January to March is traditionally a buyer's market for economy fares, but this winter the discount-flights business is offering even lower prices. Many of the bargains are to Asia, where airlines have experienced falling inbound traffic as a result of economic chaos. To fill the planes, they are forced to offer fares as low as pounds 299 to China's capital and back.
Some passengers could be business travellers aiming to cash in on distortions in international fare structures, amplified by the weakness of Asian currencies. Air travellers who fly to Asia now could buy up their ticket requirements for the whole year ahead - and save thousands of pounds.
For many journeys, Independent research shows, Bangkok and Seoul are the ideal places to buy tickets, wherever your final destination might be. To reach Santiago in comfort, the obvious choice is British Airways' Club World. It a monopoly on the route to the Chilean capital from London, and charges pounds 5,023 return.
Yet if you buy a BA Club World ticket from Bangkok to Santiago, flying via London, the fare falls by two-thirds to pounds 1,714 - even though you are travelling almost twice as far.
Air fares are one of the few surviving global commercial stitch-ups. Airlines belonging to the International Air Transport Association fix fares between themselves, resulting in high prices for travellers who need flexibility - mainly people flying on business. But these fares are not immediately adjusted after wide currency swings.
Anyone aiming for Lagos in luxury should buy a ticket in South Korea; the weakness of the won means the Seoul- London-Lagos return first-class fare has shrunk below pounds 2,500, saving more than a third on the London-Lagos ticket alone.
Complex regulations can entangle the unwary traveller. If, for example, you wish to break your Bangkok-Santiago journey in London, the fare doubles to pounds 3,583 - but this still saves nearly pounds 1,500 on the normal London-Santiago fare.
The fluctuations can also mean some flights become virtually free. A one-way London-New York Concorde fare costs pounds 3,500; travelling from Jakarta to London in first adds only pounds 350 to the price. Of course, you need to get to the Far East in the first place. Discount agents were yesterday quoting one-way fares to Bangkok as low as pounds 240 on Aeroflot via Moscow, or on Uzbekistan Airways via Tashkent.
A fares war has also broken out across the Atlantic. Fares announced yesterday have returned to levels last known 20 years ago, when Laker's Skytrain was in operation.
British Airways yesterday matched Virgin Atlantic's cuts, reducing return economy fares to Boston and New York to pounds 189. One reason why fares have fallen so sharply since the start of the year is a new Advertising Standards Authority rule requiring advertised fares to include pre-payable taxes. BA is advertising Amsterdam for pounds 79, saving pounds 20 on its lowest fare before the rule came into effect.
As usual, travel agents are undercutting the official fares still more. The London discount specialist Flightbookers was yesterday offering flights from Gatwick to Boston or New York on a Continental Airlines/Virgin Atlantic codeshare flight for pounds 170 return, for travel until the end of March. When the tax element is stripped out, the base fare collected by the airline is as low as pounds 120 for 7,000 miles of air travel.