Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Heading home for the holidays

by Russell Ward

It's fast approaching that time of year when expats begin making preparations for the annual pilgrimage home to see loved ones over the Christmas period. The time for buying airline tickets is well overdue and latecomers will be contemplating extraordinarily high prices when purchasing tickets home, if at all available.

This expat attempts the journey home as often as is possible and, more often than not, during the December/January period. Past experience has shown that flights at this time of year are exorbitantly priced, yet I am often advised that, should I book a ticket outside of this peak period, the prices should halve in value. However, this generally isn’t the case. Aside from the fact that holidaying from November to February simply isn’t feasible, your favourite airlines appear to have wised up to the fact that annual travellers look to these 'shoulder peak' times for regular or reduced fares. They, accordingly, refuse to reduce the ticket price. This peak period of the year has therefore grown from a two-week timeslot to almost four months in duration.

Expats also encounter problems with ticket availability for the Christmas period. Flights are often unavailable unless booked almost twelve months prior to the proposed visit, which proves to be impractical to schedule and financially impossible at that time. Thus faced with spending a small fortune on two return tickets to the UK, often months before departure, it begs the question as to whether it’s actually possible to fly home at Christmas without breaking the bank?

One possible solution is to redeem those hard-earned frequent flyer points to gain a free trip back to dear old blighty. In theory, this should solve all problems but the reality can be quite different. Not only are a very limited number of frequent flyer-related seats made available on the airlines but, over Christmas, flights generally require an inflated number of points, in addition to the payment of increased taxes on top. Furthermore, a Qantas representative recently informed me that, to guarantee travel with a frequent flyer seat at Christmas, I should be redeeming points precisely 365 days in advance of my preferred travel date, which is when these flights are made available.

A further option would be to purchase tickets with one of the less respectable airlines, which could result in a cheaper airfare. However, this will also likely result in at least three-four stops on your journey home, reduced leg room, unusual eating options, and a safety track record of some concern.

Booking via the UK offices of airlines is something to consider, given the currently much reduced airfares in those recession-hit countries. Yet this approach is generally frowned upon by the airlines and often not possible as a result. Adopting some kind of flexibility with travel dates and times is probably your best option and travel on Christmas Day itself, whilst completely impractical, will often yield the best results.

Ultimately, national airlines could start offering those expats who regularly travel home a place to sign up and receive discounted travel to their country of origin at the peak times of year. Given the likelihood that this will never eventuate, travelling home at Christmas will remain financially painful yet unavoidably necessary.

Read more from Russell at www.insearchofalifelessordinary.blogspot.com


Annia Quiroz said...

Having lived abroad for many years my whole family experienced this problem many times. I know that for all the expats out there this is certainly an issue.

My parents often struggled in deciding when would be the best time to visit home, if at all. Sometimes we would have to try the summer season since Christmas time is so expensive. Even though recently, the airlines don't half the prices of their tickets before those peak periods like they used to, as an expat we all feel the need to fly back home at least once a year.

Family pulls us back home and it's a hard tug but I've recently found some websites that might give helpful tips on how to save a little cash.

Such as:
- eHow.com -> Tips on Flying Cheap
- www.airfare.michaelbluejay.com, and
- Wikitravel: Flying

Russell V J Ward said...

@Annia, totally agree with you regarding the fact that airlines no longer reduce fares even in the summer or out of Xmas. It is a challenge and I'm now looking at very expensive tickets for travel back to see my parents this year - the downside of living the life of an expat! Thanks for the useful links - Wikitravel was very useful for me.