Cheap long-haul flights? Not this summer

Christmas in New York? Don't expect to get a bargain airfare.
Christmas in New York? Don't expect to get a bargain airfare. Photo: Getty Images

No-one willingly travels in high season, do they? Well, of course they do. High seasons exist because there are relatively inelastic periods of high and low demand that fundamentally don’t change over years and decades.

So when a young family member texted me, in my role as the unofficial family travel agent, about cheap fares to New York for Christmas, I initially thought I’d been asked about the cheapest fares to NYC (which start at around $1500 in low season, now that the bottom, which had fallen out of the market after the global financial crisis in 2007-08, has been restored to realistic levels).

But, no, time was tight and there was only a three-week window around Christmas. Good grief! "Don’t even think about it" would be my normal advice.

But, just as low season is a useful measure of the market, so is high season to determine just how much people are prepared to part with for their most treasured leisure travels, whether for a reunion with family and friends or a holiday.

It needs to be explained that, while airlines ensure all their planes are flying though the peaks and heavy maintenance is scheduled for the low season, airline fleets aren’t tailored to rise and fall with the seasons. The price is lowest when there is least tension between a fundamentally fixed supply and variable demand.

In 2009 – hard on the heels of the GFC when there was a flood of new seats on the Australia-US route after Virgin Australia and US giant Delta introduced Sydney-Los Angeles services within months of each other – it was possible to get a return ticket to New York for not much more than $1000.

That compared with $2700-$3000 at the peak of Qantas’s market domination in 2006-07.

It is only this year, I found when I looked at the top of the market again, that those blue ribbon rates are being maintained right through the five to six weeks of the Christmas-New Year high season from early December to mid-January.

It’s worth pointing out that there has been another salient factor introduced to the market since 2008-09: Qantas’s introduction of the A380 on most flights to the US – a “product” with enough brand “pull” to change people’s bookings just to fly on the big and very quiet superjumbo.

Like other airlines around the world, Qantas has found the A380 is good for business because it has a measurable impact on “yield” – the average fares people are prepared to pay.

In the holiday peak this year, if you have to take your time off around the festive season, you will be up for as much as $3500 for return passage from Sydney to New York with market leader Qantas.

That falls to around $3000 if your window isn’t as tight. As a baseline, I looked at the period from Tuesday, December 10 to Tuesday, January 14 (always use the Tuesday default if you’re after the cheapest fare as it’s the hardest day of the week to fill an aeroplane).

If you’re prepared to travel via north Asia – Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, for example – there are plenty of cheaper high season tickets as low as $2300 return to New York with carriers such as China Eastern, Korean Airlines and Japan Airlines.

But here is a truly stunning piece of information for me: in the other direction, even though it’s roughly the same one-stop distance (17,000 kilometres versus 16,000 kms to New York), Sydney to London at Christmas-New Year is up to a third cheaper with return fares starting around $2200, including the leading brands like Virgin Australia.

Deep discounting on the Australia-Europe route appears to have been triggered by a combination of fierce new price competition from carriers such as China Southern and the decision by quality carriers like Singapore Airlines to wade into the cheapies market a few months with ultra-low 2014 Earlybird fares to Europe starting at around $1500 return.

With dozens of competitors, the Australia-Europe route should theoretically always be cheaper than Australia-New York, but market pricing triggers can depend on many things and the benchmark for Australia-Europe has traditionally been set by Singapore Airlines.

Closer to home, markets like Bali have always charged a premium considering the short hop required, but it’s still possible to get there and back for around $800 between mid-December and mid-January.

Hong Kong is another popular destination for Australians that doesn’t behave like other holiday markets because Chinese New Year isn’t until the end of January. Tickets to Honkers through the festive season start at around $950 return.

For Aussies, the big changes are occurring in the long haul markets.

Traveller’s Check needs an update: what are the best sites for booking overseas travel? For this post, apart from the airline websites, I mainly used Zuji and Orbitz, which are “old” online retailers. Are there new ones that you swear by? Are you travelling long-haul for Christmas New Year? Why? Do you expect to pay top dollar or do you have a formula for keeping the price down?

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