Way back on a chilly Spring afternoon last year, Craig and I were strolling through Covent Garden as we liked to do from time to time. We were chatting back and forth about an upcoming wedding in Australia, and whether we should and would use this as a catalyst for us to fulfil a long held ambition for us both – to go travelling for an extended period of time.
How would we do it? Where would we start? Where would we go? The questions seemed endless. On impulse, we ducked into an STA branch we passed, and came out with a suggested itinerary that would take us visiting the third of the world we’d been eyeing up. We walked 100m down the road, realised we had already been agonising for about two weeks over one departure flight and turned back to the store, happy to have something spur us on. We put down a deposit that day, and paid £99 extra for an unlimited STA flexi pass, which would (we were promised) allow us to change any flight dates once we were on the road. This seemed like a sensible purchase to us, given we were committing to a basic itinerary quite far in advance.
For the first four months of our travel, we had no call for the flexi pass. Our dates for the first six weeks were relatively fixed due to the wedding we were attending, and we were then rendezvousing in New Zealand with our friends to spend three weeks in a camper van.
It was only when we considered our December stay in Hong Kong – four months into our trip – that we decided we would employ the STA Flexi Pass. We’d only allowed for four days in the city but, by the time we had shaken the jet lag and completed some personal errands, we knew we’d be keen to add another day or two in the city to allow us to explore further afield.
What did we ask for?
On 29th November we asked STA to change our Hong Kong – Bangkok flight from 4th December to 6th December.
This is a relatively short flight, between two of the busiest cities in Asia, so we were hopeful we’d be able to get a new seat. That said, we had double checked ourselves and found that there was availability on a flight on 6th December retailing at a little over £100. In fact, it was the exact same flight number we were currently booked on, just two days later. We were confident we’d be able to change our seats, especially since we’d given six days notice – well over the 48 hours STA Travel require for any flight changes.
How did we get on?
Not well, in short.
STA Travel came back (relatively quickly, to be fair) and said they were not able to change our flights out of Hong Kong. In fact, there wasn’t a Hong Kong – Bangkok fare in our price bracket for more than two months. If we wanted to stay in Hong Kong, we’d be there until the 15th February the following year. They attributed this to the “busy Christmas period”, which seems a bit excessive for a flight between two countries who are predominantly Buddhist.
We then asked if we could pay the difference to “upgrade” to whatever price bracket these seats (on the same flight number, remember) we’d found ourselves were in. STA still could not change us to those seats.
We then asked if we could purchase our own flights and forfeit the flights we’d paid through STA. Here was the real kicker. If we didn’t take the flight we were booked on through STA, we’d be counted as a no show. That no-show would be extended to every other flight on our itinerary, and those would all be cancelled. We’d be costing ourselves at least £600 each in new flights if we didn’t take this flight, despite the fact our remaining flight (our flight home) was months after our flight between Hong Kong and Bangkok. We literally had no choice. We had to take that flight. Suddenly, the Flexi Pass seemed very, very unflexible.
What was the impact on our trip?
Our time in Hong Kong was shorter than we would have liked, which was a real shame. It is a great city, and there is a lot more to explore than we had time to do. If you end up there, do allow at least a week; there are interesting day trips and some great hiking to do once you step away from the main city.
We had already been discussing extending our final flights home, and had assumed we’d be able to do these perhaps a couple of weeks before we were due to leave – giving us plenty of time to reassess our itinerary and think properly about what dates would work for us.
But, given our experience, now we were panicking. What if we couldn’t move our return flights and had to come back in February?! Our trip would be cut short; our plans would be ruined. We felt our hand was a bit forced and pushed our flights back by two months as quickly as we could. Despite requesting a new flight four months away, STA still couldn’t give us one on that date – we had to go with arriving home the day before. We felt rushed, and it certainly didn’t feel flexible.
What should you know about the STA Flexi Pass?
As mentioned, you can’t pay extra to change, or skip flights if STA can’t come up with a satisfactory change without forfeiting the whole of the rest of your booked flights. You can’t have a rethink and change flights before you leave the UK – you have to be on the road before you can use the Flexi Pass.
I expect STA would say that the points I’ve raised are outlined in their terms and conditions and you should read them before booking. This is probably a fair comment, but in my experience it does not correlate with their selling approach, which very much presents the Flexi Pass as something you can use at short notice, on a beach because you’ve fallen in love with wherever you are and fancy staying just a little bit longer. The reality is very different. Had we been told that seats on alternative flights would only be available once every two months, and just how far ahead we’d need to plan changes, I think we would have thought twice about committing to a full itinerary and booking flights through STA. We probably would have gone it alone.
Would we recommend the STA Flexi Pass?
In fairness, it served a useful purpose. For two people who are ruddy chronic about making big decisions, it was a great catalyst for getting the trip moving, setting a departure date and putting the (suitcase) wheels in motion. I’m grateful for that. We also paid our biggest air fares up front, so I never have to worry we’ll spend all our money on surfing lessons, or tracking down Karl Kennedy and end up penniless and stranded on the other side of the world!
The itinerary STA came up with also pushed us a bit in terms of where we went – we hadn’t even considered New Zealand when we walked in to their branch on that Sunday afternoon, but I’m so, so glad we did.
That said, if we’d stopped agonising and just picked a date, booked a cheap flight one way to an easy hub such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and then planned out our first couple of weeks out, I’m sure we would have found our way from there. If I’ve learnt anything from this it is to a) be a bit more decisive and b) to have a bit more faith in our abilities!
As a final note, the flights we were booked on weren’t great either. Our flight into Christchurch landed at midnight; our troublesome Bangkok flight landed at 11:20pm – we just made the last train but would have been left relying on expensive taxis if we’d been delayed at baggage or immigration which seems a bit of an oversight for a company who deal predominantly in budget and young travellers. This is partly our fault; when booking travel independently we are sensible about ensuring we know the flights work for us. It’s hard to do that when you are thinking so far ahead – another compelling reason for booking flights as you go along – and we perhaps put more faith into our STA Travel Agent making good decisions for us than he deserved.
Tips for using your STA Travel Pass and travel itinerary
STA Travel (in our experience) allow you to have a look at a proposed itinerary, or put down a relatively small deposit for provisionally booked seats. It’s well worth using this time to scrutinise the proposed itinerary and ask yourself these common sense questions…
- What time does this flight land/depart in this city? What are the earliest/latest public transport departure times?
- For any brief stopovers – what is on my “must-see” list? Have I/can I build in a bit of extra time as a buffer in case I like the place?
- What is the flight length/ time difference to where I am coming from? Am I likely to be horribly jet lagged at the end of this flight? If so, have I built in enough recovery time to ensure I can catch up with myself AND get the most out of my stay?
- Is this itinerary saving me money, or could I book some or all of these flights myself to maximise my flexibility and control over my trip?