As the peak season for getaways approaches, many Gulf travellers may be missing out on internet flight bargains because they favour travel agents. In the hunt for cheap airfares in the Middle East, the internet often yields the best deals. At Swiss International Air Lines, 75 per cent of its tickets sold in the region are handled through travel agents, said Martin Massueger, its head of Middle East sales. Its call centre handles 10 per cent of its sales, while just 15 per cent of its customers book online.
Those numbers were echoed by travel agents, who acknowledged that despite the allure of booking directly on an airline's website, many in the region were used to booking their tickets through travel agencies. The reasons for this include the fact that many travellers do not have the credit cards needed for web bookings or they lack internet access. Others simply prefer the convenience and customer service provided by travel agencies.
"Fares are often cheaper via the internet, no doubt about it," said Zubair Musliyarakath, a Sharjah-based manager with Orient Travel. "But a lot of people travelling to countries such as Syria, Jordan or Egypt, for example, they are not IT savvy or they do not have access to computers." Despite the declining position of travel agencies in other parts of the world brought on by increasing internet use, it would "take decades" for the dominant role of travel agencies in the UAE to wane, he said.
Travel agents say they provide more flexibility to passengers and offer discounted fares because they are able to purchase in bulk. By contrast, internet bookings often come with hefty alteration or cancellation fines. The web-based ticket options include the airlines' websites. The budget carriers, in particular, rely the most heavily on online bookings to keep their costs low and avoid paying commissions to middlemen to fill their planes.
Another option is online travel sites, which have become increasingly popular in North America and Europe where internet penetration is high. Fare consolidators such as Travelocity and Expedia offer a range of airlines and their respective fares, giving the customer the feeling of having a wide array of options regarding flight schedules, routes and fares. In the Middle East, these big western sites do not operate, but there are regional websites. Dnata Travel has been in operation for several years and specialises in bookings in and out of Dubai. Orient Planet is also developing a web portal for its customers, Mr Musliyarakath said.
In May, Clear Trip opened operations in the UAE as one of the first independent travel booking sites, after originally starting out in India in 2006. For years consumers have squared up against the dynamic pricing models of airlines, which means ticket prices can go up or down almost instantaneously depending on when the booking is made, the day of the flight, and the level of demand. Although these systems are designed to sell the highest possible fare of any given day, consumers can find lower fares by knowing how they operate.
In general, the cheapest days and times to fly are Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday afternoon, when travel demand is at its lowest. Similarly, Monday to Wednesday are the best days to buy tickets because they have the lowest booking demand. The average airline may have up to 15 categories of ticket prices in their economy classes alone, Mr Massueger said. "The development of each flight is surveyed all the time," he said. "If (demand is) lower than what the estimates first forecast, then automatically it starts opening up lower booking classes."
In the UAE, the most expensive time to travel is the summer months before Ramadan and weekends in general, travel agents say. Lesser peak periods include the two Eid holidays through the year and the Christmas and Easter holidays. In the high season, consumers are advised to book early, but in the low season, prices could be lower if they book late, Mr Massueger said. "But there are no guarantees."