Bali for $300 return? Are those travel deals for real?

A $300 return airfare to Bali? If it sounds too good to be true, there's a good chance it is.
A $300 return airfare to Bali? If it sounds too good to be true, there's a good chance it is. Photo: Reuters

Bali for $300 return. London for $900 return. Los Angeles for $1100.

I've got your attention, haven't I? Because we're all suckers for a flight bargain.

But who are the privileged few that actually get those deals?

When I go searching for them, sometimes just out of cynical curiosity, I rarely find the magic combination of departure and arrival dates to get the advertised price.

Travel advertising in Australia is a lot more transparent than it used to be, thanks to crackdowns by regulators, but so much of it is still downright misleading.

Take, for example, flights from Sydney to London listed this week on a major Australian travel website from $888 return.

When I clicked through to pursue the deal, the fare vanished.

There was one date in the month promising fares for $891 return and another offering $893, but the next cheapest fare was $1255 and most were over $1500.

Here's the real clincher, though: when I chose the cheapest $891 option, it took me through to another search page which told me the cheapest fares were over $1600, no matter what date combination I tried.

The $888 fare was no doubt in there somewhere (or at least had been), but how many hours of searching would it take to find it?

It's a big leap from $888 to more than $1600, and that's before I even added the booking fees and payment surcharges that were listed in the fine print.

Those extra charges are currently under investigation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, with "drip-pricing" extras such as credit card surcharges and baggage fees adding significant amounts to advertised prices.

The ACCC says it is not ready to talk about its findings, but the scrutiny of these ever-increasing charges is a good start.

Along with the challenge of finding the right date combination is the issue of how many seats are made available at the advertised price.

Expedia gets points for transparency. Its site shows the exact flight to which the advertised price applies and how many tickets are left at that price. Few other sites do this.

Another issue is advertising that fails to make it clear when deals only apply to one departure point.

It's not much use to me to know that people in Perth can fly to Bangkok from $379 return, when it's going to cost me $600 at best.

Nor is it much use to me to know there's a special on flights to Europe out of Melbourne if I want to fly out of Sydney.

Backpackers might be willing to take an extra hop to save $100, but most people are only interested in deals from their nearest city.

If you've got a fixed destination and flexible dates, Travel.com.au is probably one of the easiest sites for working out when will be the cheapest time to go.

The site allows you to narrow down fares by departure point, although you still have to wade through all the dates to find out when the cheapest fares apply, then click through to check availability, which can again throw up different prices.

Many websites allow you to tick a box for flexible dates but most only search two to three days either side of the nominated date, when what you really want to know is whether you should go in April or October.

If you've got fixed dates but no firm plans, such as when your boss tells you you're going on annual leave whether you like it or not, Skyscanner is a good option for seeing what's available, in real terms.

Put in your dates, leave the destination box blank and it will give you a list of domestic and international flight options, from cheapest to most expensive.

If you've got fixed dates AND a fixed destination, metasearch sites such as Skyscanner and Kayak are the greatest gift to travellers since online travel agencies came into the mix in the 1990s.

Metasearch sites search a range of websites to find the best deals and can save you hours and hours of chasing shadows.

When your needs are not that simple, sometimes it's easier to go back to the old-fashioned method of picking up the phone and asking a travel agent, or going direct to the company that advertised the deal.

Rather than waste your own time, put it back on them to demonstrate the reality behind the advertising.

jane.fraser@fairfaxmedia.com.au

What has your experience of getting special deals on travel been? Have you been sucked in by a cheap fare only to find the real price was a lot more? Post your comments below.

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