Simon Calder: Flights of fancy and the million pound upgrade

The man who pays his way

You go online to book a flight: the air fare quoted depends on where you live, and your previous buying behaviour. That was the surprising claim made last week on Radio 4's Today programme.

The excellent writer and psychologist, Oliver James (author of The Selfish Capitalist: origins of Affluenza) asserted "If you're trying to get a flight to get away for Christmas, there is no such thing as 'a price' for an air ticket." He cited a study showing, he said: "That the retailers of air tickets will actually vary the price according to your postcode and shopping history."

Having studied the reservations systems of airlines, and travel agents (yes, I should get out more), I was intrigued. Airlines tweak air fares constantly, cutting them to boost demand or putting prices up when sales are strong. Back-office boffins analyse future bookings and past behaviour in order to maximise earnings while filling all the seats. But the only historic data they use is the anonymous aggregation of buying patterns.

Here's how the systems work: "By last New Year's Eve, the 9 January flight to Tenerife was four-fifths sold, and we filled the remaining seats at an average of £120 each. For the corresponding flight this year, we're only 70 per cent sold. Let's cut the price to £100 and see if a few more bookings come in. If they do, we can put the price back up. If they don't, we'll have to try £80."

Making these calculations across thousands of flights, and adding factors from competitors' behaviour to European football championship fixtures, tests the brainiest computers, without the extra complexities of customers' addresses and travelling history.

So, while some airlines might be eager to test the concept, to the best of my knowledge, none does. Until Mr James is able to enlighten me about the study he mentioned, I must assign his theory to the same category of doubt as the mistaken belief that airlines pay attention to how often you check a particular flight. If you've searched repeatedly for, say, Gatwick-Tenerife on 9 January, travel conspiracists insist you will pay more than someone on their first attempt.

"Dynamic packaging", where you choose a flight and accommodation and they are priced together online, is a good way to book a holiday: you get a combination of low prices and the gold-plated consumer protection that comes with a package. You can also contemplate add-ons such as a better class of room – just as reader Janet Leicester did when booking a package to St Lucia with BA Holidays:

"Imagine my astonishment when the room upgrade for the Coconut Bay is coming in at £1,093,041.00. A spokeswoman for BA Holidays apologised and said, "We can confirm that the error in the price has now been rectified."

A more enticing upgrade opportunity has been quietly introduced by Virgin Atlantic – and you won't read about it on the internet (except here). James "Lloydie" Lloyd, the broadcaster and comedian, reports that Sir Richard Branson's airline has started auctioning upgrades to premium economy: "I'm flying to New York next month. Out of the blue I was sent an invitation to bid between £10 and £600 to upgrade."

Mr Lloyd duly bid £60 for the outbound day flight, £120 for the homebound overnight trip. If you rashly bid too high, and regret it, this is the one aspect of online dealings with airlines that is cost-free: you can cancel or amend your offer up to 68 hours before departure. In fact, Mr Lloyd was sent a separate offer for a confirmed upgrade on the inbound flight for just £95, so he cancelled that bid. He will find out at check-in if his outbound bid has worked – and, if it has, just how irritated those passengers who paid full price for posh seats will be.

There's no place like the Home Counties

Today we celebrate the world of travel possibilities that opens up with the New Year. But is there any need to venture beyond the M25? Just before Christmas, we reported on the tour wars between rival coach firms seeking to launch trips around London's Orbital Motorway. Brighton & Hove Buses has leap-frogged its rival, Premium Tours, by bringing its first M25 tour forward to 22 March.

Some views on our website pour scorn on the claim that the M25 can become the British Route 66. One said: "The M25 tour buses must be open-top. Tourists can then take in the true ambience of the constant 24-hour noise, the addictive smell of petrol, diesel, oil and rubber all mixed into one." Another added: "The only comparison with Route 66 is that it will probably take as long to complete a circuit of the M25 starting and ending at Clacket Lane Services as it does to drive from Chicago to California."

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Morrissey pictured in 2013
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Field of broken dreams: Andy Bell visits Passchendaele
news5 News's Andy Bell visited the killing fields of the Great War, and his ancestor - known only from his compelling war diary - came to life
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In my grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel