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The key to flying smart

Getting the cheapest fares is just the beginning. Here's how you can snag perfect seats, premium service and a rewarding experience.

Print Edition: February 19, 2009

Yes, yes, we know taxes mean that even the cheapest Rs 9 fare works out to around Rs 2,000. But when everything else is costing the earth, it's good to see such down-to-earth fares, isn't it? Things are only going to get better. The industry consensus is that this year will see air fares come down significantly, courtesy lower aviation fuel prices and bottomed-out demand.

According to Dhruv Shringi, CEO and co-founder, yatra.com: "Lower air fares are here to stay, for this year at least. To get the volumes, fares have to be in the Rs 3,000-3,500 range, and that is starting to happen. Also, in 2009, we will see surcharges being lowered and extra taxes being waived." The Rs 200-400 shaved off the fuel surcharge, the pruning of base fares by 20-80% and a free or discounted in-flight menu on even the no-frills airlines make for excellent news. You can maximise these gains by following this comprehensive guide to flying smart.

Early bird advantage

SpiceJet: Advance fares starting at Rs 99
Jetlite: Apex fares starting at Rs 9
IndiGo Airlines: Fly for Re 1 onwards
Jet Airways: 21-day apex fares from Rs 250

There are travellers who swear that last-minute booking gets you the best deal. Experts, however, disagree. They say that with airlines restarting the zero fare concept, it pays to book early. Airlines offer a better deal to early birds-apex or advance purchase fares in industryspeak- because it helps them to manage their inventories better.

Says Vikas Jawa, director, zoomtra.com, a travel search engine: "If airlines were to lower fares just before flight time, there would be a flood of people at the last minute. But airlines need an accurate estimate of the number of people and amount of baggage on a flight so that they can load the proper amount of fuel, meals and beverages. Hence, booking early is beneficial for both the airlines and the passengers."

In fact, if you book late, you may have to shell out a higher price. Says Michael Burke, general manager, Virgin Atlantic India: "Last-minute bookings typically end up increasing your total costs." That's not to say that you'll never get a good deal on a last-minute booking. It's a gamble and you can lose if the load factor of the flight is good. An impromptu survey conclusively puts this debate to rest. MONEY TODAY trawled five leading travel portals to compare the same-day travel fares of all available airlines with apex fares 21 days later. Here's what we found:

  1. The same-day fares can be up to five times higher than the apex fares. For instance, the 8.30 p.m. Jet flight from Delhi to Mumbai cost Rs 16,700 when booked the same day, Rs 9,262 when booked a day in advance, and just Rs 3,325 a month earlier. However, this is only true for the full-service carriers. The low-cost carriers, with the exception of Kingfisher Red, do not post price fluctuations.
  2. The fares vary greatly from portal to portal. Part of the reason is that the applicable taxes and surcharges vary. Some online facilitators also charge an additional transaction fee, unlike the metasearch engines like Zoomtra (an infomediary, not an intermediary), which, therefore, posts cheaper fares.
  3. Not all portals list every available flight. So you might miss out on a great fare if you limit your research to just one portal.
  4. The first portals that spring to mind, like MakeMyTrip, do not necessarily offer the cheapest fares. In fact, it's the much smaller Travelguru that consistently threw up the lowest fares in the survey.

The right booking channel

Today, airlines often reserve their best deals and latest promotions for their own Websites. But, as Sameer Patil, head, marketing, arzoo.com, says, "An airline's Website will show only its own flights, whereas a travel facilitator gives you a much greater choice, allowing you to compare and book the cheapest and most convenient flight." In addition, travel facilitators offer several flexible payment options that an airline does not, ranging from payment pick-up from your doorstep to booking an international flight well in advance by paying25% of the fare and giving the rest in instalments, at no additional cost, right till the day before you board your flight. If you book through an airline, your payment options are limited to credit cards, debit cards and prepaid cards.

But, as the fare survey reveals, an airline's Website will usually quote the lowest fare. This price difference can range from as little as Rs 94 to nearly Rs 700, depending on the airline and flight timing. It's a good idea to use travel portals to research flights, but book directly with the airline. Here, a metasearch engine scores over the traditional portals; they constantly update fares from various sources but let you pay directly on airline sites. If you have a preferred airline, you can save time by directly visiting its Website. This is also the surest way to bag the seat of your choice.

Picking the best seat

The ideal way to get the perfect seat for the lowest possible fare is to sweet-talk your way into a free upgrade. Though Burke maintains that "there's no harm in trying since you never know where your quick wit and personality might take you", most industry insiders tell you to save your breath. One reason, says Amit Kapoor, AVP, business development (leisure), Travelguru, is that airlines usually offer seat upgrades only if their economy class is overbooked and there's room in the business class. "But here they always give preference to frequent fliers," he says. The only other scenario where you can bag a free upgrade, according to Noel Swain, vice-president, marketing and supplier relations, Cleartrip, is if there is a "service issue that the airline needs to compensate you for".

If you are a garden-variety traveller, as most of us tend to be, you need to rely on smart planning. Figure out the seats to avoid and the ones that offer most leg-room, and begin your search at seatguru.com. It offers comparison charts for six leading Indian carriers, with all the details you need. Typically, the best seats to gun for are the bulkhead seats, which are located directly behind the partition separating the economy and premier classes.

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