The Great Australian Airfare Rip-off

Here in Australia on his annual holiday, my wife's uncle told me about the growing number of deals to be found in the UK when booking a return flight from London to Sydney.

"So what's a typical airfare with one of these deals?" I asked him, knowing full well that long-haul airfares have been on the increase for some time both here and there.

"Well, I received an email just last week promoting return flights to Sydney for less than £700."

I did the conversion in my head. £700 was roughly equivalent to $1,000 AUD. $1,000 AUD! I couldn't book a flight from Sydney to London for anything less than $1,500 on a good day. I might be able to find a cheaper flight but I'd stop over in nine countries and it would take me four weeks to get there.

Photo credit: Milolovitch69 (Flickr Creative Commons)

I decided to investigate further online and found one reputable airline advertising direct economy flights from London to Sydney for £796 during the English summer, while a rival airline had return flights to Sydney priced at a mere £681. Granted, these flights were scheduled for a time of year when the Aussie winter would be in full swing but, nonetheless, it represented a huge contrast to the airline fares advertised in Australia for that same travel period.

A search on the Australian arm of Expedia for similar flights but this time from Sydney to London revealed an average price of $2,000 or about £1,350. Deal or no deal, this was a significant discrepancy and one with no accompanying explanation as to the reason for the vast price differences.

I asked my wife's uncle to try booking a pair of Sydney to London tickets from the UK in an attempt to take advantage of the lower fares, but the online booking systems wouldn't allow it. What about a one-way flight from Sydney to London, then a return ticket to Sydney taking advantage of the lower prices in the UK, and we'd then save the additional leg back to London for a future visit? Again, no joy. The price of a single ticket was almost as expensive as the full return ticket.

I was beginning to sense a conspiracy.

Having lived in Australia for a number of years, airfares have always been something of a bugbear for me. It's financially punitive enough trying to fly back to see loved ones from the other side of the world, but no-one wants to feel blatantly ripped-off. So why is it costing more for us to fly long-haul from Australia than for people coming the other way?

I've lived in Canada and experienced fairly consistent flight pricing between there and the UK - and vice versa. Ditto for the US. Double ditto for pretty much anywhere else I've lived in or have travelled to. I get it that the cost of most things in Australia, especially in Sydney, has been on the rise for years. From books to house prices, movie tickets to car parking, it's not hard to see why Australia has become one of the most expensive countries in the world to live in. I suppose that's the price you pay (no pun intended) for living in a country where the robust economy continues to buck the trend of poorly performing financial systems elsewhere.

But when it comes to flying home, and with no other available option, you can't help but feel overcharged and short-changed at the recurring sight of these exorbitant airfares when compared to the prices that folks are paying back in the UK. And this peculiar pricing framework doesn't discriminate because you'll pay just as much in the off-season as you will during the peak times of the year.

The airlines are for the most part silent on the issue. When it appears in the media, there's no response or explanation. The gross inconsistency in airfares here seems to exist because that's the way things are and the way they intend for them to stay.

It's accepted that airlines can do whatever they want to do and, as long as Australia-based Brits need to travel back to the UK regularly, they'll keep charging you what they like, when they like, and without any excuse. Which means that, for the foreseeable future, flying to Britain will remain financially painful yet unavoidably necessary for expats living in Australia.

Is this a problem you’ve found? How did you get around it? Do you think those of us here in Australia should pay the same as the rest of the world for long-haul flights? 

This article appeared in the Weekly World edition of the Telegraph (Issue 1, 133, April 10-16).

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Justine Bree said... Add Reply

I paid $498 return to come to Singapore with Scoot. Am going to research how much fares to Europe are from here as I like to break my journey anyway!

Miss Footloose said... Add Reply

It's a problem in other countries as well. You get the best deals
leaving EU-Europe or the US because of the competition. When you live in
an out-of-the-way place or a poor country without competition,
forget it.

Katie Gunston said... Add Reply

You're right, I looked into it and round-trip flights between Canada and Australia are pretty comparable, no matter which country you're starting from. It may be because so many Canadians live close to the border, so many drive to the US to fly out from there - so that gives us more competition to keep prices fair. However, our domestic flights are ridiculously expensive - at peak times, it's about $1,000 round trip to travel across 2-3 Provinces, sigh!

Seana Smith said... Add Reply

Hello from up the road in the Forest. I've been looking at this too as I have some money in the UK (thank you Mum) and would love to use it to buy airfares from there. Pain in the neck though. My solution would be to do it after I had enough points to fly one way to the UK. Then I'd get a sister to buy me a return flight from there on her card and pay her back.

The issue is that I usually fly with a couple of random kids and it's all horribly complicated.

My theory is that it's just the exchange rate that causes the issues here, it's so skewed at the moment. I first came to Oz after uni in 1987 and send 100 pounds ahead, I got $250 for that!! 4 weeks rent in a room at Bondi!! And Aus was cheap then and people got paid really well... but when the exchange rate is SO different now, it's expensive here.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

That sounds like a great price to Singapore, Justine. Let me know what the fares are from there to Europe.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

It seems to be so. And once they get away with charging the prices (and people pay), then it's easy for the fares to stay that way. Seems that Canada has a similar problem.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

I remember those domestic prices, Katie. It was only a few hundred bucks more for me to go all the way to London. It's the same issue here. Sydney to Perth could set you back hundreds although there are often deals to be grabbed.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Hi Seana, thanks for your comment. A few people have suggested the one-way trip followed by returns from the UK thereafter. I guess you just need to commit to that annual trip back. I agree that the exchange rate is skewing things which doesn't help. It's good for some things but it does make everything here feel even more expensive than it is.

disqus_09Ptc7ibb7 said... Add Reply

Being an ex pat Aussie since last May I was amazed at the difference in airfares. My partner and I have organised return flights from London to Sydney, travel insurance and a return bus travel from our home town to London (3-4 hours away) for less than £1,900.00 flying with Qantas. I paid almost the same amount for a return fare for one when I flew to Britain 18 months ago for a visit.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Wow. That's incredible. I never thought I'd admit that things in the UK are cheaper than here but, when it comes to airfare (and increasingly many other aspects), this seems to be the way things are going. Make the most of those cheaper flights for the time you're there! :)

TheAmericanResident said... Add Reply

Ugh, there's a similar thing between the US and UK. And I live on the wrong side of the Atlantic in this case.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Really? That's not good. I never seem to live on the 'right' side when it comes to these things!

yTravelBlog said... Add Reply

Oh yeah. Everything else is so much worse in Australia. I was chatting to my Mum last night who is going to the UK for the first time in Aug. Her and Dad have booked an Ireland and Wales tour with a UK based tour company. She couldn't believe the low price of it and thought it might be dodgy. No Mum it's just that Australia is so expensive. This is how the rest of the world travels!

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Lol. That's too funny. Don't get me wrong, I love living here and can quite easily stomach much of the cost of living being high - it's a trade-off for being here - but the airfare thing drives me nuts. Maybe I'll get your Mum to book me some return flights while she's over there ;-)

Lars Steves said... Add Reply
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Buster said... Add Reply

UK flight prices aren't cheaper. You've applied the exchange rate at the time you wrote the article and at that time the AUD was relatively strong against the GBP, circa GBP1.00 to AUD1.45, and in fact the strongest rate for many years. (It was a very good time for Australians to visit the UK and demand may have been high). The Australian economy is 10 years into a boom and therefore the cost of living in Australia was (and still is) relatively high compared to the UK, which has experienced a double-dip recession and sustained low base rates for many years. To get a more realistic, but still ball park conversion, you should at least double GBP to get AUD. This makes sense when you say the UK tickets prices were £700 - £800 and comparative Australian tickets were upwards of AUD1500. The the single ticket was almost as expensive as the return fare is to prevent one from taking advantage of favourable exchange rates.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Thanks for your insights, Buster. Will be interesting to see if and how the situation changes now the Australian economy is slowing. I'd imagine Aussies will still continue to find it more expensive to travel to the UK than vice versa. Just a gut feeling.

Donut said... Add Reply

I believe the biggest culprit to high airfares out of Australia is the fact there is so little competition in conjunction with very poor and/or weak regulation.

I too am looking at visiting family in the UK but cannot justify paying the current fares. ADL to MAN (return) $AD2950; MAN to ADL (return) 1198 pounds ($AD2200 on current conversion rate)...from my experience its not just flights, Australians seem to get stung on just about everything. I've lived and worked in the UK, Germany, US and currently Australia and have never experienced a cost of living like it and can only put it down to competition. One way ticket from ADL to MAN $AD2200 (price fixing disguised and justified as reduced fares for return travel?)

Without trying to be too negative I find Australia almost like a developing nation which harbours insular views which will not help its situation when trying to open up the market place to new investors/competition. Australians need to embrace change rather than shun new investment and opportunities!

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Hey Donut, totally agree. There is an absolute lack of competition over here (in a number of industries) which doesn't help prices at all. I'm also trying to buy a ticket back to the UK and am struggling to find anything affordable. There definitely needs to be a change here on the airline pricing front before we all decide it's simply unaffordable and unjustifiable. Thanks for your insights :)

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