Understanding and using cheap airfares

The search for good deals and promotions to pay less for your plane ticket is a national sport for many frequent flyers and a subject for everyone if I believe the audience figures of our good deals.

But there are good deals and good deals, real and fake good deals and most often the better the deal the more potentially risky it is.

We will try to see a little more clear. As this article is quite long, here is a quick summary for those who know a little about the subject and would like to go directly to the section that interests them.

Airline promotions: not always that interesting.

Let’s start with the simplest: special offers As in any industry, an airline that has unsold stock will run special offers. But the promotion can also be used to “launch” a new destination, a product, to mark the occasion of an event or to cope with the seasonality of sales.

Typically, Oman Air’s traditional spring special offers aim to raise awareness of the airline, which suffers from an image deficit compared to neighboring Gulf Sisters.

On Valentine’s Day we often see “duos offers” with discounts for people traveling together.

Of course, sales, Black Friday, etc. are periods with special offers.

From our experience,some specials offers are worth it et some aren’t. Oman Air’s are generally very good. There are ofteninteresting deals on the summer deals on business class with Air France but the deals offered during the rest of the year on La Première or in business make us laugh more than anything else. Not interesting enough, in our opinion, to make an economy passenger with the means to try the upper class, nor to be a trigger for impulse buying.

In short there is to take and to leave, one will logically save more on a business ticket than on the economy(20% of 500€ it will always be less important than 20% of 3000…). The advantage of promotions is that they are not difficult to find as the airlines communicate on them…although they have a little difficulty to get out of the business/tourist segmentation which wants the businessman to travel in business and the tourist in economy. Today we find many businessmen in eco and many tourists in business on certain lines and the offers do not land in the mailbox of the right people.

Companion fares

The principle of the duo offers or “companion fare” isto offer a nice discount on a business class or first class ticket…on the condition that you travel in pairs and therefore buy two. No need to be in couple, don’t worry.

You will soon see, among others at Air France which is used to it, business class promotions for the summer vacations, especially to the United States. Why?It’s the summer vacations, businessmen are traveling less and business classes are empty.

Air France also uses sometimes duos offers to sell the two central seats of its La Première class, the “solo” passengers preferring to avoid them and to take advantage of the window suites.

Lufthansa also often offers “companion fares” in the spring to fill its front classes during the summer and in general they are very interesting.

This is becoming more and more common practicefor more and more airlines. Are they interesting?

Frankly I’m still doubtful about Air France fares but on the other hand I’ve already seen very good deals on other airlines. For example a First Lufthansa to Beijing (ok we had to leave from Manchester…) at 1700£ per person…so almost two tickets for the price of one in normal time!

The “market fare”, the fair of hidden bargains

You may have noticed in our “good deals” that often you have to go and find your flight in a “secondary” city or country and/or have a connection.

Here it is not a matter of special offer, it is in a logic of pricing and marketing.

An airline may decide to focus on a city, a country or a geographical area to capture a higher share of passengers.

Why do this?

For example, when the local airline or airlines offer few destinations or few flights, there are plenty of orphaned passengers looking for an airline to take them where they want to go. This is why many airlines, including Air France, are aggressive on departures from Brussels: given the limitations of the Brussels Airlines offer, the Belgian traveler is a good target because in most cases his “national” airline (Brussels Airlines, heir of the former Sabena, is owned by the Lufthansa Group) cannot take him where he wants.

Same logic on Qatar Airways fares that I shared this Tuesday. The ticket remains expensive from Paris, which means that the Qatari airline fills its flights well from Charles de Gaulle, a destination from which it also faces strong competition, but the prices from Zagreb, Stockholm, Gothenburg or Oslo show that there are many “orphan passengers” in these cities whose needs are not met by the local airlines. Logical when you know SAS or Croatia Airlines’ network. The other airlines try to attract these passengers andthe one that manages to position itself as cheaper than all the others wins the customers.

In medium and long haul, the Lufthansa group through Lufthansa and Swiss has decided to be very aggressive on French business customers. From Paris, depending on how much time you take in advance, all of Europe (or almost) is available for more or less 500 euros in business, even 400 or 300 when Air France is used to be 200 to 500 euros more expensive. Moreover, it seems to me that Air France has recently been trying to counter this offensive, but without going so far as to align itself with Swiss or Lufthansa fares. Why is this? Maybe their cost structure prevents them from doing so, or maybe they think that the passenger is willing to pay 100 or 200 euros more for a direct flight and avoid a connection in Frankfurt, Munich or Zurich, which is not illogical.

In long haul to Asia Lufthansa offers first (I said first) around 3600€ to Singapore from Paris, Swiss offers Dubai in business for 1200€ almost all year long.

But rest assured, Air France-KLM does exactly the same. I remember a trip to Vietnam that I took from London (via Amsterdam and Bangkok on the way out, Canton and Paris on the way back), another one to Tokyo from Brussels (via Paris) or Dubai from Brussels where the fact of not departing from Paris (even if I took the same flight on the long-haul part) made me save from 1000 to 2000 euros in business class each time. Air France also knows how to be aggressive on flights from Germany or Spain. At this price it is worth adding 200 euros to get to the airport of departure.

The irony is that often a passenger who does not want to go abroad to find a flight that brings him back home and then take the long-haul flight he wanted to take will often have a financial interest in traveling on an airline competing with his favorite national airline. You will see many French on Lufthansa and Germans on Air France, each finding their national airline too expensive.

And then you have the limited time market fare, almost Siamese brother of the special offer like this offensive of the OneWorld airlines on Amsterdam a few weeks ago : a geographically localized operation over a 24-hour period which allowed to have business class tickets to many cities in the United States for 1200€ return from Amsterdam.

Very often market fares are much more interesting than special offers, and logically even more so if you travel in business class than in economy, because the costs of pre and post transport are largely covered. But overalla market fare from a neighboring country is generally more interesting than a special offer from your own country. Moreover the market fare is (if we take away cases like the One World operation) more constant: it is available for weeks, most often for months, even is a permanent logic.

On the other hand, contrary to the promotions, airlines do not communicate on the market fare and we understand why. Now you just have to go hunting for good deals with your favorite comparison tool. In the long run you will know where to look without having to fumble around too much…

But be careful: when you want to play with market fares, there are rules of the game to respect and trying to cheat can get you into trouble.

Don’t mess around with market fares

When you read the terms and conditions of your airline ticket, the contract you have with the airline, you see that “the segments must be flown in their entirety and in order”. If you’ve always wondered what it means and what it’s for, you’d be well advised to fix that before you buy a Paris-Frankfurt-Hong Kong or London-Paris-Tokyo flight at an unbeatable rate.

When you live in Paris and you want to go to Tokyo and you find a London-Paris-Tokyo ticket much cheaper than a Paris-Tokyo ticket, you may be tempted to do two stupid things.

The first one is to say to yourself “I’ll skip London Paris and I’ll show up at the boarding gate at CDG”. In this case you will simply be denied boarding as you will be “no show” on the London-Paris. “Segments to be flown in order and in their entirety”.

The second would be to say “ok on the way out I will check in London and make the first flight but on the way back I will disappear in Paris”. So if you have checked luggage…it’s already dead. The airlines are not stupid so forget the “I’m going to London but I want to collect my luggage in Paris”. But the temptation can be strong if you recover your luggage “legally” (for example your connection in Paris obliges you to spend the night there) or if you have a hand luggage.

This is what a guy tried to do on Lufthansa recently.

Will there be a Lufthansa jurisprudence on market fares and “hidden city tickets”?

One passenger had a Seattle-Frankfurt-Oslo. During the connection in Frankfurt instead of going to the boarding of the flight to Olso he took a Frankfurt-Berlin (he lives in Berlin) that he had booked aside ( Had he stayed in Frankfurt the logic would have been exactly the same). No doubt that going to Oslo was infinitely cheaper than Berlin from Seattle.

This is called a “hidden city ticket“, meaning that the real city of departure or destination is “hidden” from the original routing. Sometimes it is outside (here Berlin) sometimes hidden inside (if the real destination of this man was Frankfurt). The real city of departure and/or destination of the passenger is not the one on the ticket.

Lufthansa’s reaction:his ticket was re-priced and the airline asked him for 2300 which corresponds to what he would have had to pay if he had actually booked a Seattle-Frankfurt-Berlin flight. The case ended up in court and…Lufthansa did not succeed in convicting the passenger.

So you are going to tell me that everything is fine and that we can have fun as we want with “hidden cities”. Well, not at all. This is for three reasons:

1°) Some airlines have already re-priced “hidden city” tickets in the past.

2°) An airline may penalize you by taking away the benefits of the loyalty program (miles, non-credited flights) or even exclude you because you violate the conditions.

3°) The court’s rationale was that Lufthansa did not justify the amount claimed. And this is crucial: the court recognizes the right of Lufthansa to sue the customer, but says that the justification of the amount was a little light. With a better prepared and technically argued case on pricing, it would have been ok.

[Mise à jour du 08/10/2019] Lufthansa appealed the decision and the Berlin Court of Appeal ruled against the airline. However, it seems that this decision cannot be considered as case law in Germany, and in any case it is not binding outside Germany either.

This decision concerns an airline that has re-priced a last non-flying segment but does not prohibit the cancellation of the entire ticket if the first segment of a route is not used.

With the “hidden city” you have to respect the rules of the game

We won’t go on and on about the subject in an already very dense post but here is my position on the subject.

The airlines do not calculate the price of the ticket according to the cost but according to the demand. They are therefore quite legitimate to have price logic by market, by city and this independently of the distance flown. These are the rules of the game.

As a passenger, looking for market fares is playing a game within these rules. And these rules imply that you fly all segments and in order. Without this, we can see that we can break the airlines’ pricing logic with, in the end, more expensive flights for everyone and less filled planes for the airlines. A lose-lose game.

You can have in your ticket a starting point or a final destination which is “hidden” in the routing, that does not pose any problem. On the other hand, you have to go from this point of departure to the point of departure of the ticket to take the first flight by your own means and come back after the last flight in the same way. That’s respecting the rules of the game. Cheating is not having a “hidden city”, it is skipping a segment. This is both cheating and a breach of the contract of carriage between the passenger and the airline, so it is something I will never support.

When we present you a “good plan” on TravelGuys we always choose “accessible” departure points from France or Paris exactly for this reason and we will never encourage you to skip a segment. When you cheat, at some point, the rules of the game adapt and in my opinion if this happens it will not be in a favorable direction for the passengers’ finances.

There is also another risk: to get to your departure point you will take a flight that is not on the same ticket as your main route. If you miss it or if it is late or cancelled you will miss the other one without any possibility of refund since the two tickets are not linked. In other words, even if I take Air France to go to London, take Air France to come back to Paris and then fly to Tokyo, if the Paris-London flight is cancelled or too late I lose everything. So remember to take the necessary safety margin.

Well, there is a “legal” way to try to get out of it: if your ticket is flexible and allows you to make a “stopover”. In this case you “postpone” your last segment by several months, you end your trip in Paris and you still have a “Paris-somewhere” to be used which will not be considered a priori as no-show if you never take it. And it can be used as a feeder flight if you later find a nice market fare from the same place.

On this subject,Air France is sued by passengers whose return flight was cancelled following a “no show” on the outbound flight. Probably they found it cheaper to take a round trip than a one way ticket. We will know in May what the court thinks about it because even if it is not necessarily a case of “hidden city” (with skipping of the outward segment) we are in a comparable case. I hope that the airline will be proven right.

[Mise à Jour] Air France was condemned on the form but not on the substance: the cancellation of the ticket was judged excessive but the sanction through penalties was declared legal. In short, it won’t change much for the passenger.

Come on, we’re almost done. There is even cheaper than market fares: mistake fares or error fares.

Mistake fares / error fares : very good prices but highly unstable and explosive material.

The mistake fare also called “error fare” is usually the Holy Grail of good deals! And for a very good reason it does not correspond to any marketing or economic logic since, as its name indicates it results from a mistake!

Most often a person has “mistakenly” entered a fare into the reservation system or sometimes something has gone wrong when several systems have exchanged information on fare conditions.

It can be a typing error, a person who enters the right amount but not in the right currency or not for the right class of travel….there are many cases.

How do you recognize a mistake fare? The price is so low that it seems suspicious.

For example, Air France has sold a first class ticket between Los Angeles and London via Paris for less than €1200 (instead of $23,000 on those dates). Or the Istanbul-Paris-Johannesburg for less than 1600€.

More recently, Cathay Pacific offered round-trip business flights between Vietnam and the US for $700 round-trip and $1000 first class (instead of $30,000).

A great deal? Well, not always!

It happens that the airlines decide not to honor this type of fare, which can be translated in different ways. The first is simply a cancellation of the ticket and a refund. The second is that you may see your ticket turned into an economy ticket…which can become a very bad deal. In this case, it will be necessary to negotiate a little to obtain the cancellation and the refund.

What is the rule in this matter? Well, there doesn’t seem to be any.

Can an airline refuse to honor a mistake fare?

There are two things to consider:the commercial decision of the airlineat a given moment when a mistake fare is issued and the legal dimension if it decides to refuse to honor it.

Some airlines like Air France have a reputation for never honoring mistake fare. Neither does Delta or Emirates. On the other hand, Cathay Pacific had decided to honor theirs.

What are the decision criteria? It’s very volatile.

1°) The commercial policy applied in the strict sense. “We never honor.”

2°) The fact of wanting to please one’s customers. “We honor on a case-by-case basis.” Typically the case of Cathay in my opinion, especially since they offered themselves a nice advertising campaign by this only decision.

3°) The fact of being able to honor the mistake fare, of having the means to afford it. Specifically speaking, I don’t think that the financial situation of Air France at the time (and still today) allows it to sell off its First class tickets in this way.

4°) The number of tickets sold. If the error is quickly discovered and corrected and that very few tickets have been sold, the airline may decide to make a gesture. If on the other hand the information has spread on social networks and specialized forums, that many customers have booked the chances of it being honored are low. That’s why we never share mistake fare on TravelGuys: the more people talk about it, the more we reduce the chances of those who have benefited from it to take advantage of it. And as you can see, there are risks that we don’t want to share with a clientele that is sometimes neophyte in this area. And if you find one? Make an informed reservation if you feel like it, but don’t tell anyone about it.

But is all this legal? I mean, the airline posted a price, you bought, you paid, a sales contract exists, they just have to take responsibility for their mistakes right? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that and there doesn’t seem to be any strict rule or case law on the matter.

Since 2015 in the United States the DOT (Department of Transportation) states that the airlines have the right not to honor a mistake fare as long as, in addition to reimbursing it, they reimburse all non-refundable expenses related to the purchase of the ticket such as non-refundable hotel nights or flights to the departure point. But this only applies to American airlines for flights departing from the USA. But this was the course of action taken by Air France.

In France, a sale can be cancelled when an error has caused the display of a “derisory” price. This is the case here. But we can discuss the fact that the customer is aware of the derisory nature of the fare and there I have a hard time answering you. I am convinced that if for any frequent flyer or travel blogger it is easy to know that you are dealing with a mistake fare but what about the “common man” who in my opinion has no awareness of the price of a business or a first and simply believes to have bumped into a special offer ? Frankly, I don’t know.

To fly cheap be smart, lucid and travel in front classes

Without any surprise you will find that the best deals in terms of cheap flights are in the “front class”, business and firstand it is logical: there is more to “scratch” on a 3000€ ticket than on a 500€ ticket. This is where logically the most savings can be made.

Anyway, be smart, sometimes knowing what you are looking for, how to look for it and how the pricing of an airline works, you can find interesting business class tickets compared to a full fare eco. But also be clear: some plans are risky and you can experience some troubles.

Photo :cheap airfares by Aysezgicmeli via shutterstock

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrinhttp://www.duperrin.com
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.
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