So it turns out that Qatar Airways’ insane rebooking policy was, indeed, too good to be true. Barely 24 hours after it launched, Qatar has modified the policy slightly to exclude fifth freedom flights.
That doesn’t mean that all the value is gone, but it does mean a fantastic deal just became a good one.
What is the Qatar Airways “Travel with Confidence” Policy?
Under Qatar Airways’ “Travel with Confidence” policy, customers who book by 30 September 2020 with travel by 31 December 2020 have the following options should their plans change:
- Hold on to their ticket for up to two years from the date of issuance (versus the usual one year)
- Make unlimited changes to their travel dates, free of charge. They can also change their origin to another city within the same country, or another destination within a 5,000 mile radius of the original destination
- Swap their ticket value for Qmiles at a rate of 100 Qmiles= US$1
- Exchange their ticket for a travel voucher with 10% additional value. Voucher is valid for two years
- Get a full refund to their original mode of payment if their flight is cancelled
Option (2) is by far the most generous, since it allows you to change your original destination to any other Qatar Airways destination within 5,000 miles (roughly 8+ hours of flying).
This created an opportunity to:
- Book the cheapest possible Qatar Airways Business Class ticket
- Change the city pairing to a much more expensive itinerary
This was entirely within the ambit of policy, and no additional taxes, surcharges, fare differences or penalty fees applied. It was truly amazing.
Fifth freedom flights no longer qualify for the policy
I say “was”, because at some point yesterday, the T&Cs were updated as follows:
In case you can’t see it, that last point says:
Rerouting is not possible free of charge if the original booking was on a fifth freedom route not touching Doha (such as PNH-SGN and vice versa; GRU-EZE and vice versa)
Let’s be clear: this doesn’t ruin the deal completely. There’s still some options that pass through Doha which can be parlayed into very good outcomes. However, it does mean the deal is less attractive for us in Singapore now, because of what it means for pricing. I’ll get to that in a minute.
What are Qatar Airways’ Fifth Freedom Routes?
Fifth freedom routes are flights operated between two countries by an airline whose home base is neither of those two. For example, Singapore Airlines operates a Frankfurt to New York flight, despite its home base being neither in Germany nor the USA.
|⚠️ Note that a Fifth Freedom route is not the same as a layover. Singapore Airlines flies to Cape Town via Johannesburg, but it’s not possible to purchase a seat on just the Johannesburg – Cape Town leg. If you’re wondering whether a city pairing involves a layover or a fifth freedom route, try booking a stand-alone ticket between the two. If you can’t, it’s not a fifth freedom option.|
As far as I know, Qatar Airways only has three fifth freedom routes.
- Buenos Aires (EZE) to Sao Paulo (GRU)
- Djibouti (JIB) to Mogadishu (MGQ)
- Phnom Penh (PNH) to Ho Chi Minh (SGN)
Of the three, PNH to SGN was probably the most useful to us in Singapore, because round-trip Business Class tickets priced at just over S$900. You could then change your destination to 5,000 miles from SGN (or PNH, depending on where you started) at no additional cost, opening up options to Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Turkey. All these would route via Doha, giving you extra time to enjoy Qatar’s Business Class.
Qatar Airways has now put a stop to this with their latest policy. For good measure, they’ve also blocked all bookings between SGN-PNH and EZE-GRU…
…but not, curiously, between JIB and MGQ. I wonder if anyone actually booked that though.
What does that leave us?
For those of us in Singapore, the tl;dr version is that you’ll now pay at least ~S$2,000 and have a more inconvenient connection, compared to the ~S$900 before (and relatively painless transit in Vietnam).
Based on my searches, the cheapest Business Class routes out of Southeast Asia are from Manila. I managed to pull the following itineraries, all of which could be converted into destinations on the US East Coast with distance to spare.
- Manila (MNL) to Rome (FCO) for S$1,956
- Manila (MNL) to Paris (CDG) for S$2,014
- Manila (MNL) to Istanbul (IST)for S$2,061
- Manila (MNL) to Barcelona (BCN) for S$2,066
- Manila (MNL) to Milan (MXP) for S$2,178
Unfortunately, transit in Manila is somewhat Kafkaesque, and may be an adventure too far for some people.
Jakarta would be somewhat saner (you know it’s bad when Soekarno-Hatta is compared positively to you), but you’ll pay a price for that sanity:
- Jakarta (CGK) to Milan (MXP) for S$2,861
- Jakarta (CGK) to Amsterdam (AMS) for S$2,865
- Jakarta (CGK) to Barcelona (BCN) for S$2,921
If you must start in Singapore, you might as well pass on this because you’re not going to find anything useful. The cheapest Business Class fares I could find were:
- Singapore (SIN) to Oslo (OSL) for S$3,310
- Singapore (SIN) to Stockholm (ARN) for S$3,367
- Singapore (SIN) to Berlin (BER) for S$3,382
- Singapore (SIN) to Athens (ATH) for S$3,382
In the cold light of day, booking SIN-OSL for S$3,310 and changing it to SIN-JFK is still a good price, but not something that’d make me drop everything to fly.
What did I manage to book?
I managed to snag a SGN-PNH ticket fairly early on, and during my first attempt (to the call centre in Singapore), managed to change it to SGN-DOH-PER-DOH-SGN.
The agent insisted that AKL was more than 5,000 miles from PNH (possible, if their system uses statute miles and not nautical miles), but also didn’t let me choose SYD (weird, because PNH to SYD is less than 5,000 miles, statute or nautical).
On my second attempt (to the call centre in Birmingham), I managed to further change it to SGN-DOH-SYD-DOH-SGN, which was a much better outcome in my opinion because DOH-SYD is served by QSuites.
However, this agent insisted that I could not change my origin point to HAN- incorrect, because as per Qatar’s policy, I should be able to move it to anywhere within the country of origin. But I know better than to argue, so I just took SYD and counted it as a win.
By this time, the cat was well and truly out of the bag and there were reports of agents flat out refusing to make changes. Shortly after, the T&Cs were updated to exclude fifth freedom flights. So date changes aside, I’m done with touching this ticket. There’s no reason to call unnecessary attention to it, and I’d advise anyone else in the same boat to not get greedy.
What should you do now?
If you managed to snag a fifth freedom flight and make a destination change, you got a fantastic deal. Now don’t go bugging the CSOs to move the travel dates to 2021, or let you change the origin point to another country. That wasn’t even in the original rules, and you’re only hogging the lines and annoying people.
Similarly, agents are of course able to see the original origin and destination of a given ticket. This means you can’t “hop” by booking A–>B, changing B to C (within 5,000 miles of B), then changing C to D (within 5,000 miles of C). You are anchored to 5,000 miles within the original destination, B. That’s still incredibly generous, so please, don’t be that guy.
If you missed out on the fifth freedom opportunities, you can still find sub-S$2,000 Business Class fares to Europe, provided you’re willing reposition to Manila. That’s a decision you’ll have to take for yourself, but be warned- it’s not for the faint of heart.
As I mentioned in the original post, you will also need to consider the possibility that travel restrictions will not be fully lifted by the end of 2020, resulting in you having to do a quarantine on arrival or return. In that case, you can convert your ticket into a voucher with a 10% bonus, but you won’t get a refund unless Qatar Airways cancels the flight.
It’s for that very reason I’m a buyer at S$900+ but not S$2,000+. I’d rather not tie down that amount of money at the moment, and I’d advise you to give it some thought before you do.
It’s no surprise that Qatar has clamped down on the fifth freedom options, but the rest of the policy remains in place (for now). This still provides a good deal of flexibility for anyone booking Qatar Airways tickets, though it’s obviously not the screaming deal it was before.
I’d be interested to hear from those of you who managed to score a deal- what did you book, and what’s the next steps for you now?