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Long Trip With Stopovers: One Ticket or Two?

SmarterTravel

If you’re planning a very long trip, a single ticket on one airline is usually your best bet. But if you want to break the trip for a brief stopover somewhere in the middle, you have to explore the option of buying two separate tickets. A reader recently posed the question this way:

“I am thinking about traveling from Houston to Namibia in September 2009. I prefer to fly via London and possibly break the trip for a day or two there in both directions. Is it better to book my flight from Houston to London on a U.S. website and my flight from London to Windhoek on a separate ticket through a European website or buy a single ticket from the U. S.?”

The short answer is that there is no short answer. The only way to find your best option is to check out the alternatives.

  • In general, as I noted, a single ticket on one airline is usually less expensive. In some cases, the best price is directly from an airline; in others, from a discounter.
  • But stopover rules on long-haul tickets are inconsistent: Some allow one or two, some allow them with an extra charge, and some don’t allow them at all.
  • On some very long trips, a discounted round-the-world ticket is cheaper than a simple round-trip.

Right now, for our reader’s particular trip, two separate tickets look like the best deal. But September is a long way off, and prices could change dramatically over the next 10 months. Here’s what I found, for a sample trip with midweek flights next September.

Booking Through a Domestic Website

[[British Airways]]’ U.S. site priced a [[Through fare (ticket) | through ticket]] at $2,623, including taxes and fees. The BA through fare, via London and Johannesburg, allowed one London stopover at no additional cost and a second for an additional $50, for a total of $2,673.

Expedia showed the same result for a through ticket on British Airways; with a through fare connecting through Amsterdam rather than London for much less, $2,244. With London stopovers both ways, Expedia reported a fare of $2,756, again about the same as BA.

Discount agency Economytravel.com showed a fare (including two London stops) of $2,464, but it did not include all taxes and fees, and it required more connections than the BA itinerary.

Round-the-World Option

Discount round-the-world (RTW) expert site AirTreks quoted “approximate” prices starting at $2,598, but a final price required direct negotiations with an individual traveler.

List-price official RTW tickets for a trip including London and Windhoek start at well over $3,500, so that option isn’t attractive at all.

Obviously, in this instance, RTW does not make sense. But it sometimes does, so always check.

Separate Bookings Through Two Websites

British Airways’ quote for a Houston-London round-trip next September was $1,100, including all extras. BA’s U.K. website quoted a round-trip price of $1,407 from London to Windhoek, resulting in a slightly lower total price than its own through ticket. At this point, I couldn’t find any lower discount deals, but November 2008 is far too early to find really good discounts for September 2009.

British discount travel site Affordable Flights quoted a round-trip from London to Windhoek at £742 (about $1,111; see XE.com for current exchange rates), including tax, with a fare posted as valid through next September. However, this itinerary required two stops (Zurich and Johannesburg) between London and Windhoek rather than just Johannesburg.

Obviously, if these currently quoted prices hold up, buying separate tickets through two different agencies is the way to go for this particular trip. But it would require longer flights, with extra connections in Zurich.

Offshore Agencies

My experience has been that, in any big foreign air travel hub, local agencies usually have the best deals. That’s why I checked with a few London-based discounters for the separate London-Windhoek ticket.

But a travel writer based in the U.S. can’t really keep up with local markets around the world—especially the many smaller “ethnic” agencies that specialize in travel to Africa and Asia. So if our reader has some friends in London, she should contact one of those friends to search out some of the local discount agencies that specialize in African trips.

For anyone looking at a possible two-ticket strategy, I’ve found that London is the best market for discount travel out of Europe. Unfortunately, London currently has a major disadvantage: Travelers who buy separate tickets to/from any airport in the U.K. must pay an air passenger duty of £10 on European departures or £40 for long-haul departures in economy class; double those figures in a premium class. The duty also applies to stopover departures, but not to transit travelers who don’t leave the airport.

For trips through Asia, the better connecting points include Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo. Bangkok and Singapore are the most active discount travel markets.

Dealing with offshore ticket agencies from the U.S. poses some challenges, including vagaries of foreign exchange. But, in many cases, the price differentials are worth the extra hassle.

Unofficial Stopovers

Although this strategy wouldn’t work for our reader, you can sometimes use the “next available flight” booking rule to arrange a no-cost unofficial stopover of a day or two. International ticketing rules require that an ongoing connection on a through ticket be booked on the next available flight. But the rules do not require that you book your first flight on the last trip that could make the connection, so by booking your first flight early you can pad your connecting time to arrange a “free” stopover.

This strategy is feasible only on routes where flights from a connecting city to your final destination operate only a few times a week. Then, you can book your initial flight to arrive a day or two before the next outbound flight. These days, however, opportunities for such stopovers are rare. Moreover, they’re usually confined to your outbound trip: You find very few routes where a connecting return flight from a major hub to the U.S. operates less than daily.

Through Trips

A word of caution: The suggestions in this posting refer strictly to trips where you actually want a stopover in the connecting city. Two-ticket trips can sometimes cut your costs a bit, too, even if you don’t need a stopover. But if you book a two-ticket through trip, be sure to allow enough time at your connecting city to compensate for possible delays in the first flights: If you miss a separately ticketed connection, the connecting airline will probably treat you as a no-show, and rebooking on a later flight could be very expensive.

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