The Brancatelli File



August 15, 1993 -- Airlines have priced their product so that business travelers almost never qualify for the deep discounts that are routinely available to price sensitive discretionary travelers like vacationers.

Working from the assumption that salespeople are "price inelastic"--so desperate to make a sale that you’ll pay any price for a ticket--airlines have stacked the desk with all sorts of rules, regulations and loopholes that keep you paying top dollar. Happily, there are some easy-to-master tricks you can use to even the odds.

For starters, frequent fliers should never assume the airlines move in lockstep and charge the same amount for similar itineraries. As competition among the nation’s surviving airlines has reached a fever pitch, the smaller carriers have had to become more creative in order to survive.

Four in particular--America West, Northwest, Continental and TWA--go out of their way to court business travelers by offering them substantially more for their airfare. By using those airlines in combination, it is possible to fly virtually anywhere in the United States and to fly first class for the same price the other carriers charge for unrestricted coach seats.

There’s also a new breed of start-up airlines that provide real value for money. In the west, a carrier called Reno Air offers standard first class and coach services at about half what the major airlines charge. In the east, Kiwi International is making a splash. For roughly the same price of the other carriers’ lowest restricted coach fares, Kiwi offers an upgraded coach service with spacious seating and absolutely no restrictions.

If you’re traveling on your own nickel, you can also beat the odds by turning the airlines’ frequent flyer programs on their metaphorical heads. The airlines created the programs assuming you’d pay for business travel and they’d reward you with free flights when you got around to taking a vacation.

But since vacation travel is dramatically less costly than business travel, why pay for the costly business trip? Why not use your miles to claim free business trips and pay for the vacation flight instead?

Consider just one example: From Tulsa, a roundtrip ticket for a pre-planned vacation trip to sunny Sarasota can cost as little as $218. A last-minute business trip to cloudy Cleveland can cost as much as $780 roundtrip. Either itinerary can be flown by claiming a 20,000-mile award from a frequent flyer program. So business travelers flying on their own nickel would be better served by claiming the frequent flyer award to use for the business trip to Cleveland. The $780 saved could buy three tickets for the Sarasota vacation--and leave $126 for suntan oil.

Because I'm not employed by a large company, I don't have a "corporate rate" at hotels. How do I qualify for similar hotel discounts?

Just ask. Hotels routinely extend the so-called "standard" corporate discount--about 10 percent off the nightly published rate--to any traveler who asks. And there are even deeper discounts to be had for the bargain conscious. There are almost always special rates available that can cut 30 or 40 percent off your nightly rate. Best bet: Call the hotel directly when seeking a bargain rather than the chain's toll-free 800 number. You can also check out the hotel-discount programs operated by Entertainment Publications (800-477-3234) or the Commerical Travelers Association (800-392-2856). But read the fine print carefully; the membership fees and restrictions vary widely and few of these programs are right for all travelers.

I recently flew roundtrip between Columbus, Ohio, and Philadelphia. What was the unexpected and annoying $6 charge listed on my ticket after the "XF" code?

Welcome to the brave new world of airport passenger facility charges (PFCs). Now in effect at more than 100 U.S. airports, PFCs are the euphemistically named "user fees" that were part of President Bush's 1990 budget deal with Congress. The head tax--usually $3 per flight, up to a maximum of $12 for every roundtrip--is now almost impossible for flyers to avoid. In fact, even Chicago's O'Hare Airport, the nation's busiest, is scheduled to begin imposing a $3 PFC on September 1.

I am always afraid of losing my luggage, so I carry my bags onboard. But that's literally a drag on connecting flights and a real discomfort on crowded flight. Any ideas?

The truth of the matter is that airlines rarely lose bags. In the first quarter of 1993, the U.S. Transportation Department says the nation's major airlines recorded only seven reports of "mishandled baggage" for every 1,000 passengers. So why not carry on only what's absolutely essential or invaluable--papers, samples, jewelry, a change of clothes--then check the rest. If an airline does lose your luggage, federal regulations require that you be compensated for as much as $1,250.

This column originally appeared in Selling magazine.

Copyright © 1993-2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.