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EUROPE'S BUSINESS-CLASS BAZAAR IS ON
By Joe Brancatelli
August 17, 2011 -- The airlines have quietly loaded their holiday fares into their reservation computers and they're a mixed bag for the flyers who are veterans of the end-of-the-year bonanza.

GOOD NEWS: The fares are easy to find if you know when and where to look.

BAD NEWS: The major airlines aren't even promoting the Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year's fares on their own Web sites yet, so you'll have to peck and hunt your way through their booking engines.

GOOD NEWS: As usual, Continental Airlines and its Star Alliance partners are first in with the holiday prices. This year, however, many SkyTeam and Oneworld carriers immediately matched. That means more deals from more cities than ever.

BAD NEWS: With significant capacity cuts this fall and winter, many Europe routes have a sharply reduced number of daily flights and many fewer available business-class seats.

GOOD NEWS: The fares, especially for the Thanksgiving window, are quite attractive and seem on par with last year's holiday lows.

BAD NEWS: Airlines no longer offer the special fares every day on every flight in the holiday season. If you're not flexible, you won't get the deals.

In other words, welcome to the glass half-full/glass half-empty world of today's airlines and alliances. Even the unalloyed good news has to be taken with a few shakers of salt.

All that said, let's talk holiday numbers, strategies and tactics.

THANKSGIVING PRICES
We have Lufthansa to thank for at least posting a promotional page for the Thanksgiving fares. The Star Alliance member gives us the full spread of prices, availability and dates.

As you can see, there are some attractive fares: $1,320 roundtrip (before taxes and fees) from New York to Brussels; $1,648 roundtrip from Chicago to London; $1,470 from Boston to Frankfurt; and $2,220 from San Francisco to Vienna.

The outbound booking window is November 20 through November 25. Return travel is permitted from November 25 through December 3. There's a three-day minimum stay and 60-day advance purchase, which, of course, is irrelevant at the moment.

All of the Star Alliance members except US Airways have matched prices on both their nonstops and connecting flights. Most SkyTeam members have matched, too. Among Oneworld carriers, American Airlines has matched, but British Airways has not. So be sure you're looking at AA-operated service, not BA flights or AA code-shares on BA metal.

CHRISTMAS/NEW YEAR'S PRICES
The Christmas/New Year's sale is more complicated and convoluted, partially because no airline has yet even bothered to post a promotional page. Let's not even get into why they'd hide the sale under a metaphorical bushel. That's a topic for another time. (And we can hope a few promotional pages go up in the next day or two.)

Let's start with the travel window. This year it is December 19 through January 6 for the outbound flights and December 25 through January 10 for the return travel. But there's a big caveat: This year, for the first time since airlines have been running these sales, not every day seems to be on offer at the lowest prices. A few pre-Christmas days I've checked offer no discount at all and prices are, at least at the moment, their normal advance-purchase selves.

Another complication: Much lower capacity then last year. The airlines have taken a machete to their transatlantic route networks. To give you just one example: New York-Rome. American Airlines has dropped its JFK-Fiumicino flights this winter. Delta Air Lines "suspended" its winter JFK-FCO flights unexpectedly last week. And, as has been its practice in recent winters, Continental is not running its Newark-Rome flights every day. That leaves Alitalia as the only full-time player on the New York-Rome route. Luckily, Alitalia is offering a holiday fare, too.

Okay, the prices I've found so far: $2,060 roundtrip (before taxes and fees) from New York to Milan or Rome. It's $1,860 roundtrip to Frankfurt; $1,910 to Paris; $1,860 to Copenhagen and $1,881 to London. (And remember: The very high British air taxes will add about $300 to your ticket prices in business classes. Taxes to other cities run $90 to $150 roundtrip.)

From Chicago, it's $2,314 roundtrip (before taxes and fees) to London. From Washington/Dulles, it's $2,292 to Brussels and $2,192 to Madrid. From Los Angeles, it's $2,692 roundtrip to Frankfurt.

The fares require a three-day minimum stay and a 10-day maximum stay. That 10-day maximum is new this year, by the way, and does put a bit of a crimp in the plans of travelers who've traditionally used the holiday fares as a way to plan a long winter vacation. (There's a 60-day advance-purchase rule, too.)

Again, these fares are largely put forward by Star Alliance carriers United, Continental, Lufthansa and SAS. But American has matched, as have most SkyTeam members. The outliers are British Airways on its London routes and US Airways, which means its nexus of Europe flights from its Philadelphia hub are not on sale. All you Philadelphia-based flyers might as well start planning your run up the New Jersey Turnpike to Newark or down I-95 to Washington/Dulles.

I'm sure we'll have more details directly from the airlines in the days to come. In the meantime, don't tarry. Even as I was writing this, I received an E-mail from a JoeSentMe member and he's already booked a Newark-Glasgow flight during the Thanksgiving period for $1,441 roundtrip including the taxes. In other words, these fares will go fast.

ONE FINAL THOUGHT
Flight loads up front seem light from late December through February, especially when you consider how many flights and routes have been dumped this winter. If you are nimble, you might be able to swing some restricted-level business-class awards for winter travel. I've scored a pair of 100,000-mile roundtrip business-class seats to Europe on SkyTeam (via Delta SkyMiles) in January. We're meeting in Europe with another couple and they have claimed a pair of 100,0000-mile business-class seats from American. Depending on your route and your time of travel, that'll give you a payback of as high as five cents a mile in January and February. That's a very good payoff.

August 18 addendum: Alitalia has now officially posted details of its Thanskgiving, Christmas and New Year's fares. You can find the prices and other information here.

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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 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.