The quest for cheap flights

Having worked in travel for about a million years, I have seen the industry gradually transform, from a thriving, fun and well paid sector, to a miserly industry dominated by call centres and unenthusiastic agents. For me, being a travel agent meant countless discounted travel opportunities, free upgrades and excess luggage – all I had to do was tell the counter clerk that I was a travel agent with such and such, and in more cases than not, I would get an upgrade and a free pass to the VIP lounge. A lot of these extras were extended to regular travellers too, who could additionally enjoy flexible tickets at a reasonable cost, which included drinks and meals on all flights, and they had the luxury of being able to reserve their seat prior to check in.

Nowadays, things have changed. Rising fuel costs, high airport taxes, the emergence of budget carriers and a global recession, has forced major airlines to keep a tighter rein on their profit margins. They have stopped paying travel agents commission and have introduced highly restricted tickets without luggage allowance, in attempting to lower the costs and compete with their no frills counterparts. Code share flights and inter-airline alliances are all part of the same initiative to keep expenditure to a minimum, while maintaining a foothold in the market. As a result, the options for travellers have increased. But so have the challenges in locating the best deal, since booking your flights is no longer a case of visiting a one-stop-shop.

There are a number of opportunities available to the budget conscious traveller. Below I have listed some general information to consider when conducting your search. Some of these are pretty obvious – “have flexible dates” – while others will only be known to those working in the industry or who otherwise have insider knowledge.

First off – be flexible! Yes, that’s right – certain dates are busier and so the lower fares are already taken up. If you have a few days to play with, it can reduce the cost of your ticket by a significant amount. For example, currently a one-way ticket from London Heathrow to Nice on 1 August 2013, is selling at EUR252, but the same flight a day earlier costs EUR182. This logic applies to avoiding high season – in August, European flights generally cost more. School holidays are busier periods, and sometimes, even weekend flights, particularly when it’s a bank holiday and a lot of people want to get away for the 3 day weekend.

If you are in a position to confirm your travel dates in advance, then take advantage of early saver fares. These are available to those who book a certain number of days/weeks prior to departure. Conversely, last minute deals can also save you money, but will leave you with far less choices and can be risky. This is best attempted with the help of a travel agent, who can monitor the flight and advice on your chances of getting a better fare or not.

It pays to choose your destination carefully. Do some research to see if there are any major events happening at the time you plan to be there. Trying to find a cheap flight to Rio during Carnival, is really a fruitless endeavour. But in some cases, by simply choosing an alternative airport, say, Newark instead of JFK, can make a big difference to the cost.

When searching for flights online, don’t just rely on Skyscanner or other fare comparison site. These websites get paid commission by the airlines they list and so will not include airlines and routes which they do not make money on. Look at individual airline websites. And search the net for low cost, lesser known, regional airlines. I regularly come across airlines I have never before encountered and I book dozens of tickets each day.

In addition to the various online booking tools available, seeking the assistance of travel agent can help you save money and spare you a lot of hassle. Good travel agents have expert knowledge of destinations, airline routes and fare rules. They can tell you if booking a return fare will work out cheaper than 2 one way tickets and they can combine airlines and fares such a way that can save you money. For instance, a route involving different airlines can sometimes be split in to 2 or even 3 separate tickets and cost less than issuing one ticket for the whole route. They can also advise you on things like fare rules, penalties for cancelations and changes and the most appropriate fare available for your particular needs.

Additionally, many travel agents have access to contact or private fares which are unavailable to the public. Consolidated fares are quite a complex subject, which I hope to cover in a future post, but the main point to note is that it’s possible to get such a – albeit, highly restricted – ticket for up to 50% less than what you would find it if you were to book direct with the airline.

Not all travel agents are experts and certainly not all agencies have access to contract rates, but if you find a good agent with the relevant skills and knowledge, it’s worth building a relationship with them. Once the know you and your requirements, they will be better able to advise you and they can keep you up to date on special offers you may not want to miss.

Finally, make the most of frequent flyer miles. There are countless opportunities to earn miles, but here is an article of the 5 Fastest Ways.

Do get in touch if you have any questions or comments!

Briefly: best and worst airlines when flying to the USA

I often receive airline feedback from clients – on comfort, quality of food and service. Here is a brief review of a few of the airlines flying to the USA.

The information is mostly compiled from reviews of travelers, flying economy on direct routes to/from JFK and LAX and major European, Asian, Middle Eastern and Australian airports.

United Airlines comes up frequently as very disappointing – aside from many delays, by far exceeding those reported on other airlines, the seating is cramped (as is the case with the majority of US airlines) the in-flight entertainment is poor and the service, as one client summarised, “is rubbish”.

On the plus side, it’s relatively inexpensive to upgrade to the next class on US carriers, and plenty of travellers choose United, Delta or American Airlines over their European counterparts, for this reason alone.

British Airways, Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia get consistently good comments on service, comfort, entertainment and catering. As does Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airways.

Best of the bunch are Air Canada with excellent service and professional crew and, somewhat surprisingly, China Southern Airlines – again with excellent service, food and new aircraft.

Tips for Hassle Free Air Travel

I’m not a big fan of flying. Each time I board a plane, I’m convinced that it will be my last. I imagine the plane crashing on to the side of a mountain/suddenly falling from the sky/inexplicably exploding mid-air. Yet these irrational thoughts never stopped me from flying. I even worked as a flight attendant briefly (a long time ago – worst job ever), just to experience the rush of take-off and the feeling I was going somewhere; anywhere.

Airlines are the most common mode of international transport, being the fastest, most convenient, and, yes, the safest. But air travel can also be very stressful for some. Good planning and organization are the keys to a hassle free journey and avoiding some of the more common headaches associated with flying. So here are some things to remember when you’re planning your next trip.

  1. Study the flight itinerary

Your travel agent or airline may neglect to tell you that the ‘direct’ flight you booked will be touching down at another airport, en-route to your chosen destination. In many cases this will add delays to your schedule, because of slow boarding/disembarking passengers or airport traffic causing delays with landing and take-off. So wherever possible, opt for a ‘non-stop’ flight.

  1. Have the appropriate documents

If you are transiting another country, in addition to your destination visa, always ensure that you have the relevant transit documentation. If you do not, you will almost certainly be refused boarding.

  1. Double check your routing

Travel agents are human and they make mistakes. So make sure yours has booked you to fly to the correct city and airport. There is nothing worse than arriving at Heathrow, when your airport pick-up is waiting for you at Gatwick. While this is not as annoying as ending up in San Juan, when actually you wanted to go to San Jose – Oh yes, I have seen it happen – it’s an unnecessary inconvenience nonetheless.

  1. Check your tickets

Make sure that the name you used to book your ticket is identical to the one in your passport. This will avoid the inevitable stress and delay, while you are trying to convince the check-in agent at Guangzhou airport that Dick and Richard are actually the same person.

  1. Reserve your seat

It’s not always possible to reserve a seat prior to check in, but if an airline allows it – usually 24hrs before departure – it’s worth booking your seat in advance, either via the airline’s website or through your travel agent. Some may find SeatGuru useful for this task – it’s a great source of information, containing configurations for almost all aircraft types and comments/tips from fellow travellers. So if you like to know exactly where you’re sitting in relation to the plane’s wings, toilets, galley etc. – or, like me, you tend to spend hours searching for non-essential info on the net – it’s definitely worth a look.

  1. Allow yourself enough transit time

When transiting another city and your first flight is delayed, you may well miss your onward flight, especially in large busy airports where security is tight. But even if you run like a lunatic through the terminal and manage to make it to the plane in time, your luggage might not. So play it safe and allow extra time for delays, since an extra hour’s lay-over is less traumatic than spending the first half your holiday wearing the same clothes or having to overnight at the airport, waiting for the next day’s connection.

  1. Be nice

Finally, this may seem obvious, but many people don’t realise that ground staff and flight attendants will be more cooperative if they are courteous and polite. So if you would like an exit seat or you forgot to pre-order your low calorie, lacto-ovo vegetarian meal, approach the relevant person and ask them if they can assist. They are not obliged to help you, and may well flatly refuse, if you adopt and entitled or aggressive attitude.