juliamhammond

Flights

Border control queues in Europe – and how to beat them

Today’s news has been full of horror stories of British travellers caught up in excessive queues at some of Europe’s busiest airports.  If you haven’t seen it, try this article from the BBC:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40824027

Sadly, though changes in legislation have worsened the situation, it’s nothing new. Miss your flight, and you’ll find the airline and the airport pass the blame back and forth, leaving you frustrated and potentially out of pocket. So what can you do?

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Take out a decent insurance policy

Many travel insurance policies will cover you for missed departures, but check the small print in case there are any exclusions. Also check the amount covered – and work out whether this is going to be sufficient to cover a night in a hotel and the cost of a replacement flight.

Get to the airport early – and don’t wait for your gate number to be displayed

Queues for security are going to be lengthy in peak summer season, so you should be aiming to get to the airport in plenty of the time regardless. But once you’re through security, you need to go through passport control too. In some airports, this can be tucked away in a quiet wing of the airport serving just a few gates.

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If your gate isn’t displayed early, by the time you start to line up, you may have cut it too fine. I almost missed a flight from Malaga to London a couple of years ago for this very reason – so don’t risk having to be very un-British and queue jump like I did. And if I pushed in front of you and you’re reading this, I’m very sorry – and hope you made your flight too!

My advice is to go through passport control even if your gate isn’t displayed on the boards – if there are multiple passport controls, in my experience the border control officials will redirect you. Just look suitably apologetic as I did and make sure you head off in the right direction.

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Consider booking a package

If you book a package holiday with an operator with has its own fleet of planes, such as Thomson (other operators are available!), then the same company is responsible for getting you from the hotel to the airport and from the airport to Britain. At the very least this is going to reduce the buck-passing.

Have you any tales to tell? I’d love to hear your experiences.


Everything you need to know about flying

The title’s a bit of an exaggeration – at the very least a work in progress – but I’m in the process of creating an index for my blog posts. Here’s the first instalment. With years of independent travel under my belt there’s a lot of advice I can share about airlines and air travel. From finding business class flights at fares lower than economy to what to do if your flight is cancelled, there’s a blog to help.
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Tips for saving money on flights
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/nine-tips-to-save-money-on-flights-and-one-to-avoid/
Cabin baggage charges
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/07/22/the-increasingly-thorny-issue-of-cabin-baggage/
What to do if you miss your flight
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/07/27/what-to-do-if-you-miss-your-flight/
How to travel business class for the price of economy
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/07/18/how-to-fly-business-class-for-the-price-of-economy/
Are business class flights really worth the extra?
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/06/14/are-business-class-flights-really-worth-the-extra/
How to survive a long haul flight
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/05/03/how-to-survive-a-long-haul-flight/
What’s it like to travel long haul on a budget airline?
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/01/19/whats-it-like-to-travel-long-haul-on-a-budget-airline/
Thoughts on airports
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/05/24/its-almost-time-to-go-to-the-airport/
Transport options from Heathrow to London
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/12/07/how-to-get-the-best-out-of-a-heathrow-layover/
How to get the best from a Heathrow layover
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/how-to-get-the-best-out-of-a-heathrow-layover-part-2/
Getting your money back if your flight is cancelled
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/finally-a-win-against-cityjet/


The increasingly thorny issue of cabin baggage

Airline Jet2 are in the news this weekend, with an article in the Daily Mail highlighting their new policy of charging for guaranteed cabin baggage.  You can read the article here:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4719308/Now-airlines-charge-bring-HAND-LUGGAGE.html

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I was a little suspicious, given the propensity of the Daily Mail to be economical with the truth, so I did some fact checking.  Buried within the Jet2 website, and revealed as far as I could see only after you have reserved flights and are well into the booking process, is the opportunity to pay extra to keep your bag with you:

Subject to availability, you can pre-book “guaranteed cabin baggage” for an extra charge, and if you have purchased this service, you will not be asked to put your hand baggage in the hold (unless it exceeds the weight and size requirements detailed above or operational requirements apply).  If we require your guaranteed cabin baggage to go into the hold for operational requirements, you can contact customer services to arrange a refund for any charges which you have paid for this service.

I tried a sample booking of a flight from Stansted to Dubrovnik.  The cost of ensuring your cabin baggage made it into the cabin with you (subject to those operational requirements not being necessary, of course) was £3 per person per leg, a little more than the £2.59 quoted in the Mail’s article.

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Would you pay it?

I’m not sure I would.  But then I’ve rarely taken a suitcase on board and instead prefer to check it or, better still, leave it behind.  I find it irritating to wait while wheelie after wheelie bangs its way down the aisle, though with airlines charging to put such luggage in the hold, I can hardly blame those doing so.  But this not only slows boarding, it often means that there’s too much luggage to fit.  I’ve taken many a Ryanair flight – the airline guarantees only the first 90 carry on bags will make it on board – and watched it all kick off as people are asked (or not) to hand over their bags.  My fairly small day pack has always made it on board, I presume because it can fit between my feet and wouldn’t have to be placed in the overhead bins.

Wizz Air, it would seem, have had to backtrack on their plans to charge for guaranteed larger sized cabin baggage.  You can take on a bag of up to 42x32x25cm free of charge, but to carry on an item up to the maximum dimensions (55x40x23cm) there’s a price to pay.  Until 29th October 2017, this can be anything from 10 to 20 euros according to the small print on their website (35 euros if you take care of business at the airport), but this add-on disappears after that date, supposedly incorporated into the price of your seat.  Have Wizz caved under the pressure of customer complaints, I wonder?

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At this point, you’re likely to be muttering things about budget airlines, but they’re not the only offenders.  Increasingly, scheduled, so-called full service airlines are supplementing their fares with extra fees and charges.  And when it comes to revenue “earned” by such add-ons, you might be surprised to learn who the worst offenders are:

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Some airlines are worryingly reliant on additional revenue as a share of their total earnings.  You can read the full report here:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/airlines-that-rely-most-on-extra-charges/

So, even on a scheduled airline, if I want to select my seat in advance (and even as a solo traveller I might, or risk being stuck in that middle seat that no one wants) I’m likely to have to pay for the privilege.  At the moment at least, I’m not likely to have to hand over my carry on luggage but who knows how long that might last?

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this.  As travellers, if we’re determined to do so on as low a budget as possible, we’re going to have to think hard about what we really need to take with us.  I shared my packing tips here:
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/02/28/packing-tips-from-someone-who-learnt-the-hard-way-2/

Taking large suitcases will perhaps become a luxury rather than the norm.  It will certainly be interesting to see if Jet2’s new policy lasts the distance, and if it does, whether other airlines will follow suit.

What are your views?  Would you pay to ensure your bag comes on board with you or do you think it’s one rip-off too many?  I’d love to hear what you think.


Just back from: a day in Ibiza

This, perhaps, wasn’t going to be one of my usual days out. A few days before I was due to fly – out of Stansted at 7am on a Tuesday – an email arrived from Ryanair announcing certain restrictions on the flight.

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Amongst other words of caution, it said:

• Customers will not be allowed to carry alcohol on board and all cabin baggage will be searched at the boarding gates.
• Boarding gates will be carefully monitored and customers showing any signs of anti-social behavior or attempting to conceal alcohol will be denied travel without refund or compensation.

For a moment I wondered what I had let myself in for. In the event, though we did have a stag party on board, they were very well behaved and remarkably quiet. The plane was too, empty seats an indication that some of our passengers had fallen victim to one of Stansted’s worst mornings for queues at security I’d ever seen. I’d made the flight in good time and jetted off on time to the hippy isle with a row of three seats to myself.

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Arriving slightly ahead of schedule, I picked up a hire car and set off on an itinerary I’d found on the Ibiza Spotlight website. As my main focus of the day was to be a trial of a Sunwise kaftan, I’d originally planned to hole up at one of Ibiza’s stylish beach clubs and chill out all day. In the event, my geographer’s curiosity got in the way and I just couldn’t resist the chance to go exploring, especially up in the north of the island where the agricultural landscape was more verdant and prettier than the south. That said, I needed to be in the sun, so there were going to be plenty of stops.

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The first was supposed to be in Santa Eulària des Riu, Ibiza’s third largest resort. Incidentally, road signs are in Catalan, though my map was in Spanish, with this particular resort being Santa Eulalia – mostly the names were similar enough for this not to be confusing. I’d read about an excellent ice cream parlour called Mirreti’s. Reaching the town, I decided it just wasn’t my kind of place: too busy and lacking charm. I drove straight through, headed for Sant Carles de Peralta.

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This small village, dominated by a delightful whitewashed church, was the perfect spot for a stroll in the sunshine. There wasn’t much to see, but I’d been tipped off about a cafe called Bar Anita across the road. I spent a pleasant half an hour sipping a cold drink in the warm sunshine, watching the world go by.

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Onwards and northwards, as the hire car wound its way around the back lanes following the Cala de Sant Vicenç coast road for a few kilometres before ducking inland across the Serra de la Mala Costa. Turning north at Sant Joan de Labritja, I snaked across country on a tiny lane which led to the resort of Portinatx on the island’s rugged north coast. Smaller than Santa Eulària des Riu but nevertheless a resort, it was more my scene and I had a wander to explore.

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Back in the car, I drove back to Sant Joan, this time via the main road and on to my next stop, another village dominated by a magnificent church, Sant Miquel de Balansat. Sited on top of the hill, this whitewashed church is impossible to miss. It’s the second oldest on the island, after the cathedral and like the one in Sant Carles, had three crosses on the front wall, something you’ll see on all the churches on the island, the symbol of Golgotha. The painted chapel walls are very special.  This bronze sculpture outside also caught my eye.

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But by now, I was getting hungry and so drove the few kilometres to Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera. This was my favourite of all the villages I stopped at, and I feasted on jamon serrano and queso manchego in the sunshine, choosing a spot opposite the church.

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Somehow the village managed to hang onto its character despite its popularity with day trippers. I had time to browse in a few boutiques before they closed for a siesta and I hit the road again.

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This part of Ibiza is greener than the scrubby south and I drove across the countryside towards Santa Agnès de Corona, known as Santa Ines in Spanish. I passed olive groves, almond trees and orange trees laden with fruit. Ruined windmills completed the agricultural scene.

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The road layout here forms a circle, so it as it was such a fine day, I decided to backtrack a bit and go for a short hike. My target was the hidden fishermen’s cove of Es Portitxol, said to be one of the prettiest spots on the island.

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The road was in pretty poor shape, so I parked up and picked my way down the lane on foot. When I saw poor shape, it looked like a digger had gone rogue and there were great rifts gouged out of the stones. I wished at that point I’d had on walking boots rather than sandals, as it was hard going. The path did level out for a while and led through a shady forest; alongside were sweeping views over the ocean and towards the cove. Improperly clad, I decided to bail before I ripped my sandal straps, but had I continued, I’d have been rewarded with one of Ibiza’s hidden gems. Ah, next time.

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It was time to head into Eivissa, the island’s capital. I’d seen the cathedral and fortifications of its Dalt Vila or old town as I’d passed earlier, and now it was time to explore on foot. Luck was on my side when it came to finding a parking space; yellow spaces reserved for workers become free for anyone who finds them empty after 4pm.

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For anyone whose experience of Ibiza is solely the lively mass tourism resorts and club scene, Dalt Vila is the very antithesis: elegant, ancient and impressive. The thick wall and fortifications once protected Eivissa from marauding pirates; now they provide lofty vantage points from which you can admire the Mediterranean and watch the fishing boats bring their catch in, trailing clouds of seagulls in their wake. This defensive settlement dates from the 7th century BC when the Phoenicians founded the city, though the walls themselves are even older.

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Today, Dalt Vila is threaded with alleyways and tunnels which, unsigned, invite you to partake of a lucky dip; when you step through the doorway, you might have no idea where you’ll emerge. I popped up in the Plaça d’Espanya for a time. One of the tunnels here was a Civil War refuge; Ibiza was Republican for a time before Franco stepped up his campaign and occupied the island, forcing the Republicans to flee.

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In the Plaça d’Espanya traders were setting up a mediaeval fayre which should, according to the road signs, have opened three hours earlier but looked like it was still a while off. From there, I climbed a little further to the cathedral, its fussy architectural details contrasting with the simplicity of the whitewashed churches I’d seen in the villages.

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Overlooking the marina, it was a good place to perch on a wall and soak up both the sun and the view. Refreshed, I wandered the streets of the old town for a while before ducking randomly into a tunnel and emerging some considerable way beneath them. I took it as a sign and headed back to the airport.

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The details

Outbound: Ryanair STN to IBZ departing 0700 with a scheduled arrival time of 1040 (we were about 20 minutes early)
Inbound: Ryanair IBZ to STN departing 2140 and arriving at 2320 (also early)

Flights available from £19.99 each way.
Car hire with Alamo purchased through the Ryanair website was a little over £30 for the day; airport buses into Eivissa cost 3,50 euros each way.

Have you seen my other blogs on days out by plane? They’re perfect if you are desperate to travel but can’t get the time off you need for a longer trip. You’ll be surprised at how much you can do in a single day. For how to visit Amsterdam, Belfast, Bremen, Budapest, Lisbon, Regensburg and Copenhagen for the day from London, please follow this link:
http://juliahammond.co.uk/Travel/BLOG.html


Flight news: Honduras

While parts of Central America have been blessed with direct flights from Europe for some time, others have been a bit more disconnected.  Honduras is one of those places.  But now, with the launch of a weekly flight from Spain, it’s possible to get there a little quicker.  When I visited Honduras a few years ago, getting there involved an overnight layover in Houston, adding both considerable time and expense to the journey.  Air Europa’s flight from Madrid at first might appear to be less than ideal, arriving shortly before 5am in what was once the world’s worst hotspot for murders.  (San Pedro Sula has now passed the Murder Capital of the World crown to the Venezuelan capital Caracas.)  But this late departure means that a connecting ticket from the UK is possible and you no longer have to lose a day of your holiday just to get there.

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Honduras might not be the first place that springs to mind if you’re looking to holiday in that region, especially in terms of safety.  But it’s easy to get straight out of San Pedro Sula and the early arrival means you’ll have plenty of time to reach somewhere both safer and more beautiful well before nightfall.  Copan Ruinas is one such place.  I spent a pleasant time there in 2014, riding horses out to the Guatemalan border, drinking the excellent locally-grown coffee and exploring some of the least crowded Mayan ruins in the region.  Visitors were outnumbered by scarlet macaws by some considerable margin.

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While I’d still be loathe to recommend spending any more of your time in San Pedro Sula than is absolutely necessary, the country’s Caribbean coast is as laid back as they come.  It’s well worth risking the journey back to San Pedro Sula’s airport after your Copan Ruinas sojourn to make the short hop to Roatan Island.  It’s the perfect place to unwind in the sunshine, sink your toes in the sand and sip a cocktail or two.

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When are we going?

 


Checking in to come home, Russian style

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I stood, motionless, in the middle of the crowded space. People came and went around me. Some queued, others waited patiently next to piles of luggage, still more hugged relatives in emotional goodbyes. For all the world, it looked like a regular airport, going about regular airport business. I reckon I’ve been to thousands of airports in my time, striding confidently across halls, dealing with airport officials, polite on the outside even if seething on the inside at petty officiousness and stupid rules. I’m no fan of airports, you understand, but they are a necessary evil to get me to somewhere exotic and exciting.

But this one had me stumped. For the first time, I couldn’t find check-in.

How do you lose check-in? How is it possible not to see row upon row of impersonal white desks and grubby baggage belts, with their maze of retractable queue barriers that make you pace this way and that like a caged lion? How do you lose the planeloads of people that must have got to the airport before you as your flight is going out late afternoon?

Like a detective, I scoured the room for clues. The space was devoid of signage, even in Russian. I couldn’t see anyone holding a boarding card and most people still had large suitcases. Was I in arrivals, I wondered? I headed back outside. The sign read “Departures”.

Back inside, I started to ask fellow passengers but drew only blank looks. Pointing at my suitcase and shrugging my shoulders in a kind of a “what do I do with this?” mime wasn’t working. Pointing at the airport page in my phrase book and again at my suitcase wasn’t working. I glanced at my watch. At this rate I’d miss my plane.

Half an hour before, I’d been so relaxed. Russia, so daunting at first, had lost its ability to intimidate. My vocabulary was still limited to a dozen words (and only then if “Big Mac Meal” counts) but I’d learnt to match the Cyrillic alphabet to their Latin translation which was enough to make a quiz game out of most days’ activities. The people I’d met on the numerous trains and buses that had transported me 3500 miles across the Russian steppe to Ulan-Ude had, without exception, been helpful and charming. For three days, Aleksandr, the Russian Army officer headed for Chita, had fed me omul for breakfast on the slow train to Irkutsk, asking nothing in return save for a compliment about his red-haired wife in the photo album he carried in his kit bag. That same smoked fish hung in the market in Listvyanka, a tumbledown village on the shores of Lake Baikal. An elderly woman, head covered with a colourful babushka, pointed out the sights from the bus and used my phrase book to explain she was off to buy crystals.

I thought about her, in the airport terminal, and cursed my phrase book. What editor would include the word for crystal but not check-in? It was hot in the hall, and I wiped my brow with the back of my hand. I was starting to panic. The voice inside my head told me to calm down. I still had twenty minutes before check-in closed. There was a queue forming at the far side of the room and I joined the end of it. My question about whether this was the check-in queue leapfrogged up the queue like a Chinese whisper. Back came the answer – no.

No? No?!!!

I turned away from the queue and the mutterings of its occupants. I was running out of ideas. Now I started to mentally re-plan my journey home. If I couldn’t fly back to Moscow, I’d have to take the train, a four or five day trip. I’d miss my Moscow connection and have to pay for a new flight. More than that, I’d have to suffer the humiliation of telling friends and family the reason I’d missed my flight and suffer months of good natured ridicule.

Indignant, I thought to myself that no airport was going to beat me. I scanned the hall again. Along one side, there was a blank white wall. It looked like a recently-erected partition, free of scuffs and scratches, though I couldn’t be sure. I wheeled my case over for a closer look. On inspection, there appeared to be a concealed doorway. I knocked and waited. A businessman in a hurry pushed his way past me and through the door. I looked through, of course, to find out what was behind it.

There before me stood row upon row of impersonal white desks and grubby baggage belts. I made check-in with five minutes to spare.


How to fly business class for the price of economy

At the end of May I flew business class on BA to New York. As an ex-teacher and now a travel writer who specialises in budget independent travel, you could be forgiven for wondering how on earth that budget managed to stretch beyond economy. Well, the answer is, it didn’t. My ticket from Europe to New York’s JFK airport cost me the princely sum of £342. This is the story of how I did it.

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Error fares explained

I travelled on what’s known as an error fare – and it’s just that, a mistake fare.  Sometimes, perhaps as a result of exchange rate glitches or human error (who cares so long as it’s a mistake in your favour) the computer offers up a fare at way below market rate.  They don’t last long, sometimes staying available hours or even minutes.  So how do you find one among all the many destination combos and available dates?

Subscribe to alerts

I subscribe to many email newsletters but those that are the most useful in this respect come from Secret Flying http://www.secretflying.com, from CheapFlightsLab http://www.cheapflightslab.com and from FlyNous http://www.flynous.com.  Each have the facility to subscribe on social media – in fact I first became aware of Secret Flying via a post that popped up as a retweet on Twitter.  Follow them on whatever platform you’re most likely to spot them.   Make sure you have notifications switched on.

Sift out unwanted deals

I tend to stick to the well respected airlines and travel booking sites that I’ve used before.  So if a deal has to be booked through a consolidator’s website and I’ve not heard of them, I don’t use them.  Equally, I don’t want to be bombarded with offers that originate outside Europe, so I select European deals only.

Be flexible

The business class fare I found actually originated in Oslo, Norway.  The return flight was in four legs: OSL-LHR-JFK-LHR-OSL.  The way air tickets work, if I’d been a no-show for the first leg from Oslo to London, the rest of the ticket would have been cancelled.  I couldn’t have just travelled straight from Heathrow.  However, so long as I didn’t have checked baggage (and remember business class offers a more generous cabin baggage allowance) then I would be permitted to exit in London on the return leg and just “miss” the onward flight to Oslo.

A few words of warning

As I’m UK-based, the cost of getting to Oslo had to be factored into the equation.  I’d never been to Oslo and decided to travel on the morning flight from LGW to OSL the day before my New York flight and make a mini-break of it.  My one-way flight cost £45 and I added a budget hotel room on for about £30.  If you’re keeping a tally, that’s £417 to fly to New York business class – pretty much the same as a reasonable economy fare.  Norway’s not cheap, but I could have chosen a hostel should I have wished.  I could also have chosen an error fare via somewhere that offers cheaper accommodation, Spain for instance, or waited for one originating in London.

In the event, that Oslo flight was delayed by a staggering eight hours, scuppering my plans to explore the Norwegian capital but fortunately not impacting on my New York flight.  But – and I cannot stress this enough – be generous with your connection time: had my inbound flight arrived too late, I’d have forfeited my NYC error fare as the two segments weren’t purchased as part of a single through ticket.

Sometimes, these error fares are honoured and sometimes they are not

The airline is under no obligation to honour an error fare.  Basically, once you find and book an error fare, sit tight for a week or so.  Use a credit card to pay for the error fare and don’t invest any money just yet in hotels, connecting flights or airport transportation.  That way, should the error fare be cancelled, you won’t be out of pocket.

Once you have a confirmed ticket (check on the airline’s own website against your booking reference) then things should be OK.  Make sure you have decent insurance cover just in case and it’s also wise to book your accommodation on a free cancellation basis.  Sites like booking.com do this as a matter of routine; you can usually cancel right up to the day before without incurring a financial penalty but check carefully before you commit.

They work for economy too

At the time of writing Malaysian Airlines has an economy class error fare deal to Manila in the Philippines for £265 with availability showing from October 2016 to April 2017.  These flights originate and end in London, so no need to mess about with connecting flights like I did for New York.  Business class error fares come up less frequently but they do come up.  The trick is to keep an open mind.  Rather than look for a particular route, see which error fares come up and then book the one that excites you.  I’ve never been to the Philippines…

Sit tight until the right deal comes up – and then grab it before it’s gone!  Happy travels!