The Dilemma When Booking International Airfares

world map with planes

Are online fares competitive?

I have lost count of how many times I have travelled overseas over the last 25 years. During that time I have seen so many changes in the travel industry, none bigger than the evolution of the internet. Gone are the days of paper airline tickets that were almost as valuable as your passport as they were sometimes impossible to replace if lost or stolen. These days you don’t even need the ticket anymore. Presenting a passport at check-in is sufficient. I am just waiting for the day we all get micro-chipped and won’t even need that anymore! On the other hand, a small spelling error of your name was nothing to worry about all those years ago. A red pen was enough to make a small amendment. Today, that is unthinkable and a spelling error has to be avoided at all costs. How things change but you just have to go with the times and adjust. I find it fascinating.

old paper ticket

With the arrival of the internet everybody all of a sudden became an expert and with the introduction of E-Tickets it seemed inevitable that retail travel agencies would become a thing of the past. Many closed, others merged with bigger chains but they are still around. It’s a real dilemma for consumers who are overwhelmed by the amount of deals and being increasingly time poor. They are not necessarily looking for the cheapest international airfare deal. Everybody still wants a good deal but at the same time it’s about value for money. Competitive airfares, tailor-made to suit individual travel needs and excellent customer service are in a demand.

What is the trend in international airfares?

Airfares have changed greatly and continue to do so. Over many years the early-bird sales were the ones that meant fantastic savings. It was a sale any holiday maker would wait for. It was the equivalent to the Boxing day sale we are all so familiar with. Both of these sale events are still around but have lost a lot of their magic. Consumers are now bombarded with sales left, right and centre all the time. There are endless airfare deals and when making an enquiry, clients have to be ready to book and lock it in as the majority of these offers will only last a few days, maybe a week or two if you are lucky.  This is putting enormous pressure on consumers as well as agents and we see a lot more impulse decisions being made by travellers. That is good for business but I do stress that flights should only be booked when the rest of the trip has been discussed and researched. Why? Because making a change to an itinerary after the ticket has been issued can quickly strip you of the dollars that you were so excited to save in the first place.

It's a price war

International airfares have never been as low as we are currently experiencing. It’s phenomenal. With this though we are starting to see big changes in other areas as well, not so obvious to the consumers but definitely to us agents. Major international airlines are moving away from the standard inclusions we were so accustomed to over many, many years. There is a clear move towards the budget airline costing model. A lower base airfare plus added cost for things like seat selection, extra luggage and flexibility. Surcharges in peak periods and for popular departure days such as the weekends are another added cost.

Online vs travel agent

As a Mobile Travel Partner, I own my own business. I know I am offering competitive airfares but on a regular basis  I jump online to compare. I ensure that my clients are not disadvantaged by booking through me.

The other day when the latest Singapore Airlines promotion hit my inbox, I changed roles for the day and went from being a travel agent to being an online shopper. For this exercise, I picked a random return flight for 2 people from Melbourne to London on Singapore Airlines. As a travel agent, I have a live reservation system at my finger tips that I use to access flight availability and current airfares. The fare quoted at that time was $2470.56 inclusive of all taxes. This matched the advertised fare.  What a bargain.

Airfare costing

Now let’s compare.

I know that I should be getting the same airfare on the Flight Centre website, so let’s begin with that and put it to the test.  It’s relatively easy to navigate the site and find a particular airline which in this case of course was Singapore Airlines. The displayed fare was $2470.56, exactly the same as what I quoted. No surprises there. I clicked on “get the deal” and on the next page it confirmed the flight details and cost. However, all of a sudden, the cost had jumped up to $2515.90. That did come as a surprise. How can that be, you wonder? I clicked the “Show details” button and a service fee of $21.95 per person was listed as an additional cost.

Air Fare 2

As a consumer, I get really annoyed when these fees are suddenly added at some point during the booking process.  The majority of people will just pay them at this point either because they simply didn’t realise they were added or because they expect them to be the same no matter where they book. However, as a travel agent running my own business, it gives me great confidence seeing these online fees.  Not only am I selling the same international airfares as Flight Centre and other popular sites but the total cost is actually lower if booking through me rather than online. Every site is different and only if you go through the whole booking process right up to the point where you are just about to commit, will you truly know which total cost is in fact the cheapest.

I considered listing all the different fees and totals that I found but I think everyone gets the point:

“Cheapest Airfare guaranteed” is a clever marketing slogan but does not necessarily mean cheapest overall cost.  

The after Sales service

Let’s assume you did decide to book online. To be honest, it’s not all that difficult if you are just flying to London and back. If you have plenty of time to search around, compare service fees etc and you are 100% certain that you do not need to make any changes to your flight selection, you will manage. Remember though, to guarantee an international airfare it must be paid for on the spot. Once it’s booked and paid for any airline related issues will have to be handled by the customer. The most common issues arise from:

  • schedule changes. It’s not uncommon for all major airlines to change schedules. Other Trip related arrangements such as meeting tour or cruise departures or onward flights are often thrown into chaos due to major schedule changes.
  • having to change dates. Changing dates is not as easy as it may seem with airlines imposing fees and additional fare collections.
  • having to cancel or postpone your flights.

While the initial online booking may seem like a breeze, anything that happens after the ticket has been issued can be very difficult and stressful to deal with for customers. Airlines do not want to talk to consumers. Have a look on the Singapore Airlines website or any other airline for that matter and see if you can instantly find a phone number to call.

After sales service is more important for your peace of mind than you might expect and a good travel agent will provide it as part of their service.

Are you still with me?

Up until now, I only went through a scenario where you know exactly what you are after and you have already decided on an airline and the flights you want. On top of that it was a simple straight forward itinerary to London and back. Mind you, London has 3 major airports to choose from.

By far the more common scenario is that you know roughly where you want to go and when you can travel but that’s it.

confusing flight map

Most people don’t just go to one place when they take an extended holiday. In fact, for many it’s a trip of a life-time with a long bucket list.  If you fly to London, Paris will be on your list and probably Amsterdam as well. And while you are there, a quick visit to Rome would make sense, wouldn’t it?

If the USA is your destination, you will most likely start in LA and want to add Las Vegas, New York, Miami just to name a few.

This is where online booking becomes interesting and for most people frustrating. They lack the expertise of an airfare specialist who is familiar with airline networks, what airlines are partners, how to “construct” more complicated itineraries and so on.

No online search engine will discuss your ideas with you and produce different options accordingly. No search engine will give you tips on how to do it differently to make sure it all fits and is cost effective. No airline website will ever suggest to take the train rather than fly.

Visit an agent

The option is of course to visit a travel agency. I headed to the shops during lunch time to quickly get some groceries as you do and thought I’ll quickly drop into the travel agency there to find out what airfare I would be offered. Unfortunately, everybody seems to have had the same idea. It was very busy and waiting around was not an option and I dare say that is why so many people head online to master their own flight bookings. Everyone is so busy. I understand.

If you do get a quote from a travel agent for an international airfare and other arrangements, take the time to get a second opinion. Only because you walked into a shop that has Flight Centre or Helloworld or some other well-known brand written above the door does not mean the consultant you dealt with was experienced or knowledgeable enough for your particular enquiry. Every agent has strengths and weaknesses and a second opinion and quote will help you pick an agent that is most suited to you and your travel style.

Same goes for online quotes. Online shopping has become for many the preferred form of shopping. Call me old-fashioned but when it comes to a holiday, I have always been very careful with what I find and book online. There will always be scams around and in recent times even more well-known travel companies have gone under leaving passengers stranded before they even departed. The chances may be small but if you do get caught up in something like that, your holiday and possibly your hard-earned money are gone.

Therefore, if you have found an airfare you like why not check in with a professional to compare?

A solution to the dilemma

After spending a considerable amount of time searching and comparing international airfares online, I was well and truly over it.  What might seem like a fun activity to begin with ended with a fried brain and there was no way I would have booked anything online.

As a consumer, I lost faith in online deals and promises due to all the sneakily added costs and extras.

The internet is without a doubt a convenient way to start your initial research but with that in mind, the ideal option would of course be to find an agent that:

  • personally looks after all arrangements from start to finish
  • meets with you at a time and a place that fits in with your busy lifestyle
  • that you can return to time and time again
  • is an airfare expert
  • that is in control of what service fees are charged if any
  • is independent but part of a strong network
  • that gives you peace of mind
Plane with ticked boxes

I am one of those dedicated agents that decided to do just that and offer everything that I personally would be looking for as a consumer. I became a mobile travel partner working on my own terms away from the shop front setting.

It’s an exciting way to run a travel business delivering honest customer service and excelling in areas of expertise. Happy customers who are loving the convenience, competitive pricing and personal service are the a clear sign that this is for many the way to go. 

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Barbara Katsifolis

Author Barbara Katsifolis

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