Joe’s guide to booking flights online: part 3 – breaking up fares

This post is part of a series sharing my views on how to book flights online. Forthcoming posts include fuel dumping and tricks for specific search engines.

One way to think about my series of posts on how to book flights online is that each challenges an assumption that we commonly make when booking. First I challenged the idea that a simple search would get you the best result. In “When to book” I challenged the assumption that sooner is always better. This post challenges the assumption that you get a better deal if you book your whole trip with one airline.

The one airline assumption isn’t unreasonable. We expect things to be cheaper when we buy from one source, like buying in bulk. But this isn’t always borne out with flights. Often booking one fare to an intermediate stop and another to your eventual destination will get you a better deal. I call this breaking tickets.

Lets start with an example. Imagine you want to fly from Auckland to Bogota on just before New Year, which is exactly what Fiona and I did last year. A search on kayak will yield $2002 (USD), and skyscanner $1947. But you can think laterally in a way that a search engine doesn’t. Search instead for one ticket to Los Angeles ($919) and one from there to Bogota ($356) and you’ve a grand total of $1275. That’s a solid 30% saving.

Breaking up is hard to do

There are two challenges with breaking fares. First, if your ticket isn’t booked as one then airlines aren’t obliged to rebook you if you miss your connection (though your travel insurer should reimburse your costs). So some caution with connection times is required.

Second, you can come up with almost limitless permutations and lose yourself in the search process. Why, for example, did we break our fare to Bogota at Los Angeles, rather than Honolulu, Miami or Santiago? The airline geek in me wants to say “you just know” because you spend your days looking at where airlines fly and why they do it. But failing that this post has some examples, and then some broad principles for when you should look at breaking things up. Nothing beats just messing around and trying different things, though. You just might strike gold.

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Go nuts: the options I considered for our trip from Auckland to Bogota.

Good break ups

Okay, so, some examples. Excuse the New Zealand centeredness.

  • Break domestic and international legs. This is especially relevant if flying from a regional centre in New Zealand, but from Wellington and Christchurch too. Always look at a flight booked out of Auckland.
  • To the US (and also Central America) look to break flights at Los Angeles. Carriers to LA that don’t go on include Air Pacific and Air Tahiti Nui and the market to the Americas from LA is super competitive.
  • Getting to Latin America is also often cheaper via LA because of how incredibly uncompetitive flights across the South Pacific are.
  • To Singapore or Kuala Lumpur try one booking to Sydney and then another on Scoot or Air Asia.
  • For South East Asia good break points are Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. You can get there cheaply via Sydney (as above) or with Jetstar, Emirates or Etihad direct. From there you can often pick up low cost flights with Air Asia, Jetstar or Tiger Airways. Note that low cost carriers don’t always show up on search sites like expedia.com.
  • To Europe consider breaking your journey at Singapore or, increasingly, Shanghai. Bonus points if you use one of the cheap ways to get to Singapore described above. And if you want to get really clever also have a look at one booking to Asia and another that goes Asia-Europe-New Zealand.

And the principles that underpin those examples

The examples above will work sometimes, but not always, and they only cover a very limited selection of routes. So here’s my best go at articulating the principles that underpin them.

Start by testing competitiveness

To figure out how much investigation is worthwhile assess the competitiveness of your route. If a route is uncompetitive you might be able to stitch together two tickets for routes that are competitive and get a lower fare as a result. Conversely, if it’s super competitive, breaking fares might not do much good. You can get a sense of competitiveness by counting the airlines presented to you by an aggregator search. Kayak shows five from Auckland to Bogota, for example, but 23 from Auckland to London.

Try flying to a hub, and tagging an extra flight on

Find that when you search for the whole routing you get routed via a big hub airport? That airport is a good place to try breaking your tickets. Not all carriers that only fly to big airports have codeshare or interline agreements that let them book you through to the little ones. This is the principle that underpins the idea that you should always look at splitting domestic and international. Big international hubs are generally large world cities: Hong Kong, Dubai, Sydney, Singapore, Frankfurt, New York, Los Angeles, London etc.

Tap into low cost carriers when you can

Low cost carriers don’t fly everywhere but breaking into where they do will get you lower fares. Getting on to Spirit at Los Angeles (America’s most complained about and most profitable carrier) is what makes the example flight from Auckland to Bogota so cheap. Other low cost infested markets include Australasia (Jetstar), Asia (Air Asia, Cebu Pacific, spicejet, flyDubai), Europe (Ryanair, EasyJet and Pegasus Airlines) and North America (Spirit, JetBlue, SouthWest). Not China, though.

Generally, low cost carriers only fly short haul. Scoot (ex-Singapore), Air Asia X (ex-KL), Jetstar (ex-Australia) and Norwegian (over the Atlantic) are rare counter examples.

There are also carriers that, while not strictly low cost, tend to try and compete based on fares rather than services. In the Asia Pacific China Southern, Royal Brunei and Air Pacific are good examples. Aeroflot is another.

Practice makes perfect (flightfox experts)

Before it sadly changed its business model, I spent some time as an expert for flightfox. The idea of the site was that people specified where and when they wanted to go and the best pitch from an expert got paid. Most of the time when I won a contest it was because I knew where to break up routes to save travelers money.

These days flightfox works differently. Instead of crowd-sourcing fares flightfox employs experts and you pay a fixed fee to access their services. If your trip is complex their service can be very worthwhile. Because they, like me, do this all the time, they develop a good understanding of where to break a journey to get you the best fare that goes beyond a few examples and principles.

4 thoughts on “Joe’s guide to booking flights online: part 3 – breaking up fares

  1. Any suggestions for a better/cheaper way to South Africa from Vancouver around early January. All flights tend to be yvr/ London or Ampsterdam/ Cape Town?

  2. Hey Joe, you mentioned for flights between NZ and Europe trying ‘booking to Asia and another that goes Asia-Europe-New Zealand.’ Have you seen that work? I’m trying with just a middlepoint eg. PVG, LAX, and not having any luck with that simpler option. Thanks!

    1. Hey James, doesn’t work all the time I’m afraid, especially on more competitive routes of which London-NZ is one. A couple of things to try 1) breaking your fare in Singapore – you’ll end up with more stops but it might be cheaper 2) searching on klm.co.nz. For some reason their New Zealand based flight sometimes displays fares ex-NZ that are cheaper than anywhere else. Then again, I’m not sure whether the same will be true for ex-UK. Hope you’re planning a nice trip home.

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