Fare go ... a return flight to Cairns from Melbourne during school holiday peak could cost you more than $1000. Photo: Glenn Hunt
In the “olden days” (up until a decade ago), airlines would simply wait for the weather to turn to bring on their bumper winter season ferrying shivering New South Welshpersons and Vicmexicans to the balmy warmth of Queensland.
The problem is that 2014 is like one of the years in the mid-1990s when I remember sweating my way around Victorian golf courses in June (or southern New South Wales courses in August) wearing only jeans and a t-shirt.
Winter officially began yesterday but the balmy Indian summer in the Australian south continues. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that, with the first sign of frost, the airline booking systems will be overheating with escapist fervour.
And now that the airlines have called a truce in their domestic market share war, that means more bottoms being squeezed onto the same number of seats as seating capacity growth is reined in to restore profitability.
And that trend will be felt most keenly in the June and September school holidays, when all those enticing headline fares not only disappear, but give way to asking rates two or three times the best fares in off-peak periods.
Whereas in years past, with Jetstar and then Tigerair piling on the low-cost seats to key east coast holiday destinations, nowadays airlines' behaviour is more disciplined.
If you haven’t already booked your seats for the June-July school break, you’re already too late to get the best rates to the most popular spots like Cairns, the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast.
In a spot survey I conducted in the past 24 hours, I chose Tuesday, July 1, as my dummy booking date – as Tuesday is the hardest day of the week to sell airline tickets – for the holidays starting around Friday, June 27, in Victoria and New South Wales and Queensland (a week later in Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia).
I also decided the basic rules would be a morning departure and an afternoon where possible and a non-stop flight in both directions. It can be up to 40 per cent cheaper if you’re prepared to travel to the destination at night, but that wastes a day of your accommodation booking.
Intermediate stops can also lower the fare, even though it costs the airline more to fly you there via a stopover.
The best Qantas fare out of Melbourne to Cairns on Tuesday July 1 (returning in Tuesday July 8) I could find was $1021 return excluding surcharges. On the same day out of Sydney, I could do it for $510 – half the price even though the journey from Melbourne takes only 15-20 minutes more.
Tiger ($535) just shaded Jetstar ($538) as the cheapest ex-Melbourne, while Virgin was in slightly dearer ($618).
From Sydney, the best fares were $328 on Tiger, $438 on Jetstar and $453 on Virgin.
From Melbourne to the Golf Coast, Tiger was quoting $236 return, Jetstar $298 and Virgin $344.
From Sydney to the Gold Coast, Qantas (which restored its Sydney- Coolangatta service in October 2012) was prepared to do it for $218 return, Virgin $178, Jetstar $128 and Tiger $106 (remember that Tiger and Jetstar now have identical credit card surcharges of $8.50 one-way or $17 return, which you can escape by using their nominated credit card, while Virgin Australia charges $7.70 per booking and Qantas $7 per booking.).
After Tigerair’s withdrawal, the Sunshine Coast/Maroochydore is a two-way contest, with a July 1 quote of $364 return from Melbourne with Jetstar and $464 with Virgin, and from Sydney, $178 with Jetstar and $350 with Virgin.
These quotes are a long way from the price-leading $200 Tigerair return to Cairns and the $100 return to Gold Coast that are thrown around in low season.
And, if you look at the rates available for the September school holidays, they’re not proportionally cheaper because the travel dates are three months, instead of one month, away.
In fact, buying a long way in advance doesn’t necessarily reward you as the best fares for every seat on every date change according to how many seats have been sold and can actually be reduced quite near the travel date if the sales volume has been lower than anticipated.
And, if you’re not a regular user, be warned airline websites are getting worse, not better, in my opinion. The new obsession with gargantuan drop-down menus is infuriating and slows down the process considerably.
Even Qantas, which used to have by far the best website, now has a monster drop-down menu, which I imagine must be twice as annoying if you’re interrogating it using a smart phone and not a laptop.
My other major gripe is that only Qantas and Virgin Australia publish a readily accessible timetable. Jetstar and Tigerair make it impossible to find out when their flights operate unless you make a dummy booking on a specified date and interrogate the system on other nearby dates.
It is utterly ludicrous that any airline would want to withhold from you their primary marketing information: the flight schedule.
Are you flying to the sun this winter? Did you book in advance? How are you finding dealing with the airline booking websites? Have you left it all to an agent? Leave a comment below.