hopelessly inefficient industry. Aviation grew as an adjunct to individual governments, a symbol of nationhood as crucial as a flag and an anthem - though considerably more expensive. Airlines were run for the benefit of staff and civil servants, who devised rules to exclude the ordinary traveller. British Airways and its foreign counterparts agreed fares and frequencies between them, at levels to suit their extravagant cost structures. They colluded on rules to make sure no carrier was able to demonstrate a competitive edge. On many routes shared by airlines, revenues were pooled, which meant there was no point in trying to outshine the opposition.

The message to the prospective air traveller was "take it or leave it". Mostly, we left it, because fares were far too high. We opted instead to hitch-hike, take the bus or stay at home. In 1980, the cheapest return fare on what was then the world's busiest international air route - between London and Paris - was around £70. This represented a week's wages for the average British employee. Today, if you book in advance on easyJet, the fare has fallen to as little as £50. Meanwhile, wages have risen to the point where Mr or Ms Average need work for barely half a day to earn enough for a trip to the French capital. Once there, they can test out the robustness of the 1978 assertion: "If you want to get on with French women, make out you are Irish or Scottish - they find this much more chic than English or American."

Across in Dublin, a chic young man named Michael O'Leary was beginning to do his bit to demystify Europe. His airline is Ryanair. Like easyJet, it has helped to sink the raft of tricky conditions imposed by airlines in a bid to extort the maximum possible fare from travellers. But with his obsession for driving down costs, O'Leary has taken the no-frills concept to a degree that nullifies many of the barriers within Europe. These days, it is often cheaper to fly on Ryanair from Stansted to Europe than to take a train from London to Manchester.

Sure, you may well be travelling to somewhere you didn't know you wanted to go: Haugesund, Groningen and Niederrhein are among the latest crop of improbable destinations. If you had always assumed Vasteras to be an unpleasant urinary infection, you can find out how wrong you were by paying a few pounds to fly to the city that Ryanair pretends is Stockholm. At least Vasteras is in the same nation as Stockholm; in the past, Ryanair has blurred the borders of Europe by describing the Swedish city of Malmo as Copenhagen, and marketing Perpignan in France as Barcelona.

Yet even as the frontiers melt away, travellers can observe that European unity has not weakened identities. In the 21st century, the Greeks are no less Greek, and the Germans are equally German. And cheap flights help to lay Neanderthal travellers' myths to rest: that "Greek men try to shower their affections on almost any woman"; and, in Germany, that "a barman with only ten tables is in trouble when his 11th customer walks in". Indeed, Neanderthal man himself is now available for scrutiny for a song, thanks to Ryanair's cheap flights to Dusseldorf - or at least a former RAF base not far from the German location where the proto-human was found.

For millions of British travellers, weekends away are becoming mystery tours that help to unravel the mysteries of Abroad, and nail the lie that Europe is an amorphous, malevolent alliance. Collectively, we are also showing that transport is a mere commodity that allows us to pursue the important business of relating to the rest of the world. "Sabena caters to bon vivants - people who enjoy good food, fine wines, good company," ran an ad for the now defunct Belgian national airline. These days, people enjoy cheap, unfettered travel, something that Sabena could not deliver.

"At Iberia, we feel flying should be a romantic experience. We also feel that nothing is more romantic than dining superbly high above the clouds." That slogan from the Spanish national airline is as outdated as the 1978 assertion that "smallpox, typhoid, poliomyelitis and cholera occasionally find their way over from North Africa" to Spain.

Some people in the traditional airline business have yet to grasp that what people are buying is not the dubious pleasure of sitting in an aluminium tube for a couple of hours, eating questionable food and sinking as much "free" alcohol as possible. Travellers are seeking the sensation of warm sand and cool sea; the scent of a strange Italian town; or the smile on the face of a loved one.

Europe remains just as complex as ever, but the single currency makes travelling much simpler. Twenty-one years ago, Alternative London was recommending some freelance fraud as the best way to stretch sterling: "English 2p pieces work in most French Space Invaders machines; 5p pieces work as 1DM in German vending machines." Those means of improving the exchange rate in the British traveller's favour no longer apply. But the ease of spending the surplus cash from last weekend in Dublin next week in Lisbon transcends any number of economic tests.

Sooner rather than later, the economic absurdity whereby aviation fuel is untaxed will end. Air fares will rise to reflect the environmental damage caused by those dozens of Boeings that open up Europe for us. Flying to Italy may once again cost more than a meal out at the local Italian restaurant. But by then even the most reactionary elements of the British press will have to accept that we are all Europeans now. We may be even less fluent at foreign languages, but we have acquired a new fluency of movement.

Yet one final riffle through the pages of the backpacker's guide reveals that some deep-rooted suspicions still linger. The 1978 Travellers' Survival Kit: Europe warns prospective visitors to Greece: "A recent well-publicised case involving British tourists indicates that care must be taken with plane-spotting, particularly where cameras are involved. A healthy interest is sometimes misconstrued as spying."

Simon Calder is travel editor of the Independent, and the author of No Frills: the truth behind the low-cost revolution in the skies (Virgin Books, £9.99)