Buy an infalatable globe (the one that swivels), close your eyes and point your finger in any destination. If its not in South America, rest assured you won’t burn a hole in your wallet. To get to the point, the one place in the world which costs a bomb to get to from India is South America. Unless you have plans of walking all the way to England or South Africa and then taking a flight, a flight from Mumbai to anyplace in South Am may touch 6 figures.
There are some things one should never do, if you want a cheap flight –
1. Trust a travel agent
2. Think you can book tickets over the phone
3. Buy tickets from the first place you find them
4. Take direct flights
5. Use words like business class or first class
6. Pay by credit card
I will spend time elaborating on them, but for starters, remember these golden rules.
The Travel Agent Test – Mumbai, like any other city in India, has umpteen number of travel agents. To shortlist a travel agent, try this test first. Call up 5 agents, give them 2 itineraries – a simple itinerary like Mumbai to Barcelona and return from Brussels and the second itinerary for a slightly more complicated journey like Mumbai to Sao Paulo via USA or Europe and Return from Caracas or Panama via New Zealand ideally with a stopover in Fiji. This is just a test. Don’t worry. In all probabilities, none of the agents will call you back. That is not just a reflection of customer service levels. It is also a reflection of their understanding of geography. If an agent calls you back, he is your agent. If 2 call you back, select the one with a cheaper fare. If none call you back, you can call me and I’ll tell you how to go about buying your ticket.
Anycase, after mailing 2 to 3 agents, I was lucky to actually find one agent, who called me back. I was happy with that one phone call for a day. On day 3 of interaction with this agent, over the phone, I realised that life at his end was like this – ” Ring Ring…. Pick up Aparna’s Call… Note down her mad itinerary on a small postit in an illegible handwriting… Hang up.. Get back to the customer sitting across the desk and forget Aparna exisits..” The day I figured this out, I decided it was time to pay my dear agent a personal visit.
I bunked work and headed to town. My agent was a little shocked to see me in person. Afterall, he was expecting a diamong spoting rich housewife and not a poor almost unemployed trackpant clad budget traveler. He was a kind mallu, who was extremely happy when he found out I was tam. I made sure I used my tam accent with him. This leads to my second golden rule… its impossible to get things done over the phone. You just have to go down in person and show the agent how committed you are to traveling.
On sharing the itinerary using a map, my agent presented fares that made me fall off my chair. I obviously did not show my discomfort to him. I acted cool and calm and took off. This comes to my third golden rule – Never buy the first ticket you find. My first ticket quote was 1 lac plus taxes.
I went home, made myself 2 mugs of strong black coffee and switched on my laptop. I thanked God there was Internet. I browsed vigorously for about 8 hours till I had made a list of every site through which I could search for cheap fares. My favourites are –
http://www.makemytrip.co.in/ (You can search for any sector in the world , but limited to 3 sectors only for a multi city option. This may result in breaking up your sectors and doing multiple searches. Use this site only for research. Use the fare you get to bargain with your agent. Never book using them. Their customer service sucks. The tele operators do not know the difference between Calicut and Cusco.)
http://www.kayak.com/ (Limitation – You cannot search non US sectors. You can use Makemytrip to find fares from India to the US and then use Kayak to find fares from US to South Am.)
http://www.wego.com/ (Only one way and round trip fares. No multi city. This is a Singapore based company and Asia’s largest flight search provider. Hence, use this to search round trip fares from Mumbai to anywhere in the world.)
http://www.cheaptickets.com/ (Good alternative to Kayak)
After great research, I managed to get options, which beat the agents option by almost 25000 bucks. The main why the costs come down so drastically is selecing various stopover options. For eg: Mumbai New York direct flight may cost a lot as compared to Mumbai New York via Abu Dhabi on Ethiad. Also, New York Sao Paulo direct flight may cost a lot more than New York Sao Paulo via Panama city. After looking up various permutation combinations, I arrived on a cost effective itinerary and gave it to my agent.
What can I say.. he was impressed with my research and did mention that I had a budding future in the travel industry if I did the IATA course. Hmmm…. one more lucrative career option after being on the road.
After going back and forth, we finally issued our tickets about a week ago. By the way, always remember to pay for your tickets using cash / cheque. Agents charge a 2% surcharge on the amount if you pay by credit card. Unless you have a cash back card which gives you more than 2% cash back, its not worth paying that extra amount. Push for a discount, you will get it. And remember to register in the frequent flyer program of the airline you are taking. Every damn mile you fly will come to use in the future when you decide to redeem them for shorter flights.
Once you get your international ticket, you can start worrying about the local sectors. I couldnt find any universal airline search engine for South America. I just used Makemytrip.co.in for the same. The sector we searched was Sao Paulo – Lima. Who would have thought that Sao Paulo – Buenos Aires – Santiago – Lima – Cusco with no stopover in Santiago would be cheaper than Sao Paulo – Lima direct flight. That is the miracle of stopovers.
However, when it finally came to the booking, I just went to the airline site http://www.lan.com/ and booked my tickets. That was an adventure… the tickets got reserved but not booked. So, i had to call customer service in Chile and speak to them for 30 minutes. Atleast, it wasn’t futile. They are pretty prompt in replying. All the tickets got done after 3 days of going back and forth.
There are air pass options for Round the World and within South America. However, it works out far more expensive if you are not entering South America through an alliance airline. For eg: One world airpass has 12 airlines on it and you have to fly only using them. This may get restrictive. However, do check this option as well. There aren’t too many agents in India who book these air passes. You may have to book it through US or UK and have them shipped to you. http://www.airtimetable.com/airpass_south_America.htm
Overall, after all the bookings, I was just happy about the money saved big time due to the research. My husband (the banker) found a sight to check the statistics of the flights we were taking in terms of delay’s etc. http://www.flightstats.com/ is a good option for those who want to know whether flight 123 from X to Y has a 87% track record of departing on time. This gave him joy. I did not object.
For those who have more time, check http://www.tripadvisor.com/ and search in the foru
ms about flights from point to point. There would be many stories about airline companies, delays, lost baggage, etc. You can get yourself psyched, if you already aren’t.
If you want to forget the internet and just relax, hold your air tickets in your hand and dream about the cheap red wine they serve you on flights. Eitherway, the wait till you board your flight can be the most exciting period before you actually travel.