Travel: Summer flights go for a song

In an unexpected fit of generosity, British Airways has announced a host of cut-price deals to tempt travellers. But, as Simon Calder explains, you'll have to be quick to take best advantage of BA's budget munificence
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The Independent Culture
Hold page 19! On Friday afternoons, travel tends to be a sleepy corner of any newspaper, so I don't get to say that very often. But, at 5.30pm yesterday, news came through of air fares so absurdly cheap that this could either be the best weekend ever for travellers (if you bag a bargain) or the worst (if you fail to get a cheap deal, or are a competitor).

British Airways had a slow start to the summer. The blame has been heaped upon the World Cup, which by now seems to be held responsible for as many calamities as El Nino. Whatever the cause, the effect is that BA is off-loading a vast number of seats - two million - at fares at an all- time low.

As our navigation charts show, almost all the best deals are within Europe. Ryanair and easyJet will say that most of the fares and destinations are targeted to cause maximum harm to BA's low-cost rivals. But whether you are after a last-minute August holiday, a short break in autumn or a string of business trips, this page will help you make the most of the aviation dogfight.

Q: When must I book?

A: Between 9am on Saturday and midnight on Sunday.

Q: By phone?

A: If you have a credit or debit card, call 0345 222111.

Q: But last time there was a special deal, with cut-price Concorde seats, I couldn't get through!

A: This time, there are about 1,000 times more seats available, so you could be in luck. BA says it will have lots of extra phone staff on duty.

Q: And the Internet?

A: BA has established a dedicated website for the offer at www.british- airways.com/countdown

Q: Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to deal with humans. What about my travel agent?

A: Good idea; these tickets are available through IATA travel agents (which means almost all of them). Most agents can access the airline's booking computer directly, so once you're in, you should be able to secure all the tickets you need. But because your agent stands to make a grand total of only pounds 5.50 commission on a flight to Nice and back, so he or she may not be delighted to see you. And besides, few travel agents will be open on Sunday.

Q: So what's your advice?

A: Try a British Airways Travel Shop. The airline's own travel agent has 24 branches around Britain, and some - in London, Manchester and Edinburgh - will be open on Sunday. They could be crowded, mind.

Q: Your queue-busting strategy?

A: Get to the BA Travel Shop above Victoria Station in London shortly before it opens at 6am on Sunday. I'd be surprised if there's much of a queue. But you run the risk that the tickets you want may already have been snapped up by bulk-buying bargain hunters.

Q: Does that mean there's no limit on the number of flights any individual can book?

A: Correct (well, I suppose two million would be a limit).

Q: And can I book tickets on behalf of other people?

A: Yes, whether or not you intend to travel with them.

Q: How soon can I travel?

A: Today, if you like.

Q: When do I need to be back by?

A: All outbound travel must be completed by 30 November, but you needn't come home until a month after that - so this could be chance to book your Christmas holiday.

Q: Are taxes included?

A: Broadly, yes - the rules were changed at the start of this year to ensure that all pre-payable taxes are included in quoted air fares. But some countries impose additional taxes which can be paid only at the airport of departure.

Q: Does the deal apply to domestic flights, too?

A: Yes, but the bargains aren't very special. KLM UK (0990 074074) has had a jolly good seat sale on domestic routes for some weeks, and pounds 59 return between Scotland or Northern Ireland and London seems to be the going rate.

Q: These offers always have loads of restrictions, weekend surcharges etc. What's the catch?

A: One word - availability. If you fancy flying out from Glasgow on a Friday afternoon, via Heathrow and to Madrid, you'll probably be out of luck. But wet Wednesdays in November should be wide open. Be flexible with dates and destinations.

Q: If I cancel, can I get a refund?

A: No. You must pay in full at the time of booking, and no refunds are available.

Q: And I suppose changing reservation dates or times is out of the question, too?

A: Correct. But bear in mind that some of these fares are so ridiculously low that it may be worth taking a punt just in case.

Q: Any special one-way fares?

A: No, but these deals are way below normal BA one-way prices. So buy a return, and throw away the inbound half.

Q: Can I fly to one destination and back from another (eg out to Stockholm and back from Oslo)?

A: No; these so-called "open jaw" arrangements aren't permitted.

Q: Will BA's rivals respond with similar deals?

A: The airline kept the offer tightly under wraps until last night, so it is unlikely that other airlines can react with cheap fares this weekend. But if BA soaks up much of the demand for the next few months, other carriers could find themselves having to dump capacity at low fares.

Q: Why aren't there cheap flights to America, Asia or Australia?

A: Partly because bookings are strong, so BA doesn't need to dump seats, and also because fares to many of these places are entertainingly low already; expect pounds 199 returns to New York by September, pounds 499 to Sydney in November.

Q: So where will you going with this deal?

A: No idea - I've been far too busy writing this article to decide.

Where The

Bargains

Aren't

BEWARE! HIDDEN among the long lists of fares are some for which you'd be foolish to pay the "sale" fare, unless you need to dodge the "Saturday night minimum stay" rule. These are the deals I wouldn't touch with a credit card.

London to Athens, pounds 179; a much cheaper fare is available on easyJet for pounds 141.70.

London to Istanbul, pounds 179; charters, or scheduled flights on Turkish Airlines or Istanbul Airlines, should be cheaper than this one.

London to Dubai, pounds 259; at this time of year, discount agents should be able to offer comparable fares with fewer restrictions.

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