oor Christopher Columbus. Like many of us, he just wanted to make it to South Asia. Of course, he was looking for silks and spices, while you’re probably just trying to get to your second cousin’s wedding in Bangalore. His problem: navigating uncharted waters. Our problem: navigating the Web and travel agencies to find the best fares. Unfortunately for his travel plans, he ended up in Cuba. Blame his travel agent for finding the most indirect route ever.
Today, traveling to India, Pakistan and other South Asian countries isn’t quite as difficult as it was in Columbus’ time. Thanks to a growing South Asian population in North America and an increased interest in travel to the Subcontinent for tourism and medical getaways, there are more direct flights than ever before.
But more flights do not necessarily equal less expensive fares. Understanding airfare pricing is messy. Airlines factor in fuel prices, weather, congestion, peak travel times and innumerable other unknowns to complicate air travel. Ticket prices are rebounding from their post 9/11 lows and jet fuel prices are skyrocketing, so fares and travel time vary dramatically amongst airlines. But there are a few secrets to finding the best deals to South Asia without breaking the bank. Maybe if Chris had known these tricks, he would have actually made it to his original destination.
Time is of the essence
As a general rule of travel, whether domestic or international, airline fares go on sale after peak travel times. Those sale times are early fall, after spring break season and at the beginning of the year. Fares to South Asia follow the same pattern. Peak season is considered June to August and mid- to end of December. Parimal Sampat, president of Horizon Travel in Dallas, recommends buying tickets as early as possible—and avoiding last minute bookings. Eleventh-hour bargains are rare in the world of South Asian airfares, and flights fill up fast.
To score cheap tickets for summer trips to South Asia, book by March 31.
According to Sampat, a good rule of thumb for traveling during the peak summer season is to book by March 31. After that date, fares tend to jump. If your travel plans are flexible, lower fares can usually be found for travel between December 25 and March 31. If you are planning a trip during peak season, “Try to be somewhat flexible by at least a couple of days,” says Sampat. “It’s surprising sometimes how just a few days can significantly reduce the fare.”
Who is the farest of them all?
When it comes to comparing apples to apples, prices still vary across the board.
Route: New York City (JFK) to New Delhi with one stop in Chicago. American Airlines for travel on July 5. (Prices captured in mid-June and are subject to change regularly.)
American Airlines Web site: $1,764.40
Travel Agent (Dallas, TX): $1810
Shop till you drop
The online travel industry’s revenue is expected to surpass more than $80 billion in 2007. Chances are you are used to booking your domestic and perhaps even some international travel on the Web. As with domestic travel, you should check a variety of sources for your trip to South Asia. First, before even calling up a travel agent or grabbing your credit card to buy directly from an airline, check the big three online travel sites: Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity. All three have increased the number of flights they offer to Indian destinations. Perusing these sites will give you a general feel for what the cost of, for example, a trip from Los Angeles to Mumbai will be in July.
With a ballpark figure in mind, try the comparison shopping Web sites known as aggregators for the real deals. These are the new breed of travel sites also commonly called “metasearchers” and include Kayak, Mobissimo, QIXO, Cheapflights, Sidestep and Yahoo! FareChase. They have gained popularity because they display fares from different travel sites, sniffing out the deals for you. But these sites only provide fare information; you cannot book tickets directly through them. Other Web sites specifically cater to travel to and from India, such as the popular Makemytrip.com. One of India’s biggest online travel agencies, it is doing well with American customers by catering to the market looking to travel to India’s major cities without having to go to a travel agent’s office. (See sidebar for a cost comparison using a variety of sources.)
Sampat reminds travelers that one site certainly cannot capture every fare and combination out there. Hopping from site to site is time consuming and unlike a travel agents’s access to tickets, consumer sites do have a time lag. If you spot a fare, there is a slight chance that by the time you check out, the fare may be gone. Good fares go fast—and there are usually just a handful of seats available at those prices. So, if you are looking online and come across the route and fare you are looking for, be prepared to buy quickly.
Consider a travel agent
Before the Internet, travel agents were important intermediaries for travelers and airlines. In the current era of do-it-yourself travel, the Internet has seemingly eliminated the need for a travel agent for domestic tickets or even travel to Europe. However, when it comes to booking South Asian trips, travel agents can prove their worth. Sampat has seen a steady increase in clients despite the Web’s promise of low fares and no-worry booking.
Peak season: For travel to South Asia, all summer and December 10-31.
Shoulder season: Typically spring and fall. Prices are lower at this time than during peak season but not as low as off-peak months.
Travel aggregator: Search engine Web sites like Kayak that scan the Web for deals directly from airlines and online travel sites like Expedia and Cheaptickets.
“Even if clients are paying a little more through a travel agent for airfare, they know why they are paying more. We are their backups,” he says. “If anything goes wrong, we are there to help.” Beyond just offering the peace of mind of dealing with a person and not a Web site, travel agents do have access to some fares not available on the Web. Many South Asian travel agents are also consolidators who have contracts with major airlines to sell a certain number of tickets below published prices. Another advantage to working with travel agents is that most of their computer systems get updated at a different rate than consumer travel sites, giving them an edge over Internet booking.
Steer clear of Agent McShady
If you do choose to work with a travel agent, it’s important to choose one you can trust. Sampat suggests picking an agent who is registered with both the Better Business Bureau and the Airline Reporting Corporation. Sampat has had several clients who regaled him with stories of deals that were just too good to be true—and ended up being tales of fraudulent agents. He suggests that if anything seems peculiar or you are worried about the validity of an agency, ask them to show you their ARC number. Finally, referrals are always golden. Ask friends and colleagues for recommendations; if that doesn’t turn up anything, scout August’s Conde Nast Traveler for its best of list, or check with the American Society of Travel Agents and South Asia interest Web sites like EkNazar.com.
Many South Asian travel agents are also consolidators who have contracts with major airlines to sell a certain number of tickets below published prices.
When sorting through fares on the Web or discussing with a travel agent, know your international airlines. Savings don’t always lead to a sacrifice in service, but the reality is that certain airlines do have a reputation for offering better service and experiencing less delays. Make a list of good airlines and keep it handy when surfing the net or talking to an agent. Here’s Sampat’s guide to your airlines ABCs:
If you are planning a trip during peak season, be flexible. Changing your travel dates by a few days can result in significantly reduced fares.
Finally, even though airplane comfort seems to be a thing of the past, a little homework can land you some creature comforts. For that long 18-hour flight, you and your seat will become good friends, so try to pick the best one by looking up the plane’s layout. Since most airlines list the type of plane you’ll be flying on and most travel agents also have this info handy, you can check out seatguru.com for illustrations of planes most major carriers use. The site also offers tips on picking the best seat in each type of aircraft. Since you’ll be served food, check out airlinemeals.net to get a preview of potential meals through pictures and reviews done by passengers.