Few things in life goes as planned, and that often extends to business trips. One meeting is cancelled at the last minute, while another runs long; a new opportunity lands in your lap, or that business lunch or dinner with a client is just too good to cut short.
That's when business travellers flying economy class appreciate being booked on a flexible fare, which offers more scope for changing or even cancelling your flight than cheaper economy tickets.
(Yes, in the ideal world you'd be in business class where such flexibility is part of the package, but we know that's not always the way.)
So how do the domestic flexi fares of Qantas and Virgin Australia compare on conditions, fees, inclusions and extras? Australian Business Traveller pits Qantas and Virgin Australia head-to-head to find which airline offers the best value flexible economy fare across a range of categories.
Standard economy vs flexible economy pricing
The inherent flexibility of a flexi fare commands a premium over regular economy fares, especially when you're looking at the cheapest 'sale' prices.
Flexible domestic economy fares are typically more than double most standard economy fares, and can be three times the cost of the cheapest fare on the same flight.
They also tend to have a fixed price throughout the day compared to the wide range of economy fares depending on the time and popularity of each flight.
For example, looking at Sydney-Melbourne economy fares for the middle of August 2016:
- Qantas Red e-Deal economy fares span from $130 to $300 (with mid-range brackets at $160, $200 and $256) against a flat $410 for a flexible economy ticket
- Virgin Australia Saver economy fares run from $109 to $155 to $195, with all flexi tickets pegged at $399
Likewise, economy fares on the Sydney-Perth route for the same mid-August period stack up as follows:
- Qantas Red e-Deal fares on the day of travel swung from $209 to $316 to $375, with flexi economy fares locked in at $656 for every flight
- Virgin Australia Saver economy fares ranged from $189 to $299 compared to $639 for a flexible economy ticket
As you can see, there's an especially wide gap between flexi and standard economy fares if you can travel when the very cheapest tickets are available.
(Note that flexible economy fares also offer more status credits than their cheaper counterparts, fast-tracking your escalation through the Silver, Gold and Platinum tiers of both airlines’ frequent flyer programs – and for Qantas flyers, your journey to Lifetime Silver and Lifetime Gold.)
Winner: Virgin Australia is marginally cheaper, but you need to weigh up how 'flexible' each airline's flexi fares are across a rage of criteria, and which of those factors are most important to you.
Changing your flight
Both Qantas and Virgin Australia allow you to change flexible domestic bookings up until your flight’s scheduled departure time with no change fees – all you'll be charged for is the fare difference if the flight you’re switching to costs more than your original ticket.
There’s also no service fee when changing your flights online, although booking changes made over the phone (which typically becomes your only option when changing a flight close to departure) come with a $10 hit for Qantas and $35 with Virgin Australia.
If you want to change your flight at the airport you’ll still pay $35 with Virgin Australia but a higher $40 charge with Qantas (in addition to any fare difference) – so for Qantas travellers, call while en route to the airport and your fee drops from $40 to just $10.
Flight cancellations and refunds
As with flight changes, outright cancellations can be made up until a flight’s scheduled departure time with both airlines: miss that deadline and you’ll need to buy a brand new ticket.
You’ll pay no fees for flights cancelled online, while the same telephone assistance fees levied for flight changes – that’s $10 for Qantas and $35 for Virgin Australia – again apply if you need to call.
The value of your original ticket is then held in credit for 12 months which can be applied towards future travel, while for a charge of $80 with Virgin Australia or $88 with Qantas, the remaining balance of your booking can be refunded to your original payment method.
Winner: We’re calling this one a draw.
Book a flight but don’t turn up at the airport until after it departs – or even at all – and it’s a full loss of fare with both airlines, which means you’ll be buying a new ticket when you next travel.
However, from time to time airport staff may show kindness towards travellers arriving late due to heavy traffic or unfortunate personal circumstances, particularly high-level frequent flyers, and may be able to re-book you onto the next flight if you ask politely: but it’s never to be expected.
Winner: Another draw
For those times when you need to send a different traveller on a flight already booked – for example, due to sickness or a workplace emergency – Qantas allows you to change the name on a flexible ticket for a fee of $88, plus any fare difference if that same flight is now selling at a higher price.
That added cost discourages businesses from buying flights in bulk when prices are lower and finalising their travel needs closer to departure, yet while still providing an option when the business’ plans genuinely change.
Name changes aren’t permitted at all on Virgin Australia, even on the highest-priced flexible fares.
Checked and carry-on baggage
Flexible or discounted, the checked and carry-on baggage allowances remain the same in economy with both airlines.
On Qantas, that’s a maximum of two carry-on bags weighing up to 7kg each (total of 14kg) plus one checked bag of up to 23kg for an all-out total of 37kg.
With Virgin Australia, you’re allowed two carry-on bags but instead at a combined total weight of 7kg – not 7kg each as with Qantas – plus one 23kg checked bag, totalling 30kg overall.
Access to extra legroom seating
Qantas allows Gold, Platinum and Platinum One frequent flyers to pre-select extra legroom seating from the time of booking at no charge, and from 80 hours prior to departure for Silver, Bronze and non-frequent flyers where these seats remain available, again at no cost.
The only exception is on the longest east-west Airbus A330 flights where a cost of $60 is levied to all but Platinum One members, even when booking a flexible fare.
Virgin Australia instead charges additional fees for all extra legroom seats in the emergency exit rows – regardless of your ticket price or frequent flyer status – although does allow Platinum-grade members to pre-select extra legroom seats in the front row of economy at no charge.
Winner: Virgin Australia on east-west flights, Qantas on other routes
Extra perks on flexible fares
If you arrive at the airport earlier than originally planned, can you hop onto an earlier flight if one is available?
When changing flexible tickets at the airport on the day of departure, Qantas waives any assistance fees and any applicable fare difference only for its top-tier Platinum One members, at least on paper.
Virgin Australia’s published ‘Fly Ahead’ policy instead extends that same level of flexibility to its own Gold and Platinum members on both Saver and Flexi fares, provided the fare class you booked is still available on your desired flight – or at least, that’s the official stance.
Virgin Australia also treats its Platinum-grade Velocity frequent flyers to four complimentary business class upgrades each year for travellers booked on a flexible economy ticket.
Winner: Virgin Australia
Flexi fares: Qantas vs Virgin Australia
The overall tally evens out between Qantas and Virgin Australia, but which is best for your domestic tips will come down to your individual travel patterns and habits.
For example, Virgin Australia is clearly ahead for those long east-west flights when it comes to extra legroom and handy upgrade certificates for Platinum frequent flyers; it also has the better 'Fly Ahead' policy.
But if you often travel with extra baggage – such as materials for presentations or conferences – and stick to the east coast routes, you'd likely lean towards Qantas.
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