This past weekend, I flew between Delhi and Mumbai, for just ₹3,700. I also got a return ticket at a similar price. I had booked the ticket about 12 hours before departure, and the fare on most websites showed to be around ₹8,500. So, how did I get a ticket at under half the quoted price?
The answer lies in the many layers of the ticket booking process.
For more than two years, domestic airfares in India have been controlled by a mandate of the Government of India, with the cheapest and the most expensive fares being dictated by the duration of the flight. This was ostensibly done to ensure there were no shocks in pricing for customers, and that the airlines did not go into a fare war, reducing the fares to fill up their aircraft.
As a result, airlines could not sell tickets at a deep discount to make some more money on the flight at the last minute since the rules barred them from doing so.
As of 31 August 2022, this fare regulation was let go, bringing back market pricing for airlines. Airlines are now, however, used to a new way of business, which is invisible to the naked eye.
July-August-September is traditionally one of the lean periods for travel in India. School term has started and after summer vacations, everyone is back to the grind. It is also the monsoon season. All the factors combined mean that planes fly around half empty during these months. To be able to generate cash flow, airlines sell bulk seats to travel agencies at very low prices. Travel agencies put up a suitable markup for their services and sell them to the public. As my Delhi-Mumbai example shows, the prices are still less than half of the publicly available prices.
So how do we go about looking for these ultra-cheap fares?
Meta-search engines can help. A meta-search engine does not sell tickets like an online travel agent does. Instead, it pulls data from other OTAs (online travel agents) and presents all the deals to you in one place. Some prominent meta-search engines are Kayak, Skyscanner and Google Flights. When you use one of these websites, it will further direct you to the OTA of your choice.
For instance, in my case, IndiGo was publicly selling tickets for ₹8,579, but Kayak led me to Agoda.com, which was selling these unlisted fares, and offering another 10% discount on top. These unlisted fares were also available on MakeMyTrip for Business (available only to GST-registered businesses) and some lesser-known websites where I was not convinced of the service quality if things went south.
Almost all airlines in India are currently into this practice, and I’ve seen fares listed by Vistara, Air India, IndiGo, Go First, among others.
But searching the internet is not the only way to spot these fares. Often, offline travel agents also have access to low-cost prices. So, there’s no harm in asking your neighbourhood travel agent for ticket prices. Major Indian travel agents have consolidated fares for long and also offer them on their websites now.
For Business Class tickets, similarly, there is Momondo, a website expert in finding tickets with fare combinations that may be missed elsewhere.
Of course, if the airlines got down from their high horse and sold tickets at a cheaper price on their websites, none of this hide-and-seek would be needed. The newly launched Akasa Air seems to want to go down that path and is offering Mumbai-Ahmedabad tickets via its own website for ₹1,000 or so. Other airlines match them, such as Go First, but most are not open about it, and hence these “cheap” tickets become a bit more elusive if you trust to find the best deal on the likes of MakeMyTrip.
If you have the time, then the next time you are booking tickets, shop around a bit using the conventional OTAs such as MakeMyTrip, meta-search engines like Kayak and Google Flights, and directly on the airline website for airlines such as Akasa. You will hopefully find a bargain somewhere or the other.
Is this a year-round strategy? No. But it works most of the time.
Business of Travel is a column for travellers by a frequent traveller. Expect to read all things aeroplanes, hotels and loyalty here.
Ajay Awtaney is the founder and editor of LiveFromALounge.com, an India-focussed frequent-travel website.