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Cheap fares worth the time and effort
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It took me nearly a year to buy the plane tickets for my family to travel to Japan over Christmas. It was far from straightforward and far from stress-free but it did save us enough to pay for most of an all-inclusive week's skiing at a five-star resort.

If you're up for a challenge, budget airline travel is a mega bargain.

When I first pitched my idea for a family ski trip to Japan last summer, I'd based my figures on post-tsunami prices. Japan was suffering from radiation fears and low tourist numbers.

Along with all the other tourists, we decided to wait a year for the panic to die down but, of course, as everything got back to normal, so did the prices.

We had booked our ski package, at Club Med, Sahoro, when the new season sale prices were launched and it was a non-negotiable $6600. We also wanted three nights in Tokyo which would cost about $2000 for accommodation.

Unfortunately, the airfares for four of us on a big airline were more than both of those put together. Fares on Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Singapore and Malaysia airlines ranged from $8000 to $12,000 at the start of the year.

Budget airlines seemed the way to claw back my budget.

However, travelling with two seven-year-old boys requires some careful planning. For example, you can't travel for 24 hours straight, you can't stand up on a Japanese train for 12 hours, you can't sleep on a bench in an airport for a six-hour stopover and you can't be away from an iPad charger for more than five hours. You also can't expect all members of your travelling group to carry their own bags, while running the length of an airport terminal for tight connections. Thank goodness for seven year-olds.

The internet has revolutionised travel and booking tickets but it can be pretty nerve-racking. Flights change, airports change and tickets are non-refundable.

I started by typing "Perth to Tokyo cheap flights" into my laptop and came up with a whole lot of flight service providers - sites such as webjet.com and cheapflights.com.

I followed them for a couple of months, typing in my travel dates every two weeks to check prices. These sites collated the best fares from the big carriers but I found the prices could be deceptive.

If there was a sale on, these sites knew about it but generally they were inflexible on connecting flights or the dates you needed and sometimes didn't include taxes until the last minute. All of which meant the price suddenly jumped as you prepared to hit "pay now".

The cheapest I ever saw for our four tickets on any of the sites was just over $8000.

I wanted to spend half that.

Which left me with Tiger and Air Asia X. We have flown on both these airlines domestically and internationally and have always been happy with the extra money in our pocket.

With either of them, we needed to cover six legs - Perth to either Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, from there to Tokyo, then Tokyo to Sapporo and all back again.

Then in April, Jetstar Japan launched. I booked tickets from Tokyo to Sapporo, return, on the launch day for just under $50 each ($400 for all of us both ways) - about one-quarter the price of the bullet train which would have taken us a day of travel each way.

But then things got stressful. Once you start your budget path, each ticket locks you in a bit more and narrows your options for other flights. We now had times we had to be at and leave Tokyo and the best matching flights were Air Asia. With budget airlines, it's a waiting game. Everyone has a different theory. As the plane fills up the prices go up, then a month or two before you want to leave, they drop again and then the week before, they skyrocket to catch last-minute travellers. Or drop to fill the seats.

International events can have an impact - something on one side of the world, the crash of the euro or riots in Lebanon, can lead to international fears and fares going down. Or up.

It's really, really hard to predict.

I started out waiting for sales and got lucky: the next leg to go on sale was KL to Perth. I ummed and ahhed a bit because this would definitely lock us into Air Asia but the connecting flight times seemed to work well, so I booked those at $140 each.

But now we had to get a particular flight out of Tokyo. And Air Asia changed its departure airport. This meant Jetstar had us landing at one airport and the only flight we could feasibly get home on left a different airport, on the other side of Tokyo, two hours later.

I panicked for a week and then the budget gods smiled on me. The Jetstar flights we had booked so long ago changed their times, giving us an eight-hour window to change airports.

We were lucky. It all could have gone horribly wrong but by buying legs separately you do control the disaster a bit - worst case, I could have sacrificed the Jetstar tickets and still not been horribly out of pocket.

The KL-Tokyo flight went on sale next and cost under $100 each. The return flight was still comparatively pricey but I was so freaked by my airport fiasco I went ahead and booked it anyway. Those two legs cost $1040 for all of us.

Which just left the Perth to KL leg, the one I had always expected to be cheapest. But there it sat taunting me every day, $838 per person. I could have flown Garuda from Perth to Tokyo via Denpasar for about the same.

Suddenly I saw all the flaws in my great budget plan. All that hassle to pay almost the same but now I was locked in. And what if the prices for that last leg went up? I had two months to go and was getting twitchy.

The last flight left Perth at 6.35am (that is a 4am start), arrived in KL around lunchtime and we were booked to fly to Tokyo a couple of hours later, arriving around midnight (and getting to the hotel even later).

I thought about those boys, then checked flights leaving the day before. The day before is a Friday and, lo and behold, the tickets were half the price.

I booked them ($463 each) and found joining rooms at the Sheraton in KL for $100 each (with breakfast). We could stop in style.

Which meant a grand total of $3848, or $962 each, for our flights.

In October when I finished the booking, you could get flights on Qantas and Singapore Airlines from Perth to Tokyo return for about $2000. The Jetstar flight was then $210 return. Which would have meant a total spend of $8840.

In other words, we saved almost exactly $5000. All that worry has been long forgotten.

FACT FILE

What we paid for four people:

Perth-KL fare $1851

KL-Tokyo-KL $1040

Tokyo-Sapporo-Tokyo $400

KL-Perth $557

Total: $3848

You can choose exit aisle seats for $46 more, meals for around $5 and in-flight entertainment for $11.

Air Asia offers an upgrade to business class option with flat-bed seats for an extra $200 each. If they are empty on the day, we get them, if not we get our money back.

None of the budget prices here include checked baggage. If we each had a bag that needed to be checked it would add $104 to each leg ($624 in total). A cabin-approved roll-on is all we need. Getting in and out of airports with kids is much easier when you don't have to wait for bags.