How to bag a bargain

From points schemes to alternative routes and traveller rewards, there are many ways to cut travel costs

Everybody loves a bargain don’t they? There’s an adrenaline rush that comes with bagging a great deal plus a compulsion to give smug sideways looks to those that paid full price. Rarely is that truer than when booking big-ticket items, such as travel; from flights to fancy hotels or hire cars, the cost of trips can really add up. It’s why millions log on to price comparison sites, such as Travel Supermarket or Skyscanner, setting up alerts for their next holiday, finger poised to click as a limited sale flashes up on screen.

But what about business travel? Exact costs may vary from company to company, but there’s no doubt that employee travel is one of the biggest overheads, so anything that can cut costs, particularly in challenging economic times, is invaluable. For the individual travellers, too, extra perks or upgrades can make all the difference to what might be a tiring trip a long way from home.

Securing these sorts of savings or extra benefits takes a touch of know-how, though. Often with less notice and inevitably less flexibility on dates and destinations, it isn’t quite as easy as it might be with leisure trips to make a killer saving.

Which is why we asked some experts to share their top tips and tricks for bagging a bargain in business travel. Here’s what they told us.

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Subscribe to everything, advises one senior travel buyer. “Yes, we do get a lot of emails, but occasionally these will have a nugget of information that will help us, be that a new hotel opening, a sale of flights or details of a round of cheaper rail tickets.”

With suppliers you work with regularly, the buyer adds, “negotiation is the key, whether it is to leverage contractual terms or extend options. Building relationships with suppliers is of great benefit.”

This applies just as much to major airlines, too. “We have preferred supplier deals with several airlines giving us various discounts in economy and mainly business class as our volume is extremely high,” says another travel manager, from a major marketing group. “However, we are finding more often that Skyscanner and Travelbag are offering flights at less than our negotiated rates. We then either go back to our TMC and challenge the quoted rate or simply book direct with those alternative providers. One caveat is that the cancellation terms and conditions can be rigid and costly.”

Negotiation is the key, whether it is to leverage contractual terms or extend options

Smarter thinking
Even when you’re too small to negotiate a bespoke corporate fare with an airline, you can make use of their corporate schemes, such as BA on Business, recommends Judith Heinrich, managing director at Travelicity Consulting, as they provide access to corporate points and bespoke fares, sometimes with additional flexibility.

When it comes to airline points schemes, she adds, make sure you consolidate too: “Rather than sign up to all the individual frequent flyer programmes, sign up to those operated by the umbrella alliances and consolidate the points together.” This allows you to collect miles far quicker, and use them more widely.

Don’t forget credit card providers either, many of which have teamed up with airlines to provide additional ways of collecting points. One of the best known is American Express, and some of its cards allow users to accumulate Avios points to put toward BA flights and provide automatic enrolment into the BA Executive Club, with all its additional benefits. Where company policies allow, frequent business travellers can easily top up the points acquired on their trips too by purchasing points in exchange for cash, and then put these toward personal or leisure trips. Book peak seats far enough in advance and you can pay as little as one-third of the standard price using Avios, suggests Heinrich.

On a corporate level, “Using a central purchasing card has allowed us to benefit from a high number of Avios points which has enabled us to reduce the cost of flights when prices are high, or book premium cabin flights when available,” says the senior travel buyer. “Points quickly add up and joining loyalty clubs can help with some suppliers to gain additional benefits at hotels, such as room upgrades.”

Being clever with when and how you book your route is another way of making savings on business flights. Book in advance, “book smartly” by looking at routes that don’t depart from Gatwick and Heathrow, and study carefully “the start time of your meetings and also the location delegates are originating from; this can make a huge difference not just on cost, but also wellbeing and night-prior accommodation cost,” suggests Leigh Cowlishaw, managing partner at Black Box Partnerships.

Another trick, says Heinrich, is to take a look at codeshare flights. For example, “in the UK everybody wants to fly BA, even though American Airlines is cheaper, but what they can do to get a cheaper flight is to book the AA flight number, but one operated by BA.” This can see you sitting on the same plane but for a significantly lower cost, though it may require the inside knowledge of an agent.

Eight tricks of the travel trade: Compiled by Martin Newman, customer experience expert

• Don’t believe airline websites telling you there are X number of seats left at this price or on this flight…

•… Or that ten other people are looking at this hotel right now.

•Some brands use AI/algorithms and data to charge customers more based on where they live and/or what technology they’re using.

•Always check that airport transfers are included as they aren’t always. That can easily add £150 to the cost.

•If you forget to print your boarding card, be aware that the airline could make you pay for the privilege of printing it for you.

•Weigh your luggage before you leave home, or you could get stung if you exceed the allowance.

•Beware of tourist tax and other local taxes.

•Watch out for those hotels that charge for the safety deposit box in your room.

Cheaper options
Indirect flights might not always be desirable, but they’re inevitably the cheaper option too, several experts say. And there can be perks for well-planned layovers. Heinrich, for instance, points out that major Chinese airports now offer a free transit visa allowing 144 hours to explore the area. That’s compared to the £150 you might fork out for a standard visa.

Flying indirect might also provide travellers with cheap upgrades to premium economy or even business class, says Craig Unsworth, chief executive at Upgrade Pack. Conversely, those looking to be bumped up should avoid “appealing online auctions,” he adds. “These usually involve last-minute calculations working out the price of your tickets and the cost of a seat in the class you’re bidding for.” He also – unsurprisingly – recommends buyers and travellers look to signing up to Upgrade Pack’s app-based platform. “If an Upgrade Pack user has purchased an economy seat, they can quickly find out through our app if there is current availability in business, or premium economy without any red tape. If there’s an upgraded seat available, you’ll get a discount that is unavailable anywhere else.”

Give staff the autonomy to make the right choices for the business, as if it was their own money

People power
Once safely on the ground, many of these same strategies can also be applied when booking hotels or meeting venues for business trips, too. Namely, building relationships with the right people. “Account manager relationships lead to miraculous room availability when the direct approach online, or via reservations, results in nothing, even with preferred providers,” says the senior travel buyer.

Equally, many hotel chains will offer corporate rates and reward programmes, such as the Marriott for Small Business scheme. Membership promises the best rates when you book direct, easier access to meeting rooms on-site, exclusive promotions and a points scheme to put toward free nights.

And when it comes to venues, one buyer also recommends Headbox, a consolidated tool for booking sites. “They not only have 200,000 European venues on their portfolio, they have already negotiated the best terms due to their volumes, and they don’t charge us, the client, for this service,” he says.

“They have a 3-D walkthrough website that allows bookers to shortlist and provide their management with a virtual collection.”

Used correctly these tips and tricks will almost invariably see businesses save hundreds, if not thousands of pounds, on their business travel costs. The motivation for senior managers, and travel teams operating on tight budgets, is therefore clear. But what about travellers themselves? After all, though they might benefit from some of the perks en route, companies are often requiring them to put additional effort into finding routes and carriers that will save their employer money. Increasingly, it is the individuals themselves that are tasked with booking the nuts and bolts of travel. So, what’s in it for them?

“Sometimes the problem you have is that individual travellers don’t care about saving money,” agrees Heinrich. “It’s the travel managers that are interested in saving money.” As one possible solution, she recommends teams take a look at US platforms, such as Rocketrip. It has been specifically created to reward employees for saving company money on business travel by allocating individual tracked budgets per staff member, and offering rewards contingent on the proportion they manage to hold back.

“If, for example, they’re travelling to Chicago and stay with their friend, rather than at a hotel, they get something back,” explains Heinrich. “You could really incentivise travellers to save money with that approach.”

More simply, says Cowlishaw, “give them the autonomy to make the right choices for the business, as if it was their own money. You never know, they might just do it for the rush.”

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