Grim tidings for Christmas travellers

While some cheap travel options are available, like flying by indirect routes, airlines' seats are selling fast and prices are rising as a result

Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai have expanded their international airports but the volume of expatriates planning to travel during the Christmas season threatens to overwhelm capacity ahead of the holiday.
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Travel agents and airlines are warning expatriates in the UAE to book tickets as soon as possible if they want to guarantee flying home for Christmas - and expect prices to increase further between now and then.

A steep rise in global fuel prices and increasing demand have forced prices up by 30 per cent since last year and anyone hoping to make a late decision on whether to fly home should bear in mind that some flights are already selling out. Yesterday, the cheapest available direct return ticket that could be found online from Dubai to London, leaving on Dec 19 and returning on Jan 2, was DH3,675 (US$1,000). The cheapest indirect flight, an 11-hour journey via Bahrain, was Dh3,140 (US$855).

At Dh3,892 (US$1,060), the cost of a direct flight to London for the same period from Abu Dhabi was slightly higher, while an indirect flight, with Gulf Air via Bahrain, was just over Dh3,000 (US$820). The lowest price available yesterday on for tickets for a family of two adults and two children, travelling from Abu Dhabi to Heathrow for the same period, was Dh7,387 (US$2,010), with Gulf Air via Manama.

Travelling direct with Etihad would have cost the same family Dh14,234 (US$3,875). "It is advisable to book early for flights in peak periods," said a spokesman for STA Travel, a leading travel agency with branches in 18 countries, including the UAE. "Families tend to plan Christmas trips six months in advance, so many flights will already be full. As there are a limited number of seats in each pay band the prices will rise markedly as Christmas approaches."

"With Eid falling on Dec 9 and 10 this year, there will not be many cheap seats available," said the STA spokesman. And if you have a preferred airline, it could already be too late, according to Emirates. "Really, over the Christmas and New Year period, you'd be lucky to find seats on Emirates now," said Boutros Boutros, senior vice president of media relations for the airline. STA estimates that ticket prices are already 30 per cent higher than last year, with most of the increase due to a rise in taxes related to global fuel prices.

"Obviously, the fuel prices went up to such a level that affects the current prices," said Mr Boutros. "But it varies between one destination and another." Christmas, he added, was "always a very big season. We operate more or less at 100 per cent capacity to all the destinations we have. Anywhere, to be honest with you - Europe, the Far East, Australia - because we have a big mix of holidaymakers and students."

A spokesman for Etihad said December was also traditionally one of its busiest months, comparable with June, July and August, when this year the airline was flying at more than 90 per cent capacity on long-haul routes. Etihad's busiest long-haul routes during the holiday season are London, Manchester, Paris, Sydney and New York, with holiday destinations such as Bangkok and Malaysia also popular. In an attempt to meet demand for these routes, both for the holiday season and, as the emirate's population grows, in general, the airline is adding four flights a week to Sydney and three to Heathrow. From Oct 31, Etihad will increase its flights to Sydney from seven to 11, and to London from 18 to 21 a week.

According to figures from the Abu Dhabi Airports Company, from 2005 to 2007 the combined number of arrivals and departures at Abu Dhabi International Airport during the month of December rose from 466,374 to 730,404 - an increase of more than 56 per cent in only two years. The rapid increase in prices has already overtaken some expatriates. Charlie Evans, an events co-ordinator who works in Media City, had intended to fly home for Christmas and was saving to book his flights in November.

"I had some money saved but due to the increases it may not be enough," he said. "My family will be so disappointed if I don't make it home." Some affordable options are still available, according to STA Travel. "Considerable savings can be made on indirect flights. Flying via Doha is a cheap option at the moment. European carriers often run services via Germany and Austria, which can be a cheaper option for those flying to the UK."

Some flights might also become available at the last minute due to cancellations. Some people, however, will be spending Christmas in the UAE rather than join the increasingly expensive exodus. Sarah Nightingale, for one, is planning to recreate Christmas in her apartment in The Greens in Dubai. "I'm putting a tree up in the corner of the room, which some friends will help me to decorate," she said. "Then on Christmas Day a group of us will open presents by the tree before enjoying a traditional roast turkey with all the trimmings, including crackers of course."

* The National