Flexible options when booking flights can send the cost of a booking soaring by as much as 17 times the original price – when you may be able to change your flight for free anyway – according to research from Which?.
The consumer champion compared the prices of standard fares and flexible fares for flights from some of the UK’s biggest airlines, to check if paying extra for flexibility is worth it after nine months of travel disruption and uncertainty.
In every example Which? looked at, the difference in cost between a flexible ticket and a standard fare was greater than the cost of the standard fare. This would suggest passengers could be better off simply paying for a standard fare and making a new booking if they were unable to travel on their original dates and had some flexibility about when they were taking the trip, rather than paying for a flexible fare.
Additionally, many passengers could benefit more from the flexibility provided through airlines’ ‘book with confidence’ policies, which most carriers have introduced to allow passengers to make changes to their bookings for free in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, than they would by paying for a flexible fare.
The biggest increase in price that Which? found between a standard and flexible fare was for a British Airways flight from London Heathrow to Barcelona in February 2021. The cheapest standard flight Which? found cost £57, but the same route booked with an Economy Plus Flex fare saw the price shoot up to £966 – 17 times the cost of the standard fare.
Meanwhile, a Virgin Atlantic flight from London to New York in February 2021 that cost £319 if booked with a standard fare shot up to £2,031 when booked with a flexible fare – an increase of more than £1,700.
Which? also looked at the cost of standard and flexible flights from London to Barcelona in the same month from Easyjet and Ryanair. Easyjet’s flexible fare cost more than 2.5 times as much as a standard fare, while Ryanair’s cost more than three times as much.
However, both airlines’ flexible fare options actually offer very little flexibility, only allowing passengers to move their flight by one day on either side of their departure date, and not allowing any change of route or destination.
Some airlines’ standard fares actually offer more flexibility than their flexible fares, through the introduction of ‘book with confidence’ policies following the pandemic – allowing passengers to change the date of their flight without incurring a fee and, instead only paying the difference between the original flight and the new flight if they cannot travel while coronavirus remains a risk.
Ryanair and Easyjet have both waived their flight change fees, with Ryanair allowing customers with standard bookings to change their flights up until September 2021 if they cannot travel, and Easyjet allowing standard fare passengers to change their dates to whenever they like. However, Ryanair requires passengers to give seven days notice for any changes, while Easyjet requires 14 days notice.
Meanwhile, Tui (which does not offer a flexible fare option, but has waived its flight change fee for flights departing up until 30 April 2021) requires a staggering 21 days notice for any changes. This is likely to be useless for anyone who has to change their travel plans due to changes to the UK’s travel corridors, which are typically made with just a few days notice, or if they are required to self-isolate in the days before they are due to travel.
British Airways is currently allowing customers with standard flight bookings to change their flight dates for free, right up until the departure gate closes, while Virgin Atlantic is allowing any passengers travelling before 31 August 2021 to make up to two changes of dates and/or one change of names without a fee, right up to departure.
Jet2 is one of the few airlines that does not offer free flight changes or the option of booking ‘flex’ tickets. However, changes to flight dates cost a relatively modest £35 per booking, and can be made up to five hours before the flight is due to depart.
Prices for flexible fares are often considerably more expensive as they typically include an additional luggage allowance and other extras that passengers might not necessarily need.
For example, Easyjet’s flexible fare option also includes two cabin bags (an under-seat bag and a bag for overhead lockers), hold luggage, an ‘up front’ seat, priority boarding, fast track security, and a food voucher worth £7.50, as well as the ability to change the date of the flight to one day before or after the original flight.
Some of these additional options may not be worth paying for though. While passengers may consider paying to choose where they sit to ensure their household or bubble are sat together, Which? research from 2019 found that Easyjet passengers who did not pay to choose their seat were still seated with their companions 92 per cent of the time.
Generally, passengers are likely to be better off booking with airlines that have committed to waiving their flight change fee rather than paying extra for a flexible fare. This means if you are unable to travel, you will be able to change the date or destination of your flight and only have to pay the difference in the cost of the original flight and the new flight. Always check the terms and conditions before booking though, to check the period in which changes to bookings are allowed to be made.
Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said:
“After a year that has shown us all the value of flexibility when booking travel arrangements, airlines should be making their flexible booking options as attractive as possible. But while it’s not unusual to see airlines flogging extras of questionable value to their passengers, these excessive prices for flexible fares – which often aren’t that flexible at all, or charge for flexibility that is already on offer in their standard fares – are simply not worth it.
“Instead, those buying flights should pick airlines with better ‘book with confidence’ policies on standard tickets, like Jet2 and British Airways, so they can easily change their booking if lockdown, travel bans or other disruption mean they can’t travel at short notice. Or better still, book a package holiday, which may provide additional protections.”
Table of findings
Rights of reply
A BA spokesperson said:
“We offer our customers a wide range of options to give greater choice and to best suit their individual travel plans.”
A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said:
“As is common practice we offer a wide range of competitive fares. Regardless of the fare or product, our current commercial policy supersedes fare conditions which may appear during the booking journey for a customer. Therefore all customers with bookings ticketed up to 31 Dec 2020, due to travel by 31 Aug 2021, are able to make up to two changes of dates and/or one change of name(s), with fees waived, for travel all the way until 31 December 2022. Fare difference may be charged, however this will be waived if the new fare is within the following fare differences: £60 for Economy, £120 for Premium and £350 for Upper.
“We are constantly evaluating how best to ensure our customers are kept up to date with the latest booking policies, updates and most competitive prices.”
Notes to editors
- Paying extra for seats a waste nine times out of 10, Which? reveals: https://press.which.co.uk/whichpressreleases/con-air-paying-extra-for-seats-a-waste-nine-times-out-of-10-which-reveals/
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