Get to grips with your ticket
Never before has buying an airline ticket been simpler - or more confusing. Is it better to pay for a full-fare ticket with maximum flexibility and air miles, or go for a discounted special deal with a list of restrictions a yard long? Most of us are cheapskates when it comes to paying for personal travel and take the special deals to save money.
But choosing the lowest-cost option can often be a false economy. If a fare is US$100 cheaper, perhaps the quality is US$500 less, says seasoned traveller Hugo van Reijen, who writes Why Not Fly Cheaper? 'Passengers can get into big trouble en route if they opt for the cheapest connection,' he said.
'I regularly receive letters from passengers who opted for an airline which was US$50 less but exposed them to long delays and transfer times, or low frequencies so that they could not fly on the date of their choice.' That does not mean a discounted fare for a non-stop trip is a bad idea. A point-to-point ticket is likely to be straightforward because no potentially tricky connections are involved.
But for those who want to make one or more stops along the way, it is often worth paying extra for the flexibility, air miles and mileage allowance offered by a full fare.
The real benefit hinges on ticketed-point mileage (TPM) and maximum permitted mileage (MPM).
MPM relates to the mileage allowance allocated to each route. For example, the MPM between Hong Kong and London is 8,736 miles. However, the non-stop mileage, which is the TPM, is 5,979 miles.
This leaves the passenger with 2,757 spare miles, which can be used on extra stopovers at no extra cost.
Not all MPMs are as generous as the London-Hong Kong route, which amounts to 45 per cent above the TPM. Typically, it is an extra 20 per cent.
This means passengers can use their extra flying miles from Hong Kong to London by going round the houses and breaking the journey as many times as they like, as long as they do not backtrack. For example, Hong Kong-Bangkok-Bombay-Rome-Paris-London is perfectly feasible.
The number of stops was unlimited, provided you only stopped once in each city and did not exceed the MPM, Mr van Reijen said.
Most travel agents did not tell clients about this. The subject did not usually arise when people were booking an airline ticket, said Gilbert Chow, director of customer service Asia for Northwest Airlines. That was because the passenger usually presented the agent with his desired route and the agent would merely check that it fell within the permitted mileage allowance. Most passengers chose the simplest journey, fearing extra stops would cost them more.
'But it's not a matter of the agent hiding this from the passenger. It's a fact that customers would not know about this airline jargon of TPMs,' Mr Chow said. 'But it is an open book and the travel agent will be pleased to explain.' That is assuming the passenger knows enough to ask about MPM in the first place. Those travel agents who are backward in coming forward with this information are not alone.
'By mutual agreement the airlines have decided not to publish certain matters, such as mileage premiums,' Mr van Reijen said.
'It is not the intention that the passengers use these at their own initiative. The airlines want to use their premiums whenever it suits them.' Mr Chow said that this only related to flexible full-fare tickets, which cost more than discounted tickets and where restrictions forbid changes of route and date. When a passenger makes a booking, the travel agent counts the miles between each stop to ensure the route falls within the mileage limit.
'If they are 10 per cent or 20 per cent over, an additional collection of the same proportion is made,' Mr Chow said.
There is a big difference in air fare levels, depending on where you start your journey. You pay the price which applies at the departure point.
Many discounted fares are available in Hong Kong and in most cases it will be no cheaper to start from another country - with some exceptions.
For round-the-world trips and journeys to South America, the cheapest source was Pakistan, Mr van Reijen said. Passengers could start somewhere else or throw away the Pakistan sector of their ticket, he said.
'This option is discontinued now. But, for example, many passengers bought from Dutch carrier KLM a one-way or return from London to Karachi or Dubai, and threw away the London-Amsterdam-London coupons.' This works because the tickets were sold cheaper in London in order to entice passengers from there and get them into the KLM network, Mr van Reijen said.
Throwing away some of the coupons of full-fare tickets, a practice frowned on by the airlines, works elsewhere, too. Bombay-Nairobi-Lusaka-Maputo and back is cheaper than if Maputo is not added.
If the passenger rips the Lusaka-Maputo-Lusaka part out of their ticket, they can then fly Bombay-Nairobi-Lusaka.
At present, Mr van Reijen said, the best round-the-world fare was with KLM in co-operation with nine other carriers.
It was also the cheapest, provided the ticket was bought in Amsterdam before July 1. It cost less than US$1,500 and allowed 28,500 miles if travel was across the South Pacific, including Auckland.
In combination with an air pass such as KLM's Passport to Europe, which costs US$100 per flight coupon to 100 cities, passengers can stretch their round-the-world ticket to the limit.
All up, 12 flights were allowed between cities from Amsterdam to as far away as Casablanca, Istanbul and Kiev - which was a real bargain, Mr van Reijen said.
If all this sounds too complicated, remember you can save money simply by using a clued-up travel agent who knows the tricks of the trade.