Flying on the cheap (relatively speaking)Suppose you’re a foreigner living in Seoul, and you suddenly have to make a last-minute trip to New York. You’re pressed for money as well as time.
You could start calling airlines, but that’s not likely to get you the best fare. Of course, there are Internet travel sites too. But what about Korean travel agencies?
The country has what some in the business consider a surplus of travel agencies ―more than 600, according to the Korea Association of Travel Agencies. You can make the competition work for you, if you know how. But of course, you don’t even speak the language.
With the Lunar New Year holiday coming up in early February, here are a few tips to help an expatriate become almost as travel-savvy as a local. You’ll still have a language problem, since most of the people you’ll be dealing with will speak Korean. But knowing where to go for the right information is half the battle. Get a Korean friend to help you the rest of the way, and you’re home free.
Kim Kwang-hyun of the Globalist travel agency, which specializes in discount tickets, explains that there’s a hierarchy to air fares. Most expensive are those set every year by the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), based on suggestions from member airlines, according to Hong Dae-seok of the association. Those fares, however, apply only to the highest-priced tickets, those that are valid for a full year. Just below those fares in price are tickets offered by the airlines that aren’t valid for a full year. A flight from, say, Incheon to San Francisco priced at $1,000 by IATA might be offered at $800 by the airline, Mr. Kim says.
The lowest level in the fare hierarchy is tour agencies, which buy blocks of tickets from the airlines at discounts. The agencies have their own sub-hierarchy; there are large ones like Hana Tour, OK Tour and Nextour, and there are smaller ones (some of which buy from the larger agencies). With so many agencies in Korea vying for customers, Mr. Kim says, smaller agencies will often shave about 3 percent off the fares offered by the bigger ones. One thing to keep in mind about discount tickets is that you usually can’t get refunds or change your travel dates.
With all that in mind, here are some general tips for minimizing your fare:
1. Reserve a ticket as early as you can. One important feature of ticket sales in Korea is that fares are announced late ―only about a month in advance, according to Jay Jeong at Dowon Travel Agency. Shin Jung-hye of Blue Travel Agency recommends reserving several tickets in advance, then choosing the lowest fare later. If you’re planning to go abroad for the Lunar New Year, you should be making reservations now, if you haven’t already.
Mr. Kim of Globalist offers a more specific tip: Some airlines, including JAL, offer a discount of about 20 percent, even during high-demand season, to customers who pay their fares and get a boarding pass in advance. Korean Air offers a range of discounts for travelers who get their boarding passes seven, 14 and 21 days ahead of time. KLM and other German airlines also have such systems.
The German airline Lufthansa recently announced that it’s offering all flights to major European cities from Incheon at 727,500 won ($695) for departures between March and June. Air France has a similar offer, at 864,000 won, for customers who book this month for departures to Europe between February and April. (Typical round-trip fares to Europe are well over 1.5 million won.)
2. If buying well ahead of time isn’t an option, watch for last-minute deals. There are always travelers who cancel at the last minute, and tour agencies need to fill the space. That usually means emergency discounts. Keep your eyes open for such opportunities by checking with travel agency Web sites.
3. Choose the right airline for your destination. Certain airlines are more competitive for particular destinations. For Osaka, Mr. Kim recommends Japan’s ANA; for Tokyo, JAL; for San Francisco, JAL or Singapore Airlines; for U.S. cities, American Airlines, Continental Airlines and JAL; for Europe, JAL, Cathay Pacific Airways and Thai Airways. Taiwan Airlines tends to offer affordable prices in all its markets, Mr. Kim says.
Mr. Kim also recommends staying away from airlines based in your departing country; those flights are more likely to involve layovers, which may mean a lower price but will definitely mean a longer trip. Of course, it might be worth it to you, so use your own judgment.
When it comes to tickets to Europe and to U.S. cities other than New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, airlines seldom offer special prices from Incheon. Also, airlines hardly ever offer discounts of their own on business and first-class tickets. For those options, you’re best off looking for travel agencies offering discounts of their own. Bon voyage!
by Chun Su-jin