Virgin Australia has lobbed a bomb into the Qantas camp overnight with a rejig of its fare structure, including the introduction of a new affordable flexible fare.
The three ticket types, down from five fare types previously available, dramatically cut the cost of 'flexible' tickets in Australia.
Rather than paying hundreds of dollars extra for a changeable ticket, passengers will now pay a relatively small difference.
For example, Virgin will charge $109 for a basic Sydney to Melbourne flight, or $199 for a flexible ticket with food and baggage included. Qantas, in comparison wants $369 for a flexible ticket on the same route.
The difference becomes even more marked on longer routes. On Sydney to Perth, for example, Virgin will charge $359 for a flexible ticket, but Qantas wants $891.
The pricing is recognition of the fact that most travellers have twigged to the fact that it's cheaper to book a basic fare and then pay change penalties than it is to buy a flexible fare to begin with.
Virgin's new flexi fare is about offering a viable flexible fare -- for example, the extra $90 on the Sydney-Melbourne route covers a $12 baggage fee, a meal probably worth around $15, a $60 change fee you'd otherwise have to pay with a basic fare if you needed to change your flight, and an inflight entertainment fee worth $4.90 -- roughly equivalent value.
However, it also offers intangible value -- priority check-in at the airport, and flight changes or cancellation up to 24 hours after a flight has departed. So, if you miss your flight, the fare will remain good for another flight -- something you can't do with any airline on a discount economy ticket.
There is one important caveat on this generous policy -- it only applies if you have not checked-in. If you have checked-in and then don't actually board the flight, you forfeit your ticket (presumably because Virgin can't fill the seat at the last moment if someone has actually checked into it.)
The flexi ticket is also refundable for cash, not just airline credit, which is another thing that can't be done on discount economy tickets.
The new ticket types apply to Virgin Australia, Pacific Blue and Polynesian Blue flights (but not V Australia).
The new "saver" fare
The "saver" flight level comes without baggage, food, or inflight entertainment -- though unlike Jetstar's cheapest fare, you still earn Velocity frequent flyer points.
- 23KG baggage costs $12 to add on (plus $5 if you do it after making the initial booking)
- if you need to change or cancel your flight, it's $60 through the internet or $80 through the call centre (domestic flights; other fees apply for international).
- Name changes aren't allowed.
How the saver fare compares
- Virgin Australia Saver - $109 for Sydney-Melbourne (no baggage included.)
- Virgin Australia Saver with baggage - $121
- Qantas Red e-Deal - $117 (baggage included)
- Jetstar "Starter" flight - $109 (no frequent flyer points)
- Jetstar "Plus" flight - $144 (with baggage, frequent flyer points, no penalties for changes)
New sensibly priced "flexi" fare
- Priority checkâ€in at all major domestic and international airports
- 23KG checked baggage allowance (32KG for Velocity Gold members)
- a set meal and drinks as part of the price (the first time Virgin has offered food as part of the fare)
- inflight entertainment
- the ability to change your flight without penalty fees (you just have to pay the difference in fare).
- Refunds (up to 24 hours after the flight) or name changes cost $80 through the internet or $100 through the call centre.
How Virgin's Flexi fare compares:
- Virgin Australia Flexi - $199 for Sydney-Melbourne
- Qantas Flexi-Saver fare - $369
- Jetstar "Plus" flight plus baggage - $144 (no food, inflight entertainment or priority check-in though)
- Jetstar "Max" flight - $339 (no food, but fully refundable, where Virgin's Flexi isn't)
The premium fare
- The "premium" fare offers premium economy or business class where available.
- unlimited food and drinks inflight (premium or business class menu)
- priority checkâ€in
- access to the Virgin Australia lounge
- free inflight entertainment
- 69KG checked baggage allowance
- Flight changes and cancellations allowed up to 24 hours after departure (we checked -- that's not a typo)
- Fully refundable for cash, not just airline credit
- Name changes allowed
- Ability to book seats and pay for them 72 hours later
- Take an earlier flight on the same day at no extra cost, if seats available
- Fare difference is still payable on flight changes
How Virgin's Premium fare compares:
- Virgin Australia Premium - $425
- Qantas Business Class - $627
- Jetstar "Max" flight - $339 (no food)
We used June 24th as a date to check fares between Sydney-Melbourne on Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar. We chose the lowest fare of the day, but disregarded flights before 9am and after 9pm, to cut out red-eye specials.