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THINKING TACTICALLY AS FARES FALL
By Joe Brancatelli
February 5, 2009 -- When fares are high and airlines are swinging the pricing hammer, we need to think tactically to safeguard our wallets and our bodies.

The only time when it's more important to think tactically is when fares fall. More money can be wasted--and more comfort sacrificed--in these times than you can imagine. So here are some tactics for buying travel right now.

CHEAP COMFORT: THE TWO-SEAT SCENARIO
If you doubt that coach airfares are plummeting, surf to the American Airlines site and examine the sale that the carrier posted a few hours ago. They're so cheap that we can revive one of my favorite cheap-comfort tricks: the two-seat scenario.

Buy two cheap coach seats and create your own private, comfortable world. Occupying two coach seats isn't as comfortable as sitting in first or business class, of course, but the two-seat scenario offers plenty of personal space and a modicum of privacy. But be warned: You can't just purchase two tickets under your name, walk up to the ticket counter and claim your spaces. You or your travel agent must--repeat, must--call the airline in advance, alert it to your intentions, and then buy the tickets via phone. Most carriers will code the second ticket purchase as an "extra seat"--some will even assign it to a Mr. E. Seat--and tie it to your itinerary. And be sure to arrange for advance seat assignments--the seats must be next to each other, of course--at the time you call the airline.

THE CLOSE-ENOUGH STRATEGY
The rapid decompression of fares since Labor Day has left the airline market fragmented. Flights in some markets are selling at giveaway prices while others remain insanely overpriced. That's especially true in business class on international routes.

For example, as we discussed last week, Qantas has been charging nearly $20,000 roundtrip for a business-class seat to Sydney. This week, it offered up a sale, cutting prices down to "just" $14,940 roundtrip. Yet because it is facing stiff competition from Air New Zealand, Qantas is charging only $5,978 roundtrip in business class to Auckland.

The obvious solution? Employ the "close-enough" strategy. Sydney is just 1,340 miles farther than Auckland. If you book that $6,000 fare to Auckland, you can then buy an Auckland-Sydney roundtrip in premium class for just $1,200. That's a total of $7,200--less than half what Qantas wants to charge for a flight directly to Sydney.

The close-enough strategy works in many places. It's almost always cheaper to get to London than any other city in Europe. Cheaper by a factor of three or four, in fact. You can then hook up with onward flights from London for a fraction of the cost of flying nonstop. Ditto with domestic fares. Prices are often substantially cheaper into places like New York, Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale or Atlanta than nearby places. You can always mix and match from there.

THE SELF-CONNECT OPTION
I first heard airline executives talk seriously about "self-connecting" passengers about a year ago, but the idea is an old one conceptually. The assumption is similar to the close-enough strategy in that it recognizes that there are some markets--say, Dallas-Chicago or San Francisco-New York--where competitive factors and service realities mean fares will almost always be much lower than average. But it also takes into account that mixing and matching carriers is often the best way to get the most effective end-to-end price.

Why is using, say, Southwest to LAX and then a major carrier on an LAX-New York flight called "self-connect?" Simple. You do a little work: Buying two tickets, picking up your own luggage, then checking in again for the second flight.

Here's an example. With less than a week's advance purchase, Continental Airlines will charge you $10,434 roundtrip in business class from Cleveland to Paris with a plane change at its Newark hub. But for $1,149 roundtrip, you could fly Continental in first from Cleveland to Newark, self-connect there and fly L'Avion from Newark to Paris for $1,546 roundtrip. That's a total of $2,695. Is saving almost $8,000 worth the minor inconvenience of booking two tickets, grabbing your bags off the carousel at Continental's Terminal C in Newark and moving them to Terminal B, where you check in for the L'Avion flights?

MARK-TO-MARKET ON FREQUENT FLYER AWARDS
The decline in travel has been a boon for those of us looking to cash some of our frequent flyer miles. There's pretty much any seat you want and often at the restricted levels that traditionally have been impossible to claim.

But beware: Frequent flyer awards are only worth what you'd pay to buy the underlying ticket. As fares crumble, the value of your miles collapses along with them. Consider a 25,000-mile American AAdvantage restricted award for a domestic ticket. The aforementioned American fare sale is selling Los Angeles-Boston seats for just $214 roundtrip. That makes your miles worth considerably less than a penny a mile. Even scoring a free restricted business-class seat is no bargain now. After all, advance-purchase business-class flights to Europe are selling for less than $2,000 roundtrip in some markets. Burn 100,000 SkyMiles for a trip like that and your realized value is only around 2 cents a mile.

Am I suggesting you not claim awards now? Of course not. I am merely suggesting that you value your miles properly. It's a mark-to-market world. You may glean better value for your miles if you wait for a time when fares are higher. But if you choose to claim awards now, understand that their monetary worth has plummeted.
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.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.