Low-cost airlines may be associated with short hops abroad, but they can also save UAE travellers serious money to far-flung destinations such as San Francisco and Sydney.
Research by The National found that using multiple “no frills” carriers for long-haul travel can save up to 57 per cent on the price of direct air fares from the UAE.
A non-stop flight from Dubai to Sydney in June, for example, will set you back about Dh7,608 on Emirates. But flying with Air Arabia from Sharjah to Kochi, then Air Asia to Sydney via Kuala Lumpur, brings that down to Dh3,309.
There is a catch, however: the total journey time is a whopping 55 hours 20 minutes – almost double that of the direct flights with Emirates.
Travel experts say flying long-haul with multiple budget airlines can often be cheaper than both direct flights and regular routes that include stopovers. Consequently more people are choosing this option even when flying long-haul.
“There is a growing trend to look at low-cost carriers for cost savings,” says Premjit Bangara, the general manager of Sharaf Travel in the UAE, adding that while travellers save financially they pay in time, given the break in journeys.
“I don’t think this is something for the faint-hearted,” says Bob Atkinson, travel expert at the UK-based price comparison site TravelSupermarket.com.
Mr Atkinson recently booked a flight from Manchester in the UK to Sydney, which set him back £1,200 (Dh6,814) – a hefty sum, because he was travelling at peak times.
He worked out he could have booked for about £900 using a complex series of budget flights stopping in Istanbul, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur.
In the end he decided against it: “It would have been a saving of around 25 per cent – but the journey time was extraordinary,” explains Mr Atkinson.
Saj Ahmad, the chief analyst at StrategicAero Research, says he once travelled between London and Muscat for just £190 – flying a route that involved four stopovers.
“If it’s a couple or a single person who just wants to get from point A to point B with the least amount of open wallet surgery, then yes, breaking up a travel plan with stopovers works great,” he says.
“But for a family, say with toddlers, is this convenient when you may be sat in airports for hours on end? I don’t think so.”
One example of potential savings when booking with budget airlines is on the key Dubai-London route. Direct flights for travel on July 7-14 start at Dh2,589 with Royal Brunei, or at Dh2,096 with Aeroflot via Moscow. But using the budget airlines flydubai and Ryanair can get you there for Dh1,923.
Flying like this is increasingly possible in the UAE, which is now served by the likes of Air Arabia, Jazeera Airways and Wizz Air.
While offering mainly short-haul routes, some of these low-cost airlines travel as far afield as Budapest, Dar es Salaam and Dhaka. They can connect travellers with other no-frills airlines, as well as the handful of low-cost, long-haul operators that have sprung up in the East, such as Air Asia X and Scoot.
But in the new age of low oil prices, full-service carriers are also able to offer more competitive fares. The comparison website Kayak said recently that the cost of tickets from the UAE to Europe and the US departing in June has fallen by 16 and 14 per cent respectively from a year ago.
Mr Bangara says that while he had seen some lower fares out there, using low-cost carriers was still the cheaper way of getting to European destinations. “You’ll still find a substantial price difference,” he says.
He points to the low-cost Turkish airline Pegasus, which offers flights from Dubai to locations such as London, Paris and Rome via its base in Istanbul. Prices for a return ticket from Dubai to London with Pegasus can be as low as Dh1,400 outside peak season, he says.
“The basic rule of thumb is to look at the direction of travel – don’t backtrack,” he says. “Try to space your flight, breaking down the travel as best you can.”
Sometimes using a budget carrier for just part of a journey can also save money. For example, you can get from the UAE to San Francisco for just Dh3,761 by flying Air Arabia from Sharjah to Istanbul, then onwards with British Airways and American Airlines.
Yet Mr Atkinson pointed to several ways the costs can mount up.
Budget airlines typically charge extra for stowed baggage and food and drink, adding to the costs, he says. And if you miss a flight, or it is cancelled or delayed, you will almost certainly not get a refund or rebooking for connecting flights with other airlines.
“If you arrive late somewhere, or your flight is cancelled, your whole itinerary becomes absolutely snookered,” explains Mr Atkinson.
“The further you go, the lower the cost savings become, the longer the journey becomes, and the greater the risk of something going wrong.”
There is also an environmental impact, giving that making stopovers is less fuel-efficient than flying direct, Mr Atkinson adds.
On top of that, most budget carriers do not give loyalty points, and sometimes charge you for seat reservations, checking in early online, and in-flight entertainment.
Yet despite the downsides, Mr Atkinson says that travelling this way could work for those with lots of time on their hands, students, or people wanting to break up a long journey.
Yet finding such bargains is not easy, warns Mr Ahmed, because many budget airlines are not listed on flight search engines such as Skyscanner: “You’ll only find a bargain if you trawl for it.”
And Mr Atkinson cautions that – when you do find “budget” airlines serving your long-haul route – it doesn’t necessarily mean the flights will be the cheapest when other costs are factored in.
“The perception is that low-cost is always cheaper,” he says. “However we’ve managed to prove, on many occasions, it can be more expensive.”
Save money (but not time) flying budget
Flying long-haul on budget airlines can save you more than half the cost of travelling direct, research by The National has shown. But it is not always the cheapest option. Check out our four case studies of when it does – and doesn’t – pay to take the no-frills option:
Dubai to London – July 7 to July 14
Budget route: Dh1,923 (One stop: flydubai from Dubai to Prague, Ryanair to London Stansted; return travel time: 30 hours 50 minutes)
Cheapest regular route: Dh2,096 (Aeroflot via Moscow; Return travel time: 36h 15m)
Direct flight: Dh2,589 (Royal Brunei; return travel time: 14h 30m)
UAE to Sydney – June 9 to June 24
Budget route: Dh3,309 (Two stops: Air Arabia from Sharjah to Kochi, then Air Asia; return travel time: 55h 20m)
Cheapest regular route: Dh4,381 (Air India from Dubai via New Delhi; return travel time: 43h 05m)
Direct flight: Dh7,608 (Emirates/Qantas from Dubai; return travel time: 28h 30m)
UAE to San Francisco – October 16 to October 26
Budget route: Dh3,761 (Air Arabia from Sharjah to Istanbul. Then British Airways/American Airlines to San Francisco with stopovers; return travel time: 71h 02m)
Cheapest regular route: Dh4,173 (British Airways/American Airways via London Heathrow and Chicago on way out, via London only on return; return travel time: 45h 46m)
Direct flight: Dh6,891 (Emirates. Return travel time: 31h 30m)
UAE to Beijing – July 9 to July 21
Budget route: Dh3,184 (Two stops: Air Arabia from Sharjah to Colombo, then Air Asia X via Kuala Lumpur; return travel time: 55h 15m)
Cheapest regular route: Dh2,165 (Thai Airways via Bangkok; return travel time: 45h 30m)
Direct flight: Dh2,514 (Emirates; return travel time: 15h 30m)
* Cheapest regular route and direct flight prices via Skyscanner.net (prices correct on May 9):
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