Buy tickets now or later?
According to Air Deccan chief revenue officer and head of marketing Samyukth Sridharan, the man who decides fares at India's largest low-fare airline, you are already late if you haven't booked your air tickets for this summer. At least, you are sure to have lost out on those less-than-Rs10-each tickets. Some 90 lakh passengers are expected to take to the Indian skies during the three-month summer rush that kicked off last week. But there's still hope for the patient and Internet-savvy.
Take, for instance, 31-year-old Shaun Dubash, who flew from Mumbai to Bangalore and back for Rs3,750, including taxes, on Jet Airways. On 5 April, Dubash booked his tickets for 13 April, a Friday, with a return on Monday through Travelguru.com, where he works as assistant vice-president of business development.
“The same ticket was costing me Rs4,090 on Air Deccan and Rs3,950 on SpiceJet,” he says. Both Air Deccan and SpiceJet are low-cost airlines. But, using his MasterCard, Dubash got an additional 30% cash back for a promotion running on the site on full-service carriers Jet Airways, Indian and Kingfisher Airlines. There are deals on other cards as well.
This summer, a traveller has three kinds of destinations to choose from, going by the airfares available. Travel industry insiders say routes such as Mumbai-Delhi or Bangalore-Mumbai will continue to be stable, while pricing on sectors connecting tourist hotspots Goa and Shimla will depend on the the heat wave in North India, onset of the monsoon, and weekday or weekend travel.
On the other hand, offbeat destinations such as Leh in the Himalayas and Agatti Island in Lakshadweep will command a premium. That, Kingfisher Airlines’ head of sales Manoj Chacko says, is because these are destinations with limited connectivity, meant for the more seasoned traveller who plans his activities well in advance (read: foreign tourists).
However, with increasing connectivity—currently just Indian and Jet Airways fly to Leh—even that may change.
“Watch out for the day we launch a new flight," says Sridharan of Air Deccan, which plans to add Leh to its route map later this month, flying a daily 180-seater airbus ex-Delhi from the end of the month. If the capacity induction by airlines goes according to schedule, says a senior official at Indian, airfares will continue to be competitive. “We don’t see any upward swing in airfares,” he says.
So, how can you make sure you get the best deals? Keep track of advertisements in newspapers, sign up for updates from independent ticketing portals and airline websites. Mostly airlines mention in the communication the time when the bookings will open—usually early morning. Try logging in an hour or so before the route is opened to book your tickets for those initial near-free tickets and you could get lucky.
But remember even these near-frees have Rs1,100 surcharges and taxes attached to them. Says Kingfisher Airlines' Chacko, “Peak-demand fares tend to get expensive as you approach the departure date. We all work on dynamic pricing, so you may find tickets almost 35-40% cheaper if you book early." For many travellers, adjusting the trip around the weekends is an ideal way to minimize leave. In that case, one may have to shell out extra.
Ideally, one should try to go on a Saturday and fly back on Tuesday to get better bargains for tourist destinations, says Chacko.
“Try to avoid weekend peak hours. For Goa, you would get the highest possible fare for a weekend,” he says.
By air or by rail?
On a hot afternoon last week, Mr and Mrs Gujral were waiting at New Delhi railway station. In their early 60s, they were going to visit their grandchildren in Mumbai. The journey to and fro would take almost two days and cost them about Rs4,000, since they were travelling by an air-conditioned sleeper car.
Could they have flown instead? Saved almost two days that could have been spent with their children and grandchildren? They could have availed of one of those super-cheap fares on Air Deccan or IndiGo, if they had booked really early. The fare would have been only a few thousand rupees more—not a big issue for Mr. Gujral, a retired bank officer. So, why did they choose to travel by train?
“I hate flying,” said Mr Gujral. “I remember how in the ’70s and ’80s, flying was such a wonderful experience.” Today, he complains, airports are crowded, passengers rude and impatient, and flights incessantly late. The leisurely train ride to Mumbai, repeating an experience that is forever etched in the memory of almost every Indian as a ritual of the summer vacation, was so much more enjoyable, he said.
Paresh Gupta, a 23-year-old software engineer who has worked in places as exotic as Prague and as banal as Gurgaon, prefers trains for a different reason altogether. “I love trains,” he said. “In Europe, I took trains everywhere, and it was fantastic.”
Now, with a little extra money in hand, Gupta travels in air-conditioned, first-class train compartments, paying almost as much or sometimes more for a round-trip train ticket than many plane fares. “It’s like stepping into a different era,” he said. “You have a bearer on call and, at every train station, you can get out and walk around. The sights and sounds are different. You can’t get that on a two-hour flight.”
He and the Gujrals, however, make up a small percentage of people who can afford flights and trains and prefer the latter. At present, only 0.7% of Indians have ever been inside an airplane—leaving a staggeringly huge market that has people such as Air Deccan’s chairman, G.R. Gopinath, excited about the potential for his cheap-fare and no-frills flying experience.
For some, like Aniket Alam, 35, who works for an international NGO in New Delhi, flights and airports lost their charm when he realized that he could have saved Rs35,000 last year by taking the train to visit his wife and child in Hyderabad, instead of the many flights he took. “Once in a while, if I just have a five-day vacation, I will definitely take a flight,” he said. “But trains aren’t that bad. You can sleep through the night.” The lure of cheaper tickets comes with its own inconveniences—“godforsaken hours” for one.“I would rather spend an extra day on a train,” he said. “I can read a book or chat with my family.”
For most Indians though, trains still remain the only affordable option for long-distance travel.
Holiday in a neat package
Spectacular Shanghai, Exotic Europe—the names roll off the tongue smoothly, conjuring visions of faraway lands. Package deals promise more than just a visit to these locales, they promise a hassle-free holiday, with all details taken care of. All, of course, for a neat sum. A traveller pays upfront for a trip, and the provider takes care of everything, from hotels and plane tickets to visas and meals. Often, there are guided tours thrown in, help with local languages and, for those with dietary restrictions, a guarantee that even in a place like all-beef-all-the-time Argentina, a vegetarian meal will be provided.
But for die-hard travel buffs, package deals are the exact opposite of what they seek in a vacation—spontaneity, surprise, a little adventure, bargaining with a border guard and straying from the beaten path.
That’s not to say that the two are incompatible—for a first-time traveller, especially to places such as Shanghai or Europe, a package deal can be a convenient option.
Says Aashish Baranwal, who took a trip to western Europe with his wife for their 25th wedding anniversary—“I had never been abroad, so I felt that it was better to let someone else take care of the arrangements.” During the 12-day trip, the Baranwals relaxed and stuck to a timetable. His wife, Alpana, however, says she chafed a bit under all the hand-holding. “We spent quite a bit of our own money eating at restaurants other than the ones on the tour,” she said. “I didn’t go all the way to France to eat at a hotel restaurant.”
The Baranwals said that they had received the trip as a present from their four children, adding that he felt that the total cost of about Rs2 lakh was affordable.
He may be right. But a look at their itinerary and their travel dates along with some creative thinking by an American Express travel agent showed they could have visited all of the sites they did for about Rs1.8 lakh.
If they dropped either Paris or Amsterdam from their itinerary, and added Prague instead (not a bad substitution—most films that can’t afford to shoot in Paris use the streets of Prague), then the price would drop to Rs1.4 lakh, with most of their daylight hours spent on walking tours than bus tours, and most nights spent at bed and breakfasts (hit or miss, but definitely quaint).
On some routes, especially during tourist season, the price differences are not very great. Package tours to places such as Southeast Asia or the US tend to be the cheapest options, because the discounts negotiated by the tour operators can be substantial, and language issues are often insurmountable without a translator.
“There have been times when I have arrived at a city late at night and either had to sleep in a shady inn near the railway station or paid insane amounts for whatever hotel the taxi driver took me to,” said Rajesh Dube, 32, who spends a month every year travelling to places as far apart as Mongolia and New York.
But Dube said he would never consider a package tour—too sanitized for him, and as far as he is concerned, tourists and package tours are exactly what ruin the allure of great cities.
Why travel agents?
When Makemytrip.com, one of the half-a-dozen travel portals in the country opens its branch in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, this year, it would not be just an expansion strategy for the company, but a focused attempt to woo customers.
“People, especially traditional Gujaratis, won’t give their passports or send them to us in Delhi for their travel,” says Sanjeev Bhasin, assistant vice-president (operations) at the Delhi-based online travel portal. “They want to have personal interaction with an agency.” Anurag Nagar, 48, a Gujarati who currently works at a Bhilai steel plant as assistant manager says, “For convenience, travel agents are the best bet. For service-class people like us, it is not really possible.”
Travel agents have been a worried lot ever since the online travel agencies brought with them colourful banners and instant flight schedules. Many people don’t want to log on to websites because they feel there is no one to complain to, advertisements have hidden costs, paying online is risky and no one educates them on what’s on offer. The next best option—choose the time and your destination and leave the rest to the agent, says Juni Kohli, who runs an artist-management company called The Music Fraternity in Gurgaon and travels for more than half the month. He has used one travel agency for the past 16 years. “They know exactly what kind of price and class I normally need.”
Travel agents contribute more than 60% of the total domestic travel in the country with the rest being shared by airline websites and online travel agencies. “Once they (travellers) talk out the itinerary, they feel nothing is left to chance. That is relevant for a lot of people who are not much tech-savvy,” says a senior official at the Air Travel Bureau, a Delhi-based travel agency.
Travel agents continue to be the blue-eyed boys of the corporate sector as well, which also contributes significantly to business-class ticket sales. And that, Homa Mistry, regional director, Northern India Travel Corporation Pvt. Ltd, believes is because only travel agents can provide them with the flexibility to book, cancel and reschedule. “It is a relationship game. For corporate clients, last-minute changes are a way of life and that requires them to have someone who can also provide credit of nearly 30 days.”
However, from a mere 3% currently, the market share of online travel portals is growing. Youth, especially from IT and BPO sectors, have been one of the key drivers for online portals, according to Bhasin of Makemytrip.com. Of the 50 holiday packages that the portal sells every day—with most being paid for on credit card—about 70% of the clientele comprises people in the age group of 25-30.
Working the Web
So, this is the summer you promised your family a beach-backwaters holiday in Kerala? And, now that it’s time for school vacations and the air conditioners to be turned on for this year, the children are bringing the roof down. Before firing up the web browser and heading for ticketing sites, here’s a primer (for even those veteran online ticket buyers) on how to trawl through them and nail that deal.
Take ticket prices, for instance. The travel portals run on software designed to pick up fare information from airline websites in almost real time. This should mean that all of them offer the same ticket price on a particular flight when booked at the same time, right? Wrong. The difference on the same ticket can be as much as Rs100-400 on a Rs2,500 ticket, depending on the site from which you buy the ticket, says Ankur Bhatia, India managing director at software solutions provider Amadeus. “This is because the travel portal may have negotiated bulk ticket rates with an airline or because it is willing to settle for a lower commission and pass on the benefit to customers.”
If you see a compelling Rs8,000 Delhi-Bangalore return fare, including taxes, on a site, don’t jump for it yet.
A quick hop, skip and jump through other travel sites and the airline site will help zoom in on the best price. A fare search engine, such as the one at Rediff.com, can help, too.
Some sites have nifty useful features. Cleartrip, for instance, has a calendar function, which allows you to search for the cheapest fare any month on different sectors. Yatra has a ‘sliding rule’ function that allows a customer to choose the time of travel easily.
Make sure you read the fine print on the travel portals, though: Some fares are not refundable; a Rs500-a-ticket charge on cancellations and Rs200 re-booking charge is standard; paper tickets have to be returned to the travel portal’s office for cancellations; there are routes which don’t get added on to bonus air-miles, some tickets could be for one-hop flights....
Be all that as it may, cheap flights and that great holiday are just a click away.