Hopper Gets the Chop!
On our chosen itinerary, Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok has budget airlines with several flights in addition to full service carriers. So at least that sector is easy and cheap. Bangkok to Taipei is more complicated, unfortunately. If you want to fly at a reasonable hour, then you really have little option but take one of the full service carriers – THAI, EVA and China Airlines. There are budget flights on the route – presently Nok Scoot and Thai Lion Mentari. But these only operate overnight flights departing between 2:00 am and 3:00 am. For me that’s a non-starter. I for one am not going to lose a night’s sleep spending hours at airports for a flight time of little over three and a half hours. There is one other budget carrier, Tiger Air Taiwan, with a more convenient departure around 8:00 pm arriving at 00:40 am. But since on a long trip you are likely to have more than cabin baggage, you may well find the cost for this flight is no cheaper than one of the full service carriers.
To check what the other possibilities might be, I got back in to the Internet. I often use farecompare.com. This gives you a choice of a minimum of three fare search engine comparisons for both non-stop and connecting flights. In theory (that damn word again) this should be a major help. In fact, it is maddening! Almost every site gives the cheapest fare as Philippine Airlines requiring a change in Manila. OK! Manila is not that far from Taipei. Look more closely and you discover that this layover is anything from a horrible 8 hours to a horrendous 19 hours! No way! Who on this planet is going to spend 23 hours travelling for what is less than a four-hour flight just to save a few bucks! Do they think we are idiots?
So you then have to wade through many dozens of similar connections on China Southern, Air Macau, Air Asia, Hong Kong Airlines – even China Eastern via Shanghai before you will come across one with an acceptably fast connection at a reasonable price.
Recently I thought relief might be at hand for finding the best fare on this route. A few months ago CNN’s Business Traveller programme plugged the newish site, Hopper. The benefit, we were told, is that Hopper not only gives indications of existing prices on individual dates up to a year ahead, it uses algorithms to advise readers whether to wait before booking when historically prices might fall. In theory this should be especially useful. But just like all the others, Philippine Airlines with those horrendous layovers comes up first. And surprisingly – indeed shockingly – Cathay Pacific which has many connection possibilities to Taipei at reasonable prices is nowhere on their list.
But wait! Hopper also gives the option of non-stop flight information. Just out of interest, I checked return fares for the Taipei Gay Pride Parade on Saturday 27 October later this year and saw an excellent low fare on China Airlines which came with a recommendation this be booked quickly. Hopper works, I thought. In this case, though, it didn’t! For I then checked China Airlines’ own site for the same date and departure time to discover how much cheaper the Hopper fares were. And I discovered that exactly the same round-trip flights were being offered at almost US$70 cheaper!!
So much for Hopper! It got the chop. The app was immediately deleted from my phone.
There is one other piece of software worth checking, the ITA Matrix. This can be very useful in helping you find the cheapest fares for your route and many will indeed be lower, sometimes substantially so, than you can find on farecompare, Hopper and the airlines’ own sites. Yet, if you check your one-way Edinburgh to Singapore ticket, the first flight offered is on Turkish Airlines. No problem there as Turkish is a very good airline. But look at the total journey time. 42 hours 55 minutes. WTF! That’s nuts when for an extra £21 you get a 17 hour 50 minutes total time on Etihad at almost $70 cheaper than the Hopper price!!
The real problem with the ITA Matrix, though, is that you cannot book those tickets! This software is for the travel industry and the fares are not bookable via the internet. The only thing you can try to do if you find a ticket lower than those on other websites, is to take a screen shot. Then take it directly to a travel agent and try to do a deal. Good luck!
From all the above, you can tell that, unfortunately, I really have little good advice to enable you to get the cheapest rate for either your hotel room or your air fare. Both nowadays are fluid entities and constantly changing. And don’t be lulled into a false sense of security with any “guaranteed lowest price” offers. Look at the small print. This is so hedged with conditions that that guarantee is pretty much useless.
Same with booking many months in advance. Who knows what might happen before your trip? Those seats on your planes and the rooms in your hotels are perishable commodities. I once took a flight from Singapore to Tokyo at the time of the first Gulf War. My Northwest 747 had all of 23 passengers. If I had gone to an agent a few days earlier, I am pretty certain there would have been major discounts on offer.
Same with the price of the hotel room in Hong Kong I had booked months earlier at the lowest rate I could find. That turned out to be a good deal higher than the walk-in rate when I finally arrived. But then neither the hotel nor I could have realized that tourism had been adversely affected by major street demonstrations at the time of my visit. Most rooms which understandably carry no value the day after will almost certainly be heavily discounted the night before.
Then again, luck can – just occasionally – be on a traveller’s side. I once arrived in New York on a flight that had been heavily delayed by six hours. Arriving at my hotel at 1:00 am with a confirmed pre-paid booking, the desk clerk was clearly surprised. Assuming I was not coming and with a full hotel, my room had been given away. Seeing I was about to scream, he calmly told me not to worry. “I’ll put you in our Westminster Suite on the top floor for your three nights.”
Such are the travails and joys a traveller experiences these days!