The Brancatelli File



June 1, 1989 -- Flying first class has never been a bargain, but the price gap between the roomy seats up front and the cramped quarters in coach has grown astoundingly wide.

At press time, for example, a round-trip first-class ticket between Boston and London cost $4,930. That’s nearly 11 times the cheapest available round-trip fare ($459) and almost triple the price of an unrestricted coach seat ($1,730). Domestic first class is reasonable only by comparison. A first-class round-trip ticket between Los Angeles and New York at press time cost up to $1,950, seven times the lowest-priced round-trip seat ($278) and 66 percent higher than the unrestricted coach fare of $1,176.

“First class used to cost about 20 percent more than full coach,” says one airline’s pricing guru. “But since deregulation [in 1978] we’ve repeatedly increased the premium because first-class travelers are oblivious to price. Ten percent of our customers bought first class before deregulation and ten percent still buy full first-class tickets now.”

Nonetheless, cost-conscious travelers can still fly up front in first class and pay coach prices. Here’s how.

Watch for Special Offers Hotel, charge-card and other travel-related promotions regularly offer free airline upgrades. One potential drawback: the upgrades usually require that you pay full coach fare.

Look for Promotional Fares Although they’re not as plentiful as coach discounts, airlines do discount first-class seats during off-peak hours and on highly competitive routes. One example: the one-way first-class fare between Chicago and Phoenix on most airlines is $683, but America West seats in first on this route go for $477. Some airlines have more than one first-class fare, so always request the lowest available.

Fly Airlines That Routinely Discount First Class Two domestic carriers, USAir and Midway, are adding first-class sections on most flights. Both price their front-cabin seats substantially below the competition. First class on USAir flights, for example, costs just $20-$60 more one-way than a full-fare coach ticket.

Join a Frequent-Flyer Program Every airline has a low-cost upgrading scheme. OnePass, for example, allows members to fly in first class on most domestic Continental flights if they pay the unrestricted coach fare. Most mileage programs also offer upgrades as awards. Generally the cost is 10,000–20,000 miles.

Consider Buying a Frequent-Flyer Award Coupon brokers, who advertise in Sunday newspaper travel sections, buy awards from business travelers and use them to claim first-class seats. Then they sell the seats to leisure travelers for about a third of the published first-class fare. But beware: airlines now confiscate brokered tickets if they learn their origin.

This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.

Copyright © 1989-2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.