The sinking feeling in your stomach has nothing to do with turbulence and everything to do with the fact that the person sitting across the aisle making small talk as the plane inches towards Paris on the overhead monitor has paid less than you for their plane ticket. Much, much less. And now you're about to make the mistake of asking about the price of their hotel room. You don't have to be the one left out of pocket, however, as long as you do your homework. While it's often easier and sometimes cheaper to book through a tour operator, it's always worth comparing the price of what they offer with the cost of booking your flights and accommodation separately.
Booking a value-for-money holiday requires patience, effort and a measure of luck: the greatest rewards are reserved for those who are prepared to spend hours researching on the internet, often months in advance, and can afford to be flexible about when they travel. Over the past two years the cost of flights across the Atlantic and within Europe have fallen following a drop in passenger numbers, but here in the Middle East, where the market has remained buoyant, travellers looking for cheap fares have to be canny. As a general rule, the cheapest time to fly is still midweek, as business travellers tend to push up fares on Sundays and Thursdays, and holidaymakers create a high demand for tickets on Thursday evening, Friday and Saturday services.
If you can be flexible both about when and where you want to holiday, even better. The locally based carriers Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com), Flydubai (www.flydubai.com), Emirates (www.emirates.com), and Air Arabia (www.airarabia.com) e-mail news about reduced fares to their online subscribers, and it's well worth reading through such offers so that when the time comes you can recognise a truly low fare and pounce. The local low-cost airlines Flydubai and Air Arabia offer good value flights to a limited number of destinations: you can fly to Muscat from Dubai return for only Dh308 on Flydubai and from Sharjah to Beirut on AirArabia for only Dh408 return, for example.
If you are flying further afield and determined to bag a bargain, check whether you can connect more cheaply to your final destination indirectly via Istanbul for onward European travel or Delhi for Asia, for example. A return flight to Istanbul on Flydubai costs from Dh960, including taxes. Tick the "low fare finder" box on its homepage to see the cheapest fares month by month. Don't forget to factor in the cost of a hotel for the night, taxi fares, visas and eating out, however, as it's unlikely that your connection with another airline will dovetail that neatly. Hardcore budget types would roll out a sleeping bag in the transit lounge, of course, but that means missing out on what lies beyond Customs.
Some carriers, including Singapore Airlines, offer great deals on stopovers to incentivise passengers to fly indirectly. Until October 31, Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) is currently offering a one-night stopover including hotel accommodation, airport transfers, a sightseeing bus tour, free admission to some major attractions, and half-price hotel meals from US$33 per person, per night, based on two people sharing a room; valid for travel until November 15. Turkish Airlines offers a free sightseeing tour of Istanbul with a private guide to all of its transit passengers, time allowing (www.istanbulinhours.com).
There are a host of websites promising to help travellers find the cheapest air tickets with one click of a search button. If you input your travel dates into Skyscanner.net or Kayak.com, for example, these search engines list the airlines offering direct and indirect flights to your chosen destination and their ticket prices, potentially saving you thousands of dirhams. Kayak.com also brings up a matrix of fares for the rest of a month showing you the cheapest dates to fly.
This section's very own budget traveller, Ismat Abidi, who has been describing her worldwide tour in "On the road", recommends Skyscanner.net. "Whilet I was on the road and my plans changed, I used Skyscanner to find the cheapest flights available. The website allowed me to make decisions quickly, showing the cheapest direct and indirect routes. The search option came up with some great bargains if I didn't specify an airport of the country I was flying to. The best deal I got was a last-minute booking from Hong Kong to Shanghai for Dh575; almost half the regular price."
Comparing the cost of flights with airlines' codeshare partners can also bring savings. Some airlines adopt a practice known as codesharing in order to increase the size and appeal of their own networks without the exorbitant cost of buying landing rights or new aircraft to service the routes themselves. Spotting codeshares is now quicker and easier thanks to websites such as Kayak.com; the flights that depart at exactly the same time from the same airport in the listing are operated by codeshare agreement. For example, when looking at flights from the UAE to Bangkok, I found a return flight on Emirates for Dh2,835, considerably less than a comparable ticket on Thai Airways (www.thaiair.com) that cost Dh5,575. Both flights departed Dubai just 40 minutes apart, and the return leg of the journey was the same flight operated by Thai Airways, an Emirates' codeshare partner.
If you can't bear the thought of travelling without all the comforts, sign up for Etihad Airways' loyalty scheme, Etihad Guest. The airline offers a preview of discounted fares to guest members a few days before they are released online. Current sale fares include return flights to Beirut for Dh1,355; Bangkok for Dh1,895 and London for Dh2,505; a discount, it says, of up to 40 per cent on standard fares.
According to Peter Baumgartner, Etihad Airways' Chief Commercial Officer, the airline releases online discounted fares - called "breaking deals" - every week even during busy periods such as Eid, Diwali and Christmas. "Even in high season there is always a selection of good deals," he says. "We have special offers for target audiences to factor in special occasions to travel." Whether you fly with a full-service or budget airline, Middle Eastern carriers' growing networks is a boon: new routes tend to launch with discounted fares to help generate demand.
Booking early is often cited, particularly by the most interested parties - airlines, hoteliers and package operators - as the best way to save money on a holiday. If you're planning a ski holiday, however, the opposite has become true as twitchy operators have started cutting prices earlier and earlier. If you plan to travel to Europe's ski fields, as long as you avoid school holidays, Christmas and are unafraid to wait to book until about two weeks before departure, you can often save up to 50 per cent. The added bonus of waiting to book until the last minute is the certain knowledge that you will have wonderful fresh powder waiting when you arrive.
The same devil-may-care attitude to accommodation could help you to save money on your summer holiday, particularly if you're bold enough to haggle. Hotelier and travel writer Gill Charlton offers reduced rates at her own bed and breakfast in Cornwall to people who book late. But you've got to ask. "If I like the sound of the person," she says, "and it's near the date of arrival, I will take 10 per cent off ... If it's the date of arrival, I may discount more." Haggling only works if you manage to strike the right tone on the phone with an independent hotel or guesthouse owner, she says. If you have a family, request that your children stay and eat at no extra cost. Don't bother asking for such discounts at hotel chains though as reservation agents in call centres don't have the power to cut any deals.
Ismat Abidi uses the review site TripAdvisor.com to help narrow her search for a decent hotel room, before picking up the phone. "If you mention to a hotel receptionist, 'I saw your review on TripAdvisor ...', they seem eager to uphold their online reputation and oblige with a room, usually at a discounted rate," she says. "If you book over the phone, you can also ask for free perks like a room with the best view, far from the laundry room or closest to the Wi-Fi hotspot."
When Gill Charlton is booking her own trips she uses Hotels.com, a website that's part of Expedia Inc and negotiates exclusive discounted rates directly with hotels. Nigel Pocklington, the managing director of Hotels.com for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, says that if you see a room advertised as a "top deal" on its website, book it - it won't get much cheaper. "What tends to happen is that quite a lot of hotels incentivise with an extra night, so stay a fourth night and save 15 per cent," he says. "If you want to know the best deal that you will find on a site like ours ... it will be around 30 to 40 per cent off. You can be sure you are getting something pretty special then."
Now's a great time to travel, he says: "We track a lot of hotel prices. In 2009, hotel prices were at their lowest level for four years and although that rate of decline has stopped, they are not going up again; they are bumping along at the bottom." The website, which has Arabic and English-language versions, currently has a sale of up to 40 per cent on travel worldwide until November 30. Hotels.com also posts hotel reviews and offers a "price-match guarantee" that if you find a cheaper deal, it will refund the difference, making it a useful resource. Don't be disappointed if you find that a hotel's own website offers the same price, though - one of the greatest advantages of using such a website is to show you what's available at your chosen destination saving you hours of research. And time, after all, is money.
Wherever and however you choose to travel next time, make sure that you're the reviled passenger sitting in economy (of course) or shunned on a sunlounger for telling anyone within earshot: "I couldn't believe how cheap my holiday was." @Email:email@example.com