Sunday, 22 February 2009
The Amazing Race 14, Episode 2 (Flights within Europe)
Stechelberg (Switzerland) - Zürich (Switzerland) - Munich (Germany) - Ruhpolding (Germany) - Schaünau am Königssee (Germany) - Salzburg (Austria)
Last week we had a lesson in European rail route planning. This week our focus will be on intra-European flights, starting with this lesson: If you're paying out of your own pocket, don't do what the producers of The Amazing Race had the contestants do in this episode.
Starting from Stechelberg in the middle of the night, the racers were required first to take a two-hour taxi ride to Zürich Airport (the largest within striking distance), and then to fly to Munich.
They did arrive faster than if they had taken the train, as early as 8:15 a.m. rather than not until 13:30 (1:30 p.m.). But at what price? I shudder to think what the taxi ride must have cost, especially at the typically higher late-night tariff, at least if they were actually staying in Stechelberg. (Sometimes the racers have been accommodated at a hotel or resort some distance from the "pit stop" location shown on TV.) But the taxi ride is the lesser part of it: The one-way walk-up fare on any direct flight from Zürich to Munich is a minimum of 500 Euros (about 750 Swiss Francs, or US$650 at today's exchange rate). Any real tourist would take the train for a fraction of the price of flying, arrive half a day later, and enjoy the views and the conversations with fellow travellers along the way.
Most one-way walk-up fares, and even one-way advance-purchase fares, on traditional airlines within Europe, are substantially higher than airfares under similar conditions on similar airlines for similar distances in North America.
Much more than in the USA, it makes sense to fly within Europe only on routes served by so-called low-cost or low-fare airlines, where their presence typically prompts even their competitors to offer at least some seats at dramatically lower prices than on other routes.
Discount airlines' routes and hubs aren't necessarily the busiest routes or largest cities or airports. Low-cost airlines often look for niche markets and opportunities. Zürich is the largest and most obvious air gateway to Switzerland, for example, and that's where the racers were sent to find a flight. But prices are typically much lower to and from Geneva, where EasyJet has one of its hubs.
You might expect that London (EasyJet and others including extensive services on Wizz Air, the largest low-fare airline serving central Europe) and Dublin (RyanAir and Aer Lingus) would be low-cost hubs (with a caveat, as discussed further below, about the multiple London-area airports, especially EasyJet and Wizz Air's hubs at Luton, LTN). But would you guess that Brussels would be the largest low-fare hub on the continent, thanks to RyanAir and others at somewhat distant "Brussels South Airport" (CRL) in Charleroi, and Brussels Airlines maintaining the former Virgin Express discount routes at much closer-in Brussels National Airport (BRU) in Zaventem?
Few low-cost airlines pay to participate in the computerized reservation systems used by online and offline travel agencies and price comparison Web sites. There are lots of lists of low-cost airlines, but none of them are complete or authoritative. There is no single map that shows all the routes flown by low-cost airlines.
The most useful compilations of rumors are Wikipedia's List of low-cost airlines (with links to lists of the destinations each serves) and the collection of individual airlines' route maps at AirlineRouteMaps.com . I don't know who is behind this latter Web site, but it has been around for several years, and seems reasonably well maintained. Note, however, that it includes charter airlines -- on which it may be difficult or impossible to buy a one-way ticket, or a flight ticket without a tour or holiday package -- as well as scheduled airlines.
Neither of these lists are complete, nor can they be relied on. They include defunct airlines, discontinued routes, planned routes that may never actually see service, seasonal services (often not flagged as such or distinguished from year-round routes), and simple mistakes. For example, they show an EasyJet route to Munich from Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg Airport, BSL/MLH/EAP (actually just across the Swiss border in France, but closer to Stechelberg than Geneva, and about as distant as Zürich). That flight would have been useful to the contestants on "The Amazing Race", if it existed, but a traveller with a limited budget would have problems if they set off for Basel without confirming the schedule: EasyJet's Web site shows no flights currently operating on that route, and with no competition the Lufthansa fare is prohibitive. Flyer beware.
The only authoritative source of information about an individual airline's current schedule is that airline's own Web site or call center. To find out if there's a flight, look at actual seat availability for the date you are interested in: Route maps often show planned future routes, or those that have been "temporarily" suspended, while timetables may not clearly indicate which schedules are seasonal.
The key thing is finding the routes served by low-cost airlines. Once you've done that, compare the available prices on all airlines serving that route. So-called low-fare airlines aren't necessarily cheaper or better than their competitors.
To see which traditional airlines (i.e. high-fare airlines, except where they have low-fare competition) serve any given route within Europe, the best starting point is Opodo.com , an online travel agency founded by a consortium of major European traditional airlines (just as Orbitz.com was jointly founded by major airlines in the USA) and now owned primarily by Amadeus, the one major CRS based in Europe. For worldwide flight routings on traditional airlines, but without price or availability information, the Amadeus.net timetable server is what I would use if I were a contestant on "The Amazing Race" searching for options at a cybercafe.
Advertised prices on any airline are meaningless, both because of additional fees and charges and because the lowest fare may not be available on your desired dates or flights. Where a low-cost carrier is in the market, typical total one-way prices for flights within Europe range from about US$50 to US$150 on low-cost airlines, or about $50 more (US$100-US$200) on traditional airlines competing on the same routes. If you are trying to plan your budget before you have bought your tickets, a reasonable estimate is US$100 for each such flight within Europe (plus the cost of getting to and from the airports), roughly in line with what you might expect to pay, on average, if cheap flights end up not being available and you travel by train. That's a rule of thumb, but your mileage may vary: Train fares are more closely correlated with distance than are airfares.
While traditional airlines don't usually match their low-fare competitors' prices exactly, they may have other advantages that make a slightly higher price worth paying:
- Traditional airlines are less likely to discontinue service on a route between when you buy your ticket and when you plan to fly. Even if they drop the route, they will endorse your ticket to another airline, at no additional charge to you. Low-cost airlines generally don't have any interline agreements, so they can't put you on another airline even if they want to. All a low-cost carrier can do when they abandon a route (as they are quick to do if it becomes unprofitable -- they aren't national flag carriers committed to maintaining any particular route network) is give you back your money, which may be only a fraction of what a ticket costs on another airline once the low-cost price leader has left that market.
- Traditional airlines have interline baggage checking agreements, making it much easier to change planes quickly, unburdened by carry-on baggage, if, for example, you are trying to add a cheap intra-European connection to long-haul flights to or from America or elsewhere that you have purchased separately or obtained for frequent flyer mileage credits. Some low-cost airlines require you to claim and re-check your luggage even when you are making connections between their own flights at their own hub! Schedule changes between the time of ticketing and the time of travel -- more common on low-cost airlines than traditional ones -- can also wreak havoc with planned connections. For all these reasons, I recommend low-cost airlines only for one-off flights, and not in cases where you need to make same-day connections to or from other flights at either end.
- Low-cost airlines often fly to and from low-rent airports, typically farther from city centers and slower and more expensive to reach by public transit. From Geneva to London, for example, one-way prices on EasyJet start at the equivalent of about US$40 to London's Stansted (STN) or Gatwick (LGW) Airports, including taxes, fees, and one checked bag, while British Airways charges US$120 to Heathrow Airport (LHR). Express trains from Stansted or Gatwick get to central London as fast as the Underground from Heathrow, but cost about 20 pounds (US$30) more than the Tube. So the real price difference between the two airlines is only about $50. Still significant, but not as much as it appears at first glance. For an early-morning flight that requires you to check-in two hours before an international departure, and before the trains are running, or a late-night arrival, a taxi ride can easily wipe out the apparent savings of a "cheap" flight from or to a more distant airport.
Complicated? Confusing? Yes. As I've noted before, airlines have the most complicated pricing structure of any product or service in the world. For more information, see the updated table of types of airfares and tickets, including low-fare airlines (pp. 174-180) and the new section on low-fare airlines (pp. 185-188) in the latest (4th) edition of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World .Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 22 February 2009, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)