Play the fare game
It seems straightforward - plan a trip several months ahead, do some price comparisons online or via the phone and pack your bags. But common sense doesn't always prevail, if it did we wouldn't have the Mark Six or the Kardashians permanently appearing on prime-time television.
Passenger traffic increased 8 per cent in the first quarter of 2012 at Hong Kong International Airport, compared with the previous year's quarter.
Bigger appetite for travel attracts greater competition and more choice from airlines, hotels, travel agents and online booking sites, as well as third parties selling package deals and cruises. But this isn't always beneficial, says Jacqueline Tang, hotel sales manager for HRS, an international hotel reservation service. 'Travellers are getting more choices, but whether it's a better deal depends because with so many choices they have to make more judgments.'
The truisms of planning ahead and shopping around remain constant but, fortunately, there are tricks to tracking down good deals. The following are pointers to keep in mind when booking your next trip, be it a Mediterranean cruise in 2014 or a long weekend in Bangkok, starting tonight.
To save on a summer vacation start by looking beyond the major carriers. In June and July, premium airlines are heavily booked on popular routes to Europe but lower-tier firms still have economic options and good connections available, says David Fraser, general manager of Flight Centre Greater China. A round trip from Hong Kong to Paris in early July, for instance, costs around HK$13,800 direct on Cathay Pacific. The same journey on Qatar Airways is about HK$3,000 cheaper.
While daring travellers are prepared to wait for last-minute deals from premium carriers, Fraser says there is no way of knowing when an airline will launch a special. 'Airlines do tactical promotions when loads are looking low and that's not set to a certain cycle.'
A big change in coming months is the influx of flight options from budget carriers. From July, Japan's low-cost Peach Aviation is launching daily flights from Hong Kong to Osaka.
A return trip in early July will cost around HK$3,000 on Peach, compared with HK$5,000 on Japan Airlines. Airphil Express, the budget arm of Philippine Airlines, recently started its flight from Hong Kong to Clark airport, near Angeles City in the Philippines. Flights start at around HK$940. Even Kazakhstan is vying for some action with a Hong Kong to Almaty service from July on its Air Astana carrier.
While safety records can be a concern with smaller fleets, Fraser points to Skytrax ratings. The five-point system takes into account factors such as age of aircraft, lounge quality and frequency of delays and cancellations as a barometer of standards.
Cathay is a five-star airline, for instance, while Air Astana is a three star. In some cases, says Fraser, 'you're not necessarily forgoing anything except your frequent-flyer points'.
So among the options, where should travellers be looking for good deals right now? Johan Svanstrom, vice-president and managing director of online booking group Hotels.com Asia Pacific, points to Thailand: 'We're entering more into the off-season. Thailand has been one of the best places for hotels in the past couple of decades, so there is generally very good competition among hotels.' Japan is also launching attractive deals, as is India, as both become more affordable as their currencies weaken. Fraser also points to Fiji as an interesting stopover for travellers planning trips to Australia.
Unsurprisingly, many of the best travel bargains are found using the internet. With some travellers happy to exercise a little more flexibility with trip timing and location in exchange for better deals, limited-time heavily discounted 'flash sales' are becoming more popular, says Tang. The revolutionary Groupon, the site that brokers discounts from companies by attracting enough prospective buyers to hit critical mass, dabbles in everything from ukuleles (value HK$599, pay HK$299) to anti-cellulite devices (worth HK$1,288, pay HK$499) but quick-hit travel deals are a particularly strong fit.
Recent offers in Hong Kong include a HK$1,400 saving on a two-night stay in a hotel room with ocean view in Hua Hin, Thailand.
Other specialist portals are gaining ground too, including Jetsetter, an offshoot of members-only luxury shopping site, Gilt Groupe. Like Gilt, Jetsetter requires an invitation to join by an existing member, and carries high-end deals on glamorous international hotels and resorts - from a week at a South African five-guestroom safari lodge for about US$300 a night (reduced from US$426) to a stay at New York's chic Standard Hotel in the heart of the popular Highline development in the meatpacking district for around US$235 a night at the height of summer.
Jetsetter is particularly useful for its pages of information on each deal, including a tourist rundown on the destination and clear language on the deal's inclusions and exclusions (the Standard Hotel might not be ideal for the shy traveller sharing a room as the bathrooms are exposed to the room's living space).
Social media is another avenue for those prepared to act on deals as they arise. Hotel groups and individual properties are using targeted media such as Facebook to boost business. 'Like' the Vineyard Square Hotel in the popular US coastal town of Martha's Vineyard, for instance, and get Facebook Friday updates offering 30 per cent off weekday stays for the following week or a free bottle of wine. Svanstrom sees these networks as becoming much more powerful as providers find better ways to target people - after all, a hotel recommendation from a friend is much more useful than anonymous feedback from a travel site.
In the pursuit of cheap accommodation, travellers are increasingly turning to home swaps, where people literally exchange homes. It's a gamble. Established sites such as Vacation Exchange, Love Home Swap and HomeExchange.com vet users by having them pay monthly or annual fees to use the service but there's ultimately no guarantee that home swappers are of sound mind.
Still, for those prepared to take a chance, at HomeExchange.com there are homes from Holland (a 'soulful Amsterdam canal house with quiet garden and private canal boat') to California ('steps from Santa Monica and Venice beaches, shops and restaurants; close to Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Malibu').
For those who think swappers might be reluctant to ditch their sprawling Texas range for a Hong Kong flat, Keghan Hurst, PR director for HomeExchange.com says people 'exchange for the experience, not necessarily for comparable accommodation. People exchange all sorts of homes - studios, mansions, bungalows, even boats'.