INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS-CLASS BAZAAR
By Joe Brancatelli
April 14, 2008 -- International business-class fares continue to jump skyward, so it's time to remind ourselves that the airlines' chaotic fare structures nevertheless offer plenty of opportunity to fly up front at substantially less than the insane walk-up prices.
New York/Kennedy to London/Heathrow is almost $10,700 on a roundtrip, walk-up basis. That's 20 percent higher than two years ago. Expect to pay more than $17,000 roundtrip if you want a walk-up, business-class seat between Los Angeles and Sydney. That's an eye-popping 48 percent higher than when I last looked in April, 2006. It's now slightly more than $9,000 for a walk-up roundtrip between Atlanta and Zurich, up 27 percent. At $8,080 roundtrip between San Francisco and Tokyo, that route's 24-month price increase of 15 percent seems almost reasonable.
Thankfully, as major international carriers inflate the walk-up price of business-class seats, they've also been forced to discount like crazy. There are more special promotions, fare sales, advance-purchase discounts and price-cutting gimmicks than ever before. Sprinkle in a few new airlines attempting to create an all-business-class market and several niche carriers looking to carve out an international presence and you've got nothing less than a worldwide fare bazaar up front.
Structured Business-Class Fare Discounts Where shall we start searching for deep-discount business-class seats? Well, how about the carriers' own Byzantine fare system? Coach-style yield-management practices are now common in business class, too. Hence the creation of the advance-purchase business-class fare.
Depending on the airline and the market, you can score large discounts if you book between three and 60 days before departure, travel midweek and stay over on a Saturday. Some examples: An 8-day advance-purchase San Francisco-Tokyo fare in business class is $4,978 roundtrip on Japan Airlines, about 38 percent off the full fare. Delta Air Line's 50-day advance fare on Atlanta-Zurich is $3,235 roundtrip, or about 64 percent off the full price.
And look at British Airways' fare spread on that New York-London run. Its walk-up fare is now $10,685 roundtrip. It also offers a 7-day advance-purchase fare of $6,887. If you are willing to stay over on a Saturday night, BA also offers a 21-day advance-purchase fare of $3,695 and a 50-day advance fare of just $2,507 roundtrip. That lowest fare is more than 75 percent below BA's walk-up price.
What do you need to know about the airlines' advance-purchase business-class bargains? They are almost always nonrefundable and the change fees are stiff. They're not offered every day or on every route. And, worst of all, there's no organized way to find the fares because few airline or third-party Web sites offer a "lowest business-class fare" search option. Not every travel agent or corporate travel department knows about the fares, either. So start hunting and be flexible.
Business-Class Fare Sales They're not as omnipresent as coach sales, but business-class sales are now fairly common, too. Most last just two or three days or are targeted promotions to help publicize a new route. And then there's Continental Airlines, the master of the summer and end-of-the-year business-class sales. Its current summer sale cuts up-front fares in July and August to as low as $1,600 roundtrip from its Newark hub.
What do you need to know about these bargains? Obviously, they are unpredictable, both in terms of restrictions and availability. Worse, airlines don't always advertise the sales. For instance, Continental does nothing to publicize its summer and holiday program. Its entire promotional effort usually consists of a single, unobtrusive link on the Continental.com web site.
The 'Secret' Airlines In these days of gigantic airline alliances and frequent flyer program partners, we naturally focus on the big-name U.S. and international carriers. But there's a fleet of second-tier carriers out there and they offer good business-class service and better prices from selected U.S. gateways. Want some examples? LTU, a German carrier, offers business-class fares between Los Angeles and Dusseldorf for as little as $3,400 roundtrip. The Italian carrier Eurofly flies nonstop from New York to Rome several times a week; this past winter its business-class fares were as low as $1,500 roundtrip and now they are as low as $3,500 for summer travel. Bmi, the airline formerly known as British Midland, flies from Chicago to Manchester, England, and its business-class fares are less than half what BA or Virgin Atlantic charge to London. And Aer Lingus sells comparatively low-priced walk-up business-class fares to its Dublin hub from five U.S. airports. One example: New York-Dublin in Aer Lingus' business-class costs as little as $4,000 roundtrip.
And don't forget the three start-up all-business-class carriers. Two (Eos and Silverjet) cover the New York/Newark-London route. And L'Avion fills the gap between Newark and Paris. All undersell the big airlines and prices start as low $799 one-way for competitive, business-class service. In fact, L'Avion's prices to Paris dropped below $1,400 roundtrip this past winter.
Finding these carriers and their lower up-front fares is the business-travel equivalent of a hedge maze. These guys rarely advertise at the retail level beyond their home markets and their promotion to the travel trade is also discreet. But try a good travel agent. You may luck out.
Consolidator Savings Consolidators, the third-party middlemen who offer deep discounts on international first-class and business-class travel, have less clout now that big carriers willingly and publicly sell discounted premium-class fares on their own Web sites. But contrary to expectations, consolidators haven't disappeared. In fact, they remain the best option for last-minute discounts on business-class travel. You can routinely find 50 percent discounts on routes around the world. How do you deal with a consolidator? Most urge you to buy their fares through a travel agent. "It's just more comfortable for everyone that way," one consolidator explains. "Travel agents know how to deal with us and they are better-suited to deal with flyers."
Other Useful Strategies Depending on the market, the time of the year and the whim of the airlines, there are several other ways to save big on business-class travel. Several carriers offer "packages" that include business-class seats, hotel rooms, private-car airport transfers and other perks in one bundle. If you plan ahead, the package prices for two people traveling together are often as low as the price of one walk-up business-class seat. Some carriers offer upgrades to business class if you purchase a full-fare coach ticket. This approach is favored primarily by Asian carriers such as Thai and Malaysia Airlines, which use the upgrades as a come-on to convince you to fly through their hubs in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.
A peculiar backwater of the fare structure called "round the world" fares can also slice your business-class costs. For less than the price of a point-to-point business-class ticket, an airline and its global marketing partners permit you to travel up front and visit several destinations--as long as you keep flying in the same direction. Check the excellent round-the-world primer by my friend David Rowell, the Travel Insider.
The American Express Promotion And then there is the much-publicized International Airline Program, a perk offered to travelers who carry the American Express Platinum Card. Amex would have you believe that you can get a free companion business-class ticket whenever you buy one ticket from one of its 18 airline partners. But what Amex doesn't tell you is that you pay the highest walk-up business-class fare for that one ticket you are required to purchase. For leisure travelers, that is usually an awful deal since a little advance planning will usually yield two paid seats in business class for less than Amex wants you to pay for one. However, the Amex plan does have its place in the discount firmament: If you're traveling at the last minute, on the spur of the moment, you may be asked to pay thewalk-up business-class fare anyway. In that rare instance, the two-for-the-inflated-price-of-one program is actually a bargain--as long as you have a companion to take along for "free."
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
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