Budget no more
With regular airlines dangling promotions and increasing fuel surcharges, budget travellers are eyeing full-service carriers. -ST
WITH ballooning fuel surcharges and cut-throat competition, it might be more worthwhile at times to fly a premium, full-service carrier than a budget one.
That's the result of a check by Life! on airfare deals for travellers, even as many airlines of all levels slash routes and services as the price they pay for fuel keeps rising. Last week, crude oil prices rose to above US$138 (S$189) per barrel, compared to US$65 a year ago.
The low-cost deals Life! found were among fares from Singapore to Bangkok, a popular destination for Singaporeans, for a trip by two adults departing on July 1 and returning on July 7 (see table).
Budget-conscious fliers would normally check out deals on offer at the likes of no-frills airline Jetstar, a subsidiary of Aussie carrier Qantas.
Jetstar's website quoted a JetFlex total of $1,132 for two adults, broken down into $642 for airfare and taxes (including fuel surcharges) of $490. JetFlex tickets are refundable and allow the changing of flight schedules.
But get this: National carrier Singapore Airlines (SIA) has a promotion offer of just $656 for two adults - a huge saving of $476.
For those travelling in pairs, it's definitely more worth it to fly SIA when you throw in the full suite of services and baggage allowance that the airline offers, compared with a budget carrier.
Sure, it generally does cost more to fly the best than the cheapest - and yet, the bumper Bangkok deal of lower fares on a five-star airline was not an isolated example.
Life! also found that an SIA two-to-go promotion fare for Taipei at $1,376 is close to $638 cheaper than Jetstar's JetFlex fare.
SIA's promotion price is only $42 more than Jetstar's cheaper JetSaver fares for Taipei. JetSaver's flight schedules are not changeable and the ticket is non-refundable.
For Bangkok, Tiger Airways' fare for two people - $451.96 - is cheaper than SIA's by just $204.04. And the Tiger Airways fare does not include the recently imposed baggage check-in fee, which goes from $5 for 15kg to $40 for 30kg.
SIA's two-to-go promotion is applicable for travel between June 18 and July 18.
Travellers must be wondering: Given the diminishing price difference between budget airlines and full-service airlines offering promotion deals, are budget flights still budget anymore?
Advertising and promotions manager Han Jiani, 25, says: 'For my trip to Taiwan last year, I paid over $700 for a budget airfare, and this is the same amount my friend paid for SIA to the same destination.'
Indeed, Ms Han notes - as many other fliers must be doing - that for some trips, when there are promotions on, she prefers regular airlines since it's 'more comfort and better service for a slight difference in price'.
Post-graduate student Daryl Lam, 26, agrees: 'The prices are not very different now - there seems to be a higher marginal return if I fly regular airlines. Well, at least psychologically.'
Feeling the pinch
SIA'S better Bangkok deal is not the only bargain around. Full-service carrier Malaysia Airlines (MAS) has launched an Everyday Low Fares campaign, offering a million tickets as 'zero fares' (travellers bear only tax and surcharges), for bookings to 12 regional cities such as Perth, Brisbane, Shanghai and Guangzhou. These flights depart from Kuala Lumpur. Promotional flights which depart from Singapore include those going to Penang, Kota Kinabalu, Kuching and Langkawi.
The offer closes on June 22.
The promotions by full-service airlines such as SIA and MAS are good news for cost-conscious travellers who have been feeling the pinch as high fuel prices continue to push up airfares.
The fuel surcharges are usually included under the component 'taxes and fees' when you buy your ticket.
Fuel costs now account for a third of the operating expenditure for airlines, but for budget carriers, this can be as high as 40 per cent.
Last month, SIA raised its fuel surcharge for the second time this year, after doing so five times last year. The latest increases range from 15 to 19 per cent depending on the sectors.
For some budget airlines flying certain routes, the surcharges and fees can add up to more than the fare itself. The end result is a higher total fare all round - and frowns from travellers.
Post-graduate student Ong Choon Hon recalls that the taxes and fees he paid for a Tiger Airways flight to Bangkok last February were $92, compared with about $146 now.
'That's more than a 50 per cent increase,' exclaims the 26-year-old.
Miss Venetia Chung, 22, an undergraduate at Nanyang Technological University who flew to Phuket last year on Jetstar, says that more than half of the cost of her ticket went to paying taxes and surcharges.
'My ticket cost about $120 but after taxes, I had to pay over $300. I paid a lot more when compared to what I would normally pay for a non-budget flight with all the conveniences.'
Mr Eugene Ong, 21, who is doing his national service, has done his sums and says: 'I would rather pay more for an SIA flight.'
And with Air Asia and Tiger imposing baggage check-in fees, budget carriers may become even more unattractive.
Professional golfer Allen Kelly, 42, says that extra baggage costs for his golf sets can amount to $120. He travels up to three times a month for tournaments and 70 per cent of his trips are on budget carriers.
However, he notes that on full-service airlines, he is not charged for his golf bag, gets a meal and 'a beer or two' even. On a budget airline, all these can add up to over $60, bringing the difference in budget and premium fares to only $10 sometimes.
On the impact of fuel surcharges, he echoes what many have encountered when booking flights online: 'The prices don't look too bad until you go to pay and the final cost is there.'
This is not to say that budget airlines do not offer good deals such as the recent Jetstar's Buy 2 Tickets Get 1 Free promotion. Tiger Airways has announced its Great Singapore Sale Specials for bookings from today till Friday, with one-way fares for a person from $39, inclusive of taxes and surcharges. Destinations range from Kuala Lumpur to Ho Chi Minh City and Darwin. The travel period is up till October.
Generally, budget airlines advise travellers to do what post-graduate student Sin Harng Luh, 27, does.
She says: 'You've got to be on the ball to get real budget prices, such as subscribing to mailers and booking as soon as the offers are announced.'
This article was first published in Life!, The Straits Times on June 10 2008.
Related story: Budget vs Regular
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