While flight prices often go up at the last minute, the cost of a package can come down / Simon Calder

The man who pays his way: Booking an unwanted package holiday can sometimes be a good way to cut costs

“No-shows” are part of travelling life, and airlines regard people who fail to turn up for flights as a welcome bonus. At the very least, if you don’t show up the airline has no obligation to hand over Air Passenger Duty to the Chancellor, nor pay the airport its per-traveller fee.

Smarter carriers such as British Airways and easyJet go one stage further, selling more seats than there are on the plane. Occasionally they are caught out with their overbooking policy, at which point some “do-shows” start reaping rewards. Airlines are obliged to offer incentives to passengers to bribe them into being offloaded and taking a later flight, which could see travellers earning more than they paid for the trip. 

But many carriers get their own back when a passenger on a return or multi-stop journey fails to turn up in time for one leg of the trip. The airline will typically cancel the rest of the itinerary without refund or compensation. 

One reason is to avoid “tariff abuse”. BA will almost always charge less for a Dublin-London-New York trip than London-New York alone: it has to cut the fare from the Irish capital to compete, and can conversely command a premium for the non-stop flight. But any Londoner who comes up with a cunning plan to ignore the first leg and just turn up at Heathrow will discover they have lost their trip and their cash.

Fortunately, the same does not apply to package holidays. I have bought package holidays and discarded some or all of the accommodation provided on many occasions, without an issue. 

One reason the holiday companies seem relaxed about the practice is because of recent history. Baffling and arbitrary laws on cheap flights in the 20th century made “throwaway” accommodation a necessity. In order to sell a seat-only ticket, agents had to pretend it was a package holiday. Therefore they would ask the passenger where they were staying, and charge them £1 to sublet the room back to the agent so it could be wrapped into the “package”. Even in the late 1990s, easyJet had to offer accommodation in order to sell cheap flights from Geneva to Barcelona; the tent pitched unappealingly high in the Spanish Pyrenees later decorated the entrance to the airline’s Luton HQ. 

There are still plenty of reasons to discard the room. On European trips, I sometimes buy a package holiday when I only actually want a flight because of the way prices behave. Last-minute packages are often heavily discounted, in contrast to scheduled flights: buy close to departure, and the fares can be high. For example, the cheapest easyJet Gatwick-Malaga return on 1 December for a week was £197, while Thomson wanted only £140 for a self-catering package including flights, transfers and even a 15kg luggage allowance added in.

For long-haul journeys, the main reason I buy a package and discard the accommodation is to avoid the punitive return fares many airlines apply for travellers who fail to stay over a Saturday night. The airlines apparently know that enough businesses are insensitive to price to allow airlines to multiply the fare for journeys that, say, go out on a Monday and back on a Friday. I made such a trip to San Diego in California. The standard British Airways fare was over £2,000 return; but with three nights in a hotel, bought through the BA website, the price fell to £550.

The only time I encountered a mild problem with “throwaway” accommodation was on that San Diego trip, when I went to the hotel in California to check in three days after I was due to arrive. After some discussion, I was allowed to check in. 

There are all kinds of variants: on trips to Turkey and Russia, I have taken up the first couple of nights, disappeared for a few days and returned to find only a faintly bemused cleaner wondering how I keep the room so tidy.

It’s polite to tell the tour operator if you’re only after a cheap flight: if you disappear from the airport on arrival and don’t take the transfer coach to your accommodation, it might cause a kerfuffle. And if you let the hotel know you won’t be taking up their no-doubt-excellent room, they can offer it to someone who needs that roof over their head.

“You’re only buying the flying,” is a slogan of the budget airline Virgin Australia. Sometimes, it pays to buy rather more.

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