How to plot a new kind of flight plan

A new website brings all the budget carriers together. Christopher Browne reports

Baggage-handling crises, terrorist alerts and the recent decision to phase out Concorde are enough to put anyone off flying for good. After all, there are several other attractive options, such as cross-Channel ferries, Eurostar, an island cruise, perhaps, or a trip on the ocean wave. So just why are we Brits such intrepid flyers? The answer is time and money.

You might get a last-minute summons to a business meeting in Brussels, need to visit a seriously ill relative in southern Asia or face a building crisis at your second home in Spain. Every time it's the plane, rather than the train or boat, that will get you there quickly. But when you make that hastily arranged booking - either by calling up your favourite travel agent, or logging on to an airline website - it can be a long, sometimes laborious, process, as IT consultant Patrick O'Shea recently found when he booked a trip to the Continent.

Spotting a gap in this time-sensitive market, O'Shea decided to take action and launch a low-fares website himself with the snappily named title of openjet.com.

Whether you are holidaymaker, a property entrepreneur or a casual flyer, you can now find the quickest and cheapest flights to almost every airport town or city in Europe. In fact, the Openjet website has been so successful since its June start that at one stage Ryanair banned the company from accessing its own website.

"We give out the flight information of five low-cost carriers - easyJet, MyTravelLite, bmibaby, Volareweb, the Italian operator, and the Dutch carrier Basiq Air and have recently added a search feature for Ryanair," says Openjet's Eamon Curtin. Now he and managing director O'Shea are about to feature two low-cost German carriers on the site and add several more of Europe's 20 low-cost carriers by the end of the year.

Openjet's two great merits are speed and choice. We are all used to logging on to different sites when we plan our holidays, business and weekend trips, but we often end up surfing for hours without so much as a beach hut or strip of sand in sight - before we make our final decision. Openjet can do it in 20 minutes.

So how does the company get hold of all this vital data? It uses a method called web-scraping, or spidering, to extract the facts and figures from individual carriers' sites. Though anyone can access this public information manually, site by site, Openjet has put it all together on one website.

Apart from getting you the cheapest flights from A to B, Openjet can also show you the most flexible ways to do it. If, for instance, you want to spend a week in Lake Garda in northern Italy and fancy a day's shopping in Milan on the way, you simply click on its "nearby airports" option and find the handiest airport for both destinations. This is because, apart from the main terminals, it also carries data on the lesser-known ones. "It's not magic. It's common sense based on thorough research and intelligent technology," says Curtin.

Openjet really comes into its own if, say, you want to discover the easiest way to travel from Belfast to Barcelona without using the Famous Four - Heathrow, Stansted, Luton and Gatwick. Basiq Air will fly you via Amsterdam, easyJet via Newcastle, Bristol and Liverpool (as well as Luton), while MyTravelLite stops over at Birmingham. "It's worth checking several options as prices can differ markedly from route to route and day to day," says Curtin.

Timing is of the essence, too. You will always get a cheaper flight if you book your trip or holiday several months in advance or opt for an off-peak Tuesday-to-Thursday slot instead of a Friday-to-Monday one.

When I tried the website, I had a pretty clean diary in October. I wanted to travel from Glasgow, and found I could book a midweek four-day trip to Tuscany from 13 to 16 October. This went via Stansted with easyJet or Ryanair for £170 return, including airport taxes and landing fees. You might even get a free Euro-flight with Ryanair, paying only taxes and landing fees, if you book seven days in advance and travel before 17 December.

So far, Openjet's best bargains have been an Edinburgh to Barcelona return trip via Stansted for £117 inclusive, a Belfast to Malaga one via Gatwick and returning via Manchester for £109 all in, and a Glasgow to Copenhagen return flight via Stansted for a total of £91.

There are no hidden extras. Openjet charges a €10 (£7) arrangement fee for all new bookings and publishes a subscription-only newsletter for anyone who wants to keep up with the latest promotions and deals. And if you have a query while surfing the website, you can contact the company at info@openjet.com or speak to an adviser on 00 353 21 4861 333.

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