Airline economics: How to save on plane tickets

by Tia

Hopping on a plane to destinations near and far has become as familiar for many South Africans as jumping in a car. But cost is invariably an issue – when planning trips locally or internationally, first actions tend to be checking out prices and availability of airline tickets. It’s here that potential travellers are faced with several options that may cause confusion and often overwhelmed would be airline ticket buyers.

Ahead of the holiday season in South Africa, Morne du Preez, Chief Executive Officer at Tourvest Travel Services – a division of Tourvest Holdings Africa’s Largest Integrated Travel Group, shares his considerable expertise on how to save on airplane tickets, what goes into complex pricing structures, and when paying a bit more pays off.

Timing is key.

“The first rule of thumb when it comes to buying airplane tickets is the sooner the better,” du Preez says. As a rule, airlines generally make their seats available at least six months in advance. Acting fast within this timeframe increases your chances of getting the best price for your trip. Morne advises against waiting until the last minute in the hope of securing a better deal: The reality is, when flights are full – above 80% capacity – the chances of finding a cheaper ticket are slim to none.

Class matters.

“Contrary to popular belief, seat prices are not determined by their location on the aircraft but rather by their classification,” du Preez notes. Seats are managed by class, and larger aircraft often offer multiple classes per flight. Understanding the dynamics of seat allocation within classes, particularly in the larger Economy section, is important for navigating the pricing landscape.

Each airline carrier tends to have its own terminology for different seat classifications and several options per “main” Economy classification. The differences and higher costs include the width, recline and pitch of the seat; amenities; baggage allowance; food and beverages offered; and other various extra services.

Supply, demand, and special events.

“The principles of supply and demand determine the price of airplane tickets,” du Preez says. “If you are keen to save, plan your travels to avoid peak periods. Flexibility is your friend, allowing you to find better deals when others are tied in school or work commitments.”

As demand goes up, lower priced seats are quickly snapped up. In addition, prices escalate around major events, such as the recent Rugby World Cup in France. Being aware of high-profile events and national holidays at your destination allows you to plan around them where possible.

Also impacting price is how many airlines fly to the destination, as well as whether your flight is non-stop or passes through one or more hubs. While passing through hubs extends travel time, it can lower the price of the ticket.

Smart strategies for booking.

Destination and market trends play an important role when booking airline tickets.  du Preez says the best deals are often found on newer airlines or airlines launching new routes, and smaller airlines with hubs in less popular cities may offer cheaper tickets than major carriers.

Loyalty programmes can be a goldmine for discounts. These offer members excellent deals on airplane travel and access to more discounts than a non-member would qualify for – make sure you are signed up to save.

If you have left it to the last minute, there are still ways to minimise costs, du Preez assures. Be flexible with travel dates – flights on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve, for example, are likely to be cheaper as many people plan to arrive at their destination before those major holidays.

Travel agents are the smart choice.

Although handling bookings individually may appear quick and easy, du Preez emphasizes the crucial role a reputable travel agent plays in managing travel spend, especially agents registered with the Association of South African Travel Agents (ASATA). Travel agents provide valuable support in choosing routes, understanding cancellation policies, making upgrades, securing visas, advising on travel insurance, and how best to move through unfamiliar airports, cities, and countries.

Hidden costs often lurk in the fine print of cheaper tickets, such as restrictions on changes and additional fees. Initial savings on a ‘cheap’ ticket can turn into false economy when unexpected costs tucked away in the terms and conditions start racking up,” says du Preez.

International travel comes with many unknowns, therefore having a travel agent who is familiar with all possible variables can be beneficial to the traveller.

“Travel agents know the rules, they know what you need to do travel-wise with your passport, connection timeframes and protocol, what happens if you miss your flight, what visas you will need for every stage of your journey and how to obtain them in time, and a myriad of other essential travel information that will have you best prepared for as seamless a trip as possible,” du Preez adds.

Looking ahead

The travel industry expects to be busy in 2024 as local, regional, and international travel continues to surge after the pandemic. Du Preez recommends, “Plan ahead, book holidays and business trips far in advance, be as flexible as possible to make travel budgets stretch further and remember that you don’t have to go it alone – a reputable travel agent will ensure your next trip is plain sailing.”

This optimism is echoed by Willie Walsh, Director General of the International Air Transport Association (IATA): “Considering the major losses of recent years, the $25.7 billion net profit expected in 2024 is a tribute to aviation’s resilience. People love to travel and that has helped airlines to come roaring back to pre-pandemic levels of connectivity. The speed of the recovery has been extraordinary; yet it also appears that the pandemic has cost aviation about four years of growth. From 2024 the outlook indicates that we can expect more normal growth patterns for both passenger and cargo.”

A recent public opinion poll conducted by IATA (14 countries, 6,500 respondents who have taken at least one trip in the last year) revealed the following:

  • 89% agreed that air travel is a necessity for modern life
  • 88% agreed that air travel makes their lives better
  • 88% said that air travel has a positive impact on societies
  • 80% agreed that air travel is good value for money

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