Choosing an Airline

I have come to the conclusion that planning a trip is mainly about choosing where not to go. When you first decide to fly halfway around the planet, all sorts of interesting possibilities present themselves. Perhaps a round-the-world airfare? Fly via the USA and Canada one way and Asia on the return trip? I’d even gone so far as to schedule into the calendar the dates when there were fireworks at Niagara Falls. The problem with stop overs is that they cost more money and take more time. Initially when it appeared that SGM might have to fly back early (yikes), we planned a stop over in Hong Kong for the trip home. I figured as I’d done Hong Kong before, we could manage that. Once SGM decided he was staying for the duration, I revisited the accommodation options for Hong Kong. Unfortunately with the five of us, there were not a lot of options. As much as I love Hong Kong, it was simply going to be too expensive to make it worth while this time.

One of the major factors in working out where you can have a stop over, is choosing which airline to fly. If we’d really wanted to stop over in Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific would have been the logical choice. While they were ok to fly, I wasn’t exactly overcome with rampant euphoria at the thought of flying with them again. So it was back to the drawing board to look at the options we had for flights.

Most airlines release their “earlybird” international airfares about 11 – 10 months in advance. A month or so ago my friend who is an ex-travel agent, strongly advised me to start looking online and visiting the local travel agents to see what airfares were available. Well, don’t ask me how travel agents these days make any money but they certainly weren’t any help to me.

“Five of you? Five? Right, you’ll need at least two hotel rooms”

That was about as helpful as it got. I did however pick up a brochure for the Flight Centre “Discover Europe Travel Show”. The travel agent informed me that I would might be able to book flights on the day of the expo (our return date was at that stage eleven months out).

Dutifully a few weeks later I turned up at the Discover Europe Expo. Wow! No sign of a recession here. The place was absolutely packed. Considering this was a travel show organised by one travel agency, I was fairly impressed. Still, a quick look around confirmed that families with school age children are not the target demographic. Backpackers, students and retirees made up 99.9% of the people in attendance. In fact, it was so crowded I decided the best plan of action was to grab as many of the brochures and fliers as possible and then take them home. If there was an amazing airfare deal I decided we needed, I would drive back into town.

Once I got all the fliers with the airfares back home, I compared them with the airfares being offered by the airlines on their websites. Now, one of the not so insignificant advantages of booking with a travel agent is that you only have to pay a deposit to start with and presumably you can make changes to your airfares. What I discovered was that the airfares for the expo had to be booked on the day and paid for by the end of the week. They were also pretty much in line with the prices on the internet. In other words, there was no real benefit in booking at the expo. I also discovered that online, most of the airlines now included right through to October on their booking calendar. This meant the pressure was on to make a decision about airfares.

There are a couple of search engines that let you compare prices for different airlines. Webjet and Zuji are two popular ones. Once I’d got the general idea of who were offering the best deals though, I found it easier to use the individual airlines’ websites. I also at this point did something very daft. I looked at reviews of airlines. Don not ever bother with this. They all score abysmally. I think the highest any major airline scored was 4.3 out of 10. You could spend a lifetime reading the horror stories of airline travellers but this has to be one instance where reading the reviews simply doesn’t help.

When we had been considering flying from Melbourne to Paris, we’d seriously considered flying with Air France. Something we discovered about Air France is that their children’s airfares are 67% of the adult fares (as compared to 75% of most other airlines). However, we changed our mind and decided we were going to fly into Italy instead. This would mean only having to drive through France in one direction instead of doing a circuit of the entire country.

The airline that offered the cheapest airfares to Rome by a country mile was Emirates. I was all set to book with Emirates when my Dad asked me what their cancellation policy was. Ah, the fine print. The following day we had friends over for lunch. When we mentioned we were planning to fly into Rome they were aghast. They wanted to know if we were going to pick up our rental car from Rome. We explained that we knew the driving in Rome was bad, but we would be going straight from the Airport, and really it wasn’t going to be that bad… was it?

That night I went back to the Citroen Drive Europe web site to check where we could pick up our car from. I realised that Milan was an alternative. When I checked the airfares, I discovered it was $1,000 cheaper to fly into Milan with Singapore Airlines than it was to fly into Rome. So now Singapore Airlines was a serious contender.

Even though it was cheaper to fly into Milan, Singapore Airlines still wasn’t as cheap as Emirates. So now we had to work out if we could justify the extra dollars to fly with Singapore Airlines.

Emirates Pros:

  1. Very cheap
  2. Dubai stopovers
Emirates Cons:
  1. Dubai Stopovers
  2. Children’s airpoints program impossible to sign up for online. Some kind of form would have to be printed off and faxed to the headquarters in Australia
  3. Cancellation fee about $500 per ticket
  4. Very strict dimensions for carry on luggage – Economy Class passengers are permitted one (1) piece of carry-on baggage, subject to the following size and weight limitations:22 x 15 x 8 INS (55 x 38 x 20 cm). Weight must not exceed 15 lbs (7 kg). What is important to note there is the width of 8 inches. Almost no carry on luggage (suitcase style) is that narrow. Most are 9 or 10 inches wide. 
Singapore Airlines Pros:
  1. Singapore Stopovers
  2. Check in up to 48 hours before flight, by SMS, or online, or downtown Singapore – so less queuing
  3. Carry on luggage dimensions must be 45 inches or less (w + h + d)
  4. Singapore Airlines was also much clearer about what could be brought on board the aircraft in addition to the luggage allowance
  5. Arrive at a better time of day (morning rather than late afternoon)
  6. Ticket cancellation fee about $300 per ticket
Singapore Cons:
  1. More expensive
Once we’d looked at the check in options for Singapore, we were sold on them. When you have small kids, the less time spent at the airport standing in queues the better.