I’ve taken three domestic flights in New Zealand, so I’ll write the guide I wished I’d read before starting the trip on how to book dirt cheap domestic flights in New Zealand.
Distances in New Zealand aren’t huge, but on a week and a half trip I don’t want to spend five plus hours on the roads to move between cities.
There are two domestic carriers in New Zealand, Air New Zealand and Jetstar.
Air New Zealand is a Star Alliance member and a full-service operator. I flew Air New Zealand from Queenstown to Auckland on an all-economy A320. They served a free snack–yummy cookie–and free drinks.
Jetstar is a low-cost subsidiary of Qantas, Australia’s flag carrier. Qantas is a member of oneworld, but you can only redeem American Airlines miles and British Airways Avios on Jetstar flights with a Qantas flight number starting in QF. This excludes many domestic New Zealand flights, which only have a flight number starting in JQ. Jetstar charges for snacks and all drinks.
I don’t recommend using miles on domestic flights within New Zealand.* United charges 17,500 miles in economy and 25,000 in business each way. At my valuation of United miles, this would never make sense as a good redemption because one way flights within New Zealand should never top $316.75 (17,500 * 1.81 cents).
Instead, you will want to pay cash for your intra-New Zealand flights. The first place to check flight prices is kayak.com. Let’s look up a sample Queenstown to Auckland itinerary for next week with one day of flexibility in each direction.
The results show that the cheapest itinerary is $131 on Jetstar with a stop in Wellington. The cheapest nonstop is a $193 on Air New Zealand.
Let’s double check these results at jetstar.com and airnewzealand.co.nz to see if they match up. In my searches, I often found that the airlines’ sites and kayak.com offered different prices, with neither consistently lower, so I check all three sites.
Jetstar shows a month of results to show you the cheapest days.
Jetstar shows only the higher priced direct flights it offers. It doesn’t include the connecting itineraries shown on Kayak.
Both Jetstar and Air New Zealand will be showing prices in New Zealand Dollars. Kayak shows prices in US Dollars to me since I’ve asked it to. Confusingly USD and NZD use “$” as their symbol . But the 219 NZD flight would cost $184.57 USD.
Air New Zealand’s site is also showing prices below Kayak’s price.
199 NZD is $167.72, which is cheaper than the listed direct flights on Kayak.
So right now, the cheapest direct flight we’ve found is $168 from Air New Zealand’s site and $131 for a one-stop itinerary through Kayak. The one-stop through Kayak is a five hour itinerary, so I wouldn’t book it, and I’d lean toward the direct for $168.
We can do better.
Air New Zealand has a standby program called Grab a Seat that is very easy to use and can result in significant savings.
Update: The website says the Grab a Seat program will end May 6, 2013. Bummer.
Go to the Grab a Seat standby page (for ones other than Queenstown, select your departure from the dropdown.) The first thing you’ll see there is a list of the day’s flights that you can try to fly standby on. The list will not necessarily include all the Air New Zealand flights that day, just the ones with some space on them. The list is updated frequently–hourly?
Grab a Seat fares must be purchased at the airport at least 60 minutes prior to departure. Then provided there is still space on the flight 30 minutes before take off, you can fly for super low prices, 69 NZD for domestic flights except 89 NZD between Auckland and Dunedin or Queenstown.
Grab a Seat fares are only open to members of Air New Zealand’s loyalty club Airpoints. Air New Zealand normally charges 50 NZD to join Airpoints, but instead of typing in your credit card details, type in the promo code JOINAP to join for free. Join today while that code still works.
On the day I flew from Queenstown to Auckland, I monitored the fare for a week and it never dipped below 239 NZD, but I monitored the Grab a Seat page daily too, and there were always at least four Auckland flights listed as eligible, so I decided to try Grab a Seat.
I woke up at 10 AM and saw the next Grab a Seat-eligible flight to Auckland was at 12:30 PM, so I’d need to purchase my ticket by 11:30 AM. I got to the airport at 11:25 AM and found the Grab a Seat counter, which was opposite the check in counters and clearly marked by a large sign.
The agent at the standby desk was occupied with another person, but there was a phone on the desk to call in. I had only three minutes until the one-hour cut off, so I picked it up, and it started to dial automatically.
The agent who answered clearly handled a lot of standby passengers and knew exactly what to do. Within minutes, she had me on the standby list for the 12:30 PM flight to Auckland and had charged my credit card 89 NZD (~$74). She told me to check in 30 minutes before for my boarding pass. She also explained that if I didn’t get on the first flight, I could try to get on the next flight without having to call back. Or that I could ask for a refund of the purchase.
With 30 minutes to go, I went to an electronic kiosk. After typing in the confirmation code the phone agent gave me, the computer said it couldn’t check me in, and gave me a card to give to a human agent. I took it to the standby desk, and she printed me a boarding pass with no seat assignment. I was told to go to the gate and give it to the gate agent.
The gate agent took my boarding pass and put it in a pile with the other standby flyers. Boarding began 25 minutes before take off. At 15 minutes before take off, almost all the passengers were boarded, and the agent began to work through the standby list. There were seven of us. I’m not sure how we were ordered–by when we got on the list, by when we got to the gate–but in this case there was a seat for everyone. The agent would cross out SBY on our boarding pass, write a seat number, and hand it back.
I got on the plane in a window exit row seat and five minutes later, we were pushing back. It was a stress free way to spend $74 instead of $168 on the ticket!
My friend from New Zealand who told me about Grab a Seat relayed the following about her experiences:
“Grabaseat Standby is a gem, I did it yesterday and got on the first flight out 45 minutes after I arrived at the airport for [NZD] 150 less than if I’d bought the ticket online. I’ve never not got on the next flight leaving to my destination actually, nor has anyone else I know. Just point out that relying on it might be unwise if you were traveling with a larger party on a more regional routing that used small planes.”
If you know you need to fly a certain day:
Check the ticket prices on Kayak, Jetstar, and Air New Zealand. If they are close to the price of a standby seat, purchase the ticket. How much of a premium you’re willing to pay to guarantee yourself a seat depends on a few things.
- How much you need to get somewhere at a certain time.
- How expensive the back up plan is.
- How you handle stress and uncertainty.
I needed to get from Queenstown to Auckland any time Friday or early Saturday, so I knew I’d have about eight flights to try to get on. And if I failed, I could buy a ticket for under $300. I know I can handle the uncertainty of being at the airport and not knowing until the last minute whether I’m on the flight or have to wait another 90 minutes without stressing out too much. Plus I had a good book.
For that reason, I was more than happy to standby for a price of $74 instead of paying $168 for a guaranteed seat.
But for my other two domestic flights from Auckland to Wellington and Wellington to Queenstown, I purchased them in advance.
These would have 69 NZD each or $57 to standby, so a $6 and $32 premium seemed like no brainers, so I could be certain how much time I’d have in Wellington and when I’d get to Queenstown.
If you don’t know when or where you want to fly:
Standby fares are for you! Not only are they cheap, but they give you flexibility. If you book your domestic New Zealand fares months before your trip and then you realize Queenstown is incredible and you want to stay longer, you’re in for some nasty change fees or wasted money. Or if you get to New Zealand and find out you should go to Wellington instead of Christchurch, you don’t have to book a new ticket, just show up at the airport.
For people with uncertain travel plans, Grab a Seat fares are incredible.
I don’t recommend using miles or points for domestic flights in New Zealand.* There are two domestic carriers in New Zealand. Make sure to check both their sites and kayak.com for the cheapest fare on your dates and route.
Then compare that price to the Grab a Seat standby fare on the route. If your plans are flexible, and you are willing to take a chance, Grab a Seat might be the best deal for you.
No matter what method you use to get your tickets within New Zealand or in any other country, make sure you use a credit card that charges zero foreign transaction fees like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink Bold, or Chase Ink Plus. I investigated my Chase Ink Plus and found it got a phenomenal exchange rate in New Zealand.
* None of the preceding means not to add intra-New Zealand flights to international awards. For instance LAX-AKL-ZQN would be the same miles as LAX-AKL, so of course you should add AKL-ZQN to the award if it helps your travel plans. This post is only about moving around New Zealand once you’re there.