“How cheap is a cheap flight” is one of those questions like “how long is a piece of string?” The answer is, inevitably, that it depends on a lot of variables. I’ll assume, for this article, that most readers are probably coming to the UAE from a European destination, but if your starting point is continental America, or the Southern hemisphere, don’t despair: there will be something here for you too, but, as my old yoga teacher used to say, you’re going to need some flexibility.
Does anyone actually go to a travel agency to buy tickets any more? I think 2005 was the last time I actually bought tickets from an agency and yes, I do feel a bit bad about this, because the particular agent I dealt with always delivered faultless service. They’re still out there, and I suspect that travel agents who have adapted to the challenge of competing with online booking are probably pretty lean and mean and may well have deals that stack up very well with what you can get online. The key advice of “shop around” is still well worth following if you want to get the very best deal for yourself and others travelling with you. This means looking on-line and approaching agents. The more research you do, the better the deal you will find.
Price vs Convenience and Time
I have just used a favorite iPad app to find myself a flight from Rome to Dubai and back. I’m well aware that the return date is after the schools and universities have closed for the long (and hot) summer vacation, so it’s going to be a peak season in the industry. Top of the list (ie cheapest) is Swiss Airlines – a reputable airline offering a return fare for $US 564. Then I scroll down the list for the top of the league – Emirates – and the first Emirates fare I find is $US 1061 for my chosen dates. Almost double! A no brainer! Swiss wins by a country mile, right?
Well, maybe, but there are a couple of things you need to take into account. The Emirates flight is a direct flight. You get on board at Rome Fiumicino and 5 hours 50 minutes later you get off at Dubai International. You also get quite convenient times to arrive and check-in on both legs of your trip. Swiss, on the other hand, is not a direct flight – you have to fly to Zurich first, and then transfer to the flight that will take you to Dubai – a Rome to Dubai time of 9 hours and 15 minutes. Also, you’d need to be at Rome’s Fiumicino at 6.35am to check in; maybe not a huge problem if you are staying in a hotel in Rome, but for me, it would mean a trip down to Rome the night before, then a night in a hotel, then a taxi ride in the morning. Add these costs and the gap between the price of the cheaper option and the more expensive direct flight probably narrows by a good $US 150.
Even with these points factored into your calculations, the cheaper option may still be the better deal for you, but do check the total time from point A to Point B. As I am writing, I am looking at another reputable airline offering a price only a little higher than the Swiss fare, but the total point-to point time is 28 hours! That’s right – it obviously includes a rather horrendous layover along the way, so again, either you pay for an in-terminal hotel room, or you endure the layover and arrive somewhat wrecked, I’d guess.
The Good Deals – and where to find them!
The 3 premium Gulf airlines, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Air still have to compete with the others and more to the point, amongst themselves to fill every possible seat on every possible flight. And that’s why, at certain times of the year, there are deals. How to find out about them? The easiest way is to join the Frequent Flyer Programs of the 3 or 4 airlines you are most likely to travel with. It costs nothing and it doesn’t commit you to anything, but all will have a check-box option for you to receive “promotional information” via email. I belong to both Emirates’ and Qatar’s Frequent Flyer programs and both airlines have sales. There are usually some conditions and the fares tend to be at non-peak times of the year, but as the yoga teacher said, if you are flexible, there are some very good fares to be had. Emirates’ program is called Skywards and you can learn more here, while Qatar’s program is called Privilege Club and joining can also be easily done via the Qatar Airways website. I have no personal experience of Etihad, but I have no reason to believe that the quality of their service is in any way inferior to the two above. Etihad’s website also offers you the chance to join their Frequent Flyer program, Etihad Guest, but also offers you a monthly newsletter by email, with no other strings attached.
OK – so what’s currently going with the big 3 for the Europe – Dubai traveller? Well, I just passed up a very-limited–period Qatar offer of a return flight Rome – Dubai via Doha for €395 (US $538) and I see that Etihad is offering Rome – Dubai for €555 (US$756), but I’d need to check whether that also means a coach ride from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, or whether it’s an actual Dubai landing. I suspect the former, but like I said earlier, with both these deals, price often involves a trade-off in time and convenience.
The Budget Airlines
These are a comparatively new phenomenon in the Middle East skies and even newer are connections that reach right into Europe. Best known are Dubai’s FlyDubai, and Sharjah’s Air Arabia, but there are also a couple of outsiders making an impact.
Turkey’s Pegasus Airlines flies between Dubai and Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport, where it is possible to transfer to flights to pretty much any European destination you care to name. I’ve flown with Pegasus and I’m quite impressed with what I have experienced so far. A flight from Dubai to Rome typically costs around US$600 and with the layover at Sabiha, may take between 9 and 12 hours from Dubai to Rome. Not bad, but see my “deals” available on the major players above. However, if you wanted to combine your European travel with a stopover in that most beguiling and urbane of cities, Istanbul, then this is a very good option to consider.
Newest player on the scene is Hungary’s WizzAir. I’ve just tried to book a flight from Rome to Dubai. Now, I know that I’ll have to transfer and probably layover in Budapest, but the website won’t let me do it as a single flight. Hmmmm. It is possible, but it’s a fiddle: we’ll just have to conclude that the website’s usability will improve and that fares are probably competitive.
Sharjah’s Air Arabia operates from Sharjah International Airport, right behind where I live. Now, there was a time when the only way you’d have got me on a flight, flying out of Sharjah was bound, gagged and anaesthetized, but things have improved massively since the arrival of Air Arabia in late 2003. The airline itself specializes mostly in Middle Eastern and Indian sub-continental destinations, but it has two subsidiaries, Air Arabia Egypt and Air Arabia Maroc which serve a number of Western European destinations. Probably a bit too much of a hassle and too round-about for most travellers, but if you want to see Dubai from such exotic destinations as Yekaterinburg and Moscow (Russia), Almaty and Astana(Kazakhstan) or Kiev and Kharkov (Ukraine), then do check this airline out.
Dubai’s FlyDubai is very much a response to the runaway success within the region of Air Arabia. It operates as a no frills budget airline to all the usual destinations within a two hour or slightly greater radius of Dubai, but in recent years it has expanded its network to include destinations further afield. For longer flights, passengers can even choose a budget Business Class option! To get a better idea of where FlyDubai travels to, have a look at the destinations map on their website here.
As Dubai’s second international airport, Al Maktoum International, steadily gathers pace and traffic, no doubt we will see more and more entrants into the highly competitive budget flight scene.
One-Stop Shops to Find Budget Flights
Just a simple web search of the key words “cheap flight” and the names of your departure point and destination will bring you a multiplicity of sites that will promise to get you the flight of your dreams at a price that might make you think you’re dreaming. eDreams,FareCompare, Expedia – and many, many more. Then there are the multi search sites, which link together about 5 or 6 different individual sites to bring you even more choices. I’ve used them; they work, provided you’re prepared to do the work and I can’t really say that I prefer any one to any other.
One App to Rule Them All
These days, I tend to rely more and more on just one – an iPhone/iPad app called Skyscanner. I like the fact that I can set a simple set of controls on the home page to give me prices in any currency I choose; I like the fact that it is multilingual. Yes, I always choose English, but I like the choice it offers all users – very democratic and inclusive. And finally, I like the fact that its user interface is pretty much the same no matter whether you are viewing it on iPad, iPhone/Android smartphone or an ordinary computer screen. You simply set departure point, destination, dates, number of travellers and it will produce a list of airlines and fares, usually lowest first, but always with the travel time clearly displayed between departure and arrival and the number of stops you may have to make if you choose that particular flight. You can go right through to a complete, online booking if you choose, or just use it for window shopping and make your eventual purchase through the airline website. I’ve done both and it makes no difference at all in price or convenience.
So there you have it – plenty of choice and obvious competition for your dollars, euros, pounds and renminbi. Do your research carefully, be flexible if you can, and you can score a good cheap fare to Dubai.