Discount Airlines of the Middle East

As you are probably aware, the discount airline / low cost carrier (LCC) phenomenon is in full bloom around the world. While planning for our trip I became acquainted with some Middle Eastern low cost carriers, and thought that I would do a brief review. Middle Eastern carriers are not only useful for getting around the region cheaply, but for connecting Europe and South Asia, taking advantage of the Middle East’s strategic location. [Important note: LCCs are critically important to the backpacker not only because of their generally low fares, but for their one-way pricing, allowing the budget traveler to retain maximum flexibility as compared to buying discount round trip fares on conventional airlines.]

Air Arabia, based in Sharjah, is probably the most important LCC in the MIddle East. Based in the emirate of Sharjah in the UAE, which is located just miles from Dubai, Air Arabia has a terrific network reaching European cities such as Athens and Istanbul all the way to a full complement of South Asian destinations. With cheap fares, a new fleet and a website that is fairly easy to use, as well as the appeal of a Dubai stopover (Dubai isn’t the most interesting place in the world, but is definitely worth a long layover), Air Arabia has proven useful to us several times, including most recently to travel from Bombay to Damascus, with a UAE/Oman detour (see posts of 2008.04.04, 04.05 and 04.06). The seats are comfortable, the food and service not bad and free water provided (unlike certain Southeast Asian LCCs).

The second Middle Eastern LCC we flew on on our trip was Jazeera Airways, based in Kuwait, from Amman to Kuwait City. I wouldn’t put it quite on the same level as Air Arabia, but the fares were quite competitive, and the flight was fine. A third carrier is Bahrain Air, which we did not take. GIven how poor a stopover destination Kuwait City is (Bahrain is moderately interesting), I would probably opt to take Bahrain Air, were I to choose between the two airlines in the future. (See post of 2008.05.07.) Both Bahrain and Kuwait do suffer from visa fees, which adds a bit of additional cost should you choose to stopover in these countries.

In addition to the “typical” LCCs described above, the Middle East of late is suffering from something of a glut of airlines, from which the traveler has everything to benefit. The Bahraini flag carrier Gulf Air, for example, is not a low cost carrier, but offers its terrific network at quite low rates, often competing with LCCs. Gulf Air’s Hong Kong – Bangkok flight was often the cheapest, while we were living in Hong Kong. Gulf Air is also somewhat associated with Oneworld and certain Oneworld airlines, making it the best-allianced Gulf-based carrier. Kuwait Airways (one hears not the greatest airline) offers terrific rates from North America and Europe to South Asia, as does Qatar Airways (which is a good airline). Etihad and Emirates, the two flag carriers of the UAE, are usually not as competitive on price.

Especially because the actual LCCs such as Air Arabia do not usually show up on internet booking sites, it’s important to keep them in mind whenever traveling from Europe to South Asia or around the Middle East. If you try any of these carriers, share your experiences!

Creative Frequent Flyer Awards

A friend of mine sent me an email today—should he spend USD1,000 for a ticket from Tokyo to New York, or redeem 50,000 American AAdvantage miles? Using the rule of thumb that a frequent flyer mile is worth about USD0.015-0.02, this is something of a close call—certainly not a bad redemption of miles, but not a superb one, either. My advice, nevertheless, was to use the miles, because it seemed to me that there was room for a creative frequent flyer award.

The true value in frequent flyer miles and the award flights for which they can be redeemed, in my opinion, comes not only from the ability to fly from point A to point B for free, but the additional flexibility that a frequent flyer award can offer relative to an average discount ticket. The flexibility can come in the ability to do date changes (both American and United allow free changes to dates and times on award tickets, a feature you are unlikely to find on a discount coach fare) or freedom to add openjaws and stopovers (almost all programs permit the former while the rules for the latter can be complicated).

The ins and outs of each program are different of course. To do my research I use the airline’s website and the definitive site for frequent flyers—FlyerTalk. (I should note that while I have posted to FlyerTalk, I do not consider myself to be on the same level of expertise as the true FlyerTalk regulars.)

FlyerTalk’s American AAdvantage forum contains this handy posting summarizing the routing rules applicable to AAdvantage awards. By reviewing it, I learned that when redeeming an international ticket on American Airlines between Japan and the U.S. using AAdvantage miles, a stopover is permitted at the North American gateway in each direction. I could not find a handy list of which U.S. cities act as American Airlines gateways for Japan flights, but a quick search for departing flights on the website for Tokyo’s Narita International Airport showed me that American flies to at least Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and New York from Tokyo.

My friend needed to fly only from Tokyo to New York. However, given that he is permitted a stopover in New York in each direction (and the rules do not seem to prohibit two stopovers in the same city), he could actually book a ticket from Tokyo to some third destination, stopover in New York twice and essentially end up with a free roundtrip ticket from New York. A look at the award rules available through AA’s Redeem Miles page shows that 50,000 miles gets you a ticket from Japan/Northern China to anywhere in “North America,” which is defined as “the U.S. (including Hawaii and Alaska), Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, The Bahamas, and the Caribbean.” The only question remaining is where my friend thinks he would like to fly sometime in the next year (the usual validity of an award ticket). Perhaps he has a friend or relative in some city in the U.S. or Canada that’s relatively expensive to fly to, or maybe he wants to go to the Caribbean next winter. Most aggressive, perhaps, would a ticket to Hawaii. (Some airlines may not permit a Tokyo – New York (stopover) – Maui – New York (stopover) – Tokyo ticket, but I bet American would, as they seem to be the most forgiving of creative routings.) He can check out all of American Airlines’ destinations on Wikipedia. How about Mexico City? or Barbados?

To get even more creative, he could add an openjaw. Generally, an openjaw can be added either at the origin or the destination of an award ticket. An example of an origin openjaw would be Tokyo – New York (stopover) – Jackson Hole – New York (stopover) – Beijing, while an example of a destination openjaw would be Tokyo – New York (stopover) – San Diego – overland to – San Jose del Cabo at the tip of Baja California – New York (stopover) – Tokyo.

Because date changes can be made at no cost, he can use his New York – City X round trip any time he wants, which makes it even more valuable than a purchased ticket. Of course, if he flies the New York – Asia portion of any of these routings, he will have to find a way get back to the U.S.