By Joe Brancatelli
October 29, 2009 -- This will shock you because it sure as hell surprised me: International business-class fares--the walk-up, unrestricted kind that were once the coin of our realm--are skyrocketing.

Even as the number of travelers booking up-front passage has plummeted since last September's financial meltdown, the airlines have continued to run up prices. The crooked numbers behind the dollar signs are scary.

The unrestricted roundtrip fare between New York and London is now $12,238, 14 percent higher than in April, 2008. It's now $10,300 for a walk-up roundtrip between Atlanta and Zurich. That's also 14 percent higher than 18 months ago. At $10,100 roundtrip between San Francisco and Tokyo, that route's 18-month price increase is a very nasty 25 percent. It certainly makes the astonishing $17,000 roundtrip fare between Los Angeles and Sydney seem less rapacious, especially since that price hasn't changed since April of 2008.

But we know that walk-up fares no longer tell the business-class tale. IATA, the airline group, says that worldwide business-class travel has declined for 12 consecutive months and the drop has been double-digit deep since last November. And the actual fares that the remaining business-class flyers are paying have plunged. Depending on the month, IATA says the average fare decline has been as high as 23 percent. Several airlines report that their premium-class revenue is down 30-35 percent.

In other words, the discount business-class trend that started a decade ago, when carriers first began yield-managing their premium cabins, is in full flower. Even as they raise unrestricted business-class prices, the bad economy has forced airlines 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 niche carriers looking to carve out an international presence and you've got nothing less than a global fare bazaar up front.

Structured Business-Class Fare Discounts Where shall we start the search for deeply discounted business-class seats? Well, how about the carriers' own Byzantine fare system? The advance-purchase business-class fare is now a worldwide staple.

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: A midweek, San Francisco-Tokyo fare in business class with a five-day advance purchase is $5,071 roundtrip on Japan Airlines, about 50 percent off the full fare. That 10-grand Atlanta-Zurich roundtrip? With a 30-day advance purchase and a 7-day stay, Delta Air Lines is charging around $5,500. Buy 50 days in advance and Delta's fare drops to around $3,300. Buying 21 days in advance and staying over a Saturday will knock that $12,000+ roundtrip fare between New York and London down to about $2,800 on British Airways.

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. 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. And be sure to check a "fare-scraping" site such as Kayak. Choosing "business" from the fare pull-down box on the home page will yield a blizzard of quotes from other Web sites.

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, master of summer and end-of-the-year business-class sales. Its current holiday vacation sale cuts up-front fares around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year to as low as $1,500 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 Continental.com.

The 'Secret' Airlines In these days of gigantic airline alliances, 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 select U.S. gateways.

Want some examples? The Italian carrier Eurofly flies nonstop from New York several times a week during the spring and summer; business-class fares are often as low as $1,800 roundtrip. Bmi flies from Chicago to Manchester, England, and its business-class fares are less than half what the majors charge to London. Meanwhile, you'll find that Air New Zealand usually has the cheapest fare between Los Angeles and London. Newcomer V Australia is undercutting existing players on its LAX-Sydney route. And don't forget about OpenSkies, BA's boutique airline that flies from New York and Newark to Paris' Orly Airport. Its "biz seat" cabin is routinely available for as little as $1,500 roundtrip.

Smaller carriers also offer much more aggressive and creative promotions than the big guys. Today, for example, Aer Lingus unleashed a doozy: About $1,700 roundtrip from New York, Boston or Chicago to Dublin. Valid for travel from January through April, the fare even includes a roundtrip coach ticket for onward travel to more than a dozen cities on the European continent.

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." (For more background on consolidators, check this column.)

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, luxury hotel rooms, private-car airport transfers and other perks. 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. And as we discussed earlier this year, the once-common practice of "at the gate" purchased upgrades has returned. Naturally, however, this is a space-available and ultimately unreliable tactic if you insist on a confirmed business-class ride.

A peculiar backwater of the fare structure called "round the world" tickets can also slash 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 Then there's the much-publicized International Airline Program, a perk offered to travelers who carry some American Express cards. Amex would have you believe that you can get a free companion business-class ticket whenever you buy one ticket from one of its 21 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, you may be asked to pay the walk-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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This column is Copyright 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.