Friday, December 23, 2005

More than You Want to Know About Fare Hunting

Today I worked a lot and had a frustrating Christmas shopping experience at the mall. Drank an extra cup of coffee and chased the UPS man down the block, but not at the same time.

Sound familiar? I've had to acknowledge that "No Hurry In Jersey City" is nowhere near as exotic as "No Hurry In Africa." If it were Africa, the lines at the mall would be shorter and the UPS man would wear yellow and work for DHL. And the frustration would be from power failures and diarrhea.

But here's some exciting news. I'm only 17 days away from a 3-month stay in Kuwait.

It was hit-or-miss for a while there. First, I wasn't sure I wanted to go. A day of snow-shoveling and a quick look at the bank balance changed my mind.

Second, I wasn't sure they'd let me go, what with my tricky passport issues and all. The State Department kindly solved my problem.

Third, I couldn't find affordable housing or reasonable airfare. These problems have not been solved, but I've readjusted my definition of cheap. I've had to accept that while there are plenty of fabulous places for around $750 a month in Kuwait, these are not available to someone looking for a three-month lease. I'll be paying a thousand unless I can masquerade as a Muslim Tamil bachelor in order to score a share.

The airfare was tricky, and I scored a good price only in relative terms. $960 round-trip can hardly be called a "bargain."

I tried some direct routes through the biggest, best-est NYC discounters—TFI—and they were all about $1200. Yow.

Then I played with some online discounters. Airfareplanet looked good, but it does that annoying thing where it displays all published fares—not what is actually available. And it shows the prices pre-tax. I gave up on them when I called and got a person on the phone who knew less than I do about being a travel agent.

"What booking class is that?" I asked her. She refused to tell me.

"You don't need to know that. Only I need to know that."

I calmly (but probably with apparent rage) explained to her that the booking class determined whether a fare was eligible for frequent flyer miles or not. She argued with me. I proceeded to ask if I could have a stopover in London, and she could not make heads or tails of how to build in a stopover. I finally hung up.

I bought a $400 round-trip Continental flight from Newark to London Gatwick. I leave January 9th and return April 10th.

Then I trawled the UK booking engines for the rest. seemed like a good place to start, as it lists the lowest published fares and the times they are available. But invariably, when I go to the sites in question, the fares are unavailable. In one case, Czech Airlines claimed to fly to Kuwait, but no one could figure out how when I called, and I could not find any flights to Kuwait on their website. Their Prague to Dubai flights are offered at an amazing $328 round-trip, but when I looked at flying first to Prague on EasyJet, then from Dubai to Kuwait on Air Arabia or Jazeera Airways, the UAE flight taxes seemed prohibitive.

Then I moved on to the German discount airlines. There's a ton of them and Herr Marlboro has recently worked out that it is possible to buy a hundred-dollar one-way from Cairo to Munich. The prices on airlines such as Condor and HapagFly were amazing… but I again ran into the problem of the fares from Egypt to Kuwait (via UAE) costing too much once taxes were added in.

I went back to scouring the UK booking engines. brought H.M. to JFK once for dirt-cheap on Air India—at Easter no less—but they wouldn't sell me anything without a UK-based credit card. had an amazing fare of £323 for London to Kuwait via Athens but they wanted to charge me another €30 for delivery, and no one there could figure out how to route a stopover in Athens (I've been meaning to visit my old college friend Scarfalonius there for over a decade). Ebookers fares were slightly higher than the others, and had some Gulf Air tickets for £349.

I nosed around some more. None of these airlines would be useful to me in frequent flyer miles terms. Only Emirates was useful, but their fares were all MUCH higher.

I finally decided to buy a one-way ticket on Olympic and then wing it on the way back. Maybe I'd catch Jazeera to Amman, go overland to Tel Aviv, get a discount one-way to Europe. Maybe I'd go lay on the beach in Sharm El-Sheikh and then go up to Germany for a Ryanair connection to London.

Maybe I'd just check the booking engines one last time and then buy.

Was I dreaming? Had I been staring at the iBook monitor for so long that I could no longer trust my vision? Where had that £298 British Airways all-inclusive round-trip Heathrow-to-Kuwait fare come from? An e-ticket, no less, meaning no delivery fees. And American Airlines miles, although only 25% of the normal as it's a discount economy ticket.

"Quick, do something," I told myself. I clicked "Book" and bought the ticket.

I didn't mess around with the dates. Once I saw that fare, I just bought it without trying to get the exact dates I wanted. I got the right outbound date, but I will have a week in Europe on the return. Fine. There are worse things. I'll think of something to do. Any suggestions, bearing my poverty in mind?


Linda said...

Hmm... pretending to be a Muslim Tamil bachelor in order to get an apartment? Sounds like the basis of a sit-com!

Marie Javins said...

Er... Biryani Buddies? Tom Hanks could guest star.

Anonymous said...

You do enjoy a problem that is actually solveable, now don't you?

Ed Ward said...

My default cheap-flight (and cheap-hotel) website is Mobissimo, and they also have a blog for up-to-the-minute fare changes.

As for being a Tamil bachelor, just don't shave for a while. Sheesh, it's that easy!

And as for the stopover in Europe, I should be getting ready to leave Berlin, but you could always stop in here for a little while. Hell, if I'm already furnishing the place in France, I could arrange for you to stay in Schloss Ward!

Marie Javins said...

Interesting... Mobissimo has my BA flight too... and so does everyone else! I just happened to click on ebookers when BA launched a sale. I could have booked straight through BA. Well, there were no extra fees so it's all okay.

But the Olympic flights were not there, while all the various Gulf airlines were.

The lesson? Check lots of sources. Don't ignore

Berlin is definitely on my short list. I'll keep reading to see if the only person I know in Berlin (people who have fallen off the face of the earth aside) is actually in France then.