Which? study finds flexible airline fares are ‘not worth buying’

Flyers are better off buying standard fares than opting for flexible options in case they have to cancel due to disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic.

A study by consumer group Which? has found flexible fares could inflate the price of a flight by as much as 17 times the original basic price.

Which? said it checked fares for flights with many of the UK’s major airlines to see if it was worth paying for extra flexibility.

In every example the difference in cost between a flexible ticket and a standard fare was greater than the cost of the standard fare.

Which? said 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”.

The group also pointed out many passengers could benefit more from the flexibility provided through airlines’ ‘book with confidence’ policies, than paying for a flexible fare.

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.”

The biggest increase in price that Which? found between a standard and flexible fare was for a BA 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.

A Virgin Atlantic flight from London to New York in February 2021 that cost £319 if booked with a standard fare was £2,031 when booked with a flexible fare.

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, Which? said both airlines only allow passengers to move their flight by one day on either side of their departure date, and not allowing any change of route or destination

The consumer group found some airlines’ standard fares offer more flexibility than flexible fares due to ‘book with confidence’ policies following the pandemic.

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.

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 21 days’ notice for any changes.

Which? described this rule as “staggering”. It said: “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.”

BA 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 August 31, 2021 to make up to two changes of dates and/or one change of names without a fee, right up to departure.

Which? said 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 just £35 per booking and can be made up to five hours before the flight is due to depart.

Which? said: “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% 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.”

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