Why the cheapest flight isn’t always the cheapest option

They might be cheap – but if you’re not careful, last-minute hiccups can make your budget fare more expensive than flying a more glamorous carrier…

For some of us, it only takes one successfully booked dirt-cheap airfare before considering ourselves as worthy of office as any travel agent.

You know the story – weeks poring over flight aggregators, desperate to piece together a flight path that involves at least three lengthy plane changes in foreign lands. Such is the desire to scrimp some cash, no stopover is too large. It becomes almost a fun connect-the-dots game. While others in my vicinity are breaking records for flying round the world at breakneck speed, my Dubai to New Zealand jaunt could certainly be considered as an attempt at the world’s slowest circumnavigation.

Each leg booked separately, I came away from Skyscanner one night with an inbox full of flight confirmations; one from Dubai to Kerala (Dh377), three hours in Kerala to swap planes, one flight from Kerala to the Gold Coast (Dh649) via Singapore and a 14-hour layover, a couple days with a friend on the Gold Coast, and one final flight to Wellington (Dh462), with a total ticket price of Dh1488.

The feeling of triumph far eclipsed the fact that this route was going to take the best part of four days.
For weeks the smugness lasted, re-telling my fable of success in the same way a village elder might tell a story over a campfire. Yes, I told many a time, you can in fact get to New Zealand for the same price as a mid-range ticket to the UK.

About a week before my trip the question of entry visas in India arose.

No, no, I’d breezily replied, I was only in transit. Besides, I’d been in 2012 and it was visa on arrival anyway. Nonetheless, a quick scan through Google and a trip deep down a comment board wormhole left reason enough to worry. Mark my words: when you need it most, TripAdvisor will turn on you. 

As it turned out, Indian visa regulations changed in 2017 and all nationalities are now required to apply for an e-visa ($50USD!) online. But so recent was the change that airlines, travel agents and visa departments each had differing opinions on if I needed a transit or entry visa – or if I needed one at all.

With four days to go until my trip (the cut-off to apply for a visa) an entire day’s worth of daylight hours was spent on my phone crying intermittently at different people.

My favourite part was being told to go to Abu Dhabi, then told instead to get to the opposite end of Dubai, wait an hour to be seen, and then asked why I wasn’t in Abu Dhabi. This was followed up by a reassuring comment there was actually no guarantee my visa would be processed in time as they didn’t have enough information about New Zealand passports.

It took a wayward tweet to the Ambassador to India’s office to finally clear everything up: those on separate tickets changing flights in India must get an e-visa.

My helpful saviour explained that my situation was a grey area – as most (sane) people book connecting flights rather than separate tickets.

There are several risky factors with separate tickets at play here.

  1. Visas are for you to figure out. You might think you can swindle it at the other end, trying your luck in the transit area, but it’s getting on the plane that’s the problem. For the airline, your destination is wherever your ticket with them ends – and if you don’t have the proper permission to enter that country, there’s no way you’re getting on that flight.
  2. When booking separate tickets, checking recent visa regulations is crucial. Rules change all the time (more than likely in the space of half a decade too) and each nationality has a different set of rules depending on reciprocal agreements between each country.
  3. The airlines are not liable for your transit. If you’re booking two separate tickets and your first flight is late (or, you get stuck at immigration at either point) neither of your airlines are liable to rebook you. As far as each airline is concerned – your start journey and end journeys are exactly what they say on each of their respective tickets; whatever happens outside of that time is your responsibility.

In the end – despite two preceding Air India Express flights taking off from DXB an hour late – I ended up sitting next to my departure gate in Kerala with two hours to spare. It is, however, a depressing feeling, and cause for much immigration questioning, entering and exiting a country within 45 minutes.

While it all seemingly went to plan, I can assure you that three sleepless nights, emotional breakdowns on the phone to several strangers, and stalking a diplomat on social media weren’t worth the Dh200 saved.

Moral of the story? By all means, book the cheap ticket. But check all requirements for each and every country you’re stopping in inside out and backwards as you do so.

It’s safe to say I embarked on my Dh2000 direct flight back home to the UAE with a lot more dignity.

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