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Summer Business Class Bargains Are Hard to Find
Thursday, May 24, 2018 -- I know what you're thinking: Memorial Day weekend is the perfect time to plan a summer vacation to Europe or Asia and score a great summer business class deal.
Yeah, um, see, about that ... They're gone. Not sold-out gone. Gone as a concept. The idea that the big airlines want (or need) to fill up the front of the bus with savvy, low-priced business flyers seems gone forever. And we'll all be literally poorer for it.
As you can see by the chart below, I've tracked 18 nonstop routes between major U.S. hubs and popular Europe and Asia destinations. Even as much as 90 days out, the deals are few and far between. Fares down the back may be at or near record lows, but pointy end of the plane deals are gonzo. No one will be crowing about the great summer bargains they scored in 2018.
A decade ago, my annual business class update was about roundtrip prices as low as $1,600 for travel in July and August. Continental Airlines was almost always the catalyst for the deep-discount fares.
So what happened? Consolidation, to be sure. The remaining U.S. legacy airlines and their code-share partners control about three-quarters of the transatlantic traffic. Their hold isn't as strong across the Pacific, but it's substantial. Inflation, too, has pushed up prices even while oil prices remain comparatively low. (We peaked at $147 a barrel in 2008, more than twice the current price.)
However, the primary reason for the end of summer business class promotions is the surplus of coach seats, especially across the Atlantic. Summer sales were designed to entice value-oriented flyers to pay a few bucks more for business class, freeing up the coach chairs they would otherwise occupy. Those seats would then be sold to the most price-sensitive summer customers. But with so many coach seats available at such low fares--thanks largely to discount carriers such as Norwegian and Wow--the mainstream airlines have no incentive to sell business class cheap to open up coach seats. Besides, airlines have learned that there is more of a summer market for higher priced business class seats than there used to be. Discounts, when they are offered at all, now are at much higher fares and carefully targeted to specific days.
With special summer business class deals off the board, travelers committed to a holiday in Europe or Asia need to fall back on some tried-and-true strategies for scoring a bargain up front.
Earlier is better. As you can see by the chart, the farther out you book, the lower your price is likely to be. That's not only because the cheapest international business class fares require 45 days or more advance purchase, but also because the market for summer travel declines sharply after mid-August.
Find the competitive routes. It shouldn't surprise you that routes with competition are routes with lower prices. An example: Air Italy, the remade Meridiana now 49 percent owned by Qatar Airways, is selling business class on the New York/Kennedy-Milan/Malpensa route for about $2,000 less than other airlines. Aer Lingus, which launched Philadelphia-Dublin flights in March, is undercutting American Airlines by about $2,000 on that route. Meanwhile, Singapore Airlines undersells United Airlines by the same amount on the San Francisco-Singapore nonstop, one of the longest in the world.
Beware monopoly runs. As you can see on the chart, Dallas/Fort Worth-Tokyo flights and Chicago-Vienna runs are priced high and immune to discounts. That's because they are monopolies. All the nonstops are controlled by one airline or one alliance.
Price out the code-shares. Joint-venture and code-share routes aren't always--in fact, rarely are--priced identically. Each airline maintains its own price structure. Whenever you see a code-shared flight, be sure to check the fares quoted by each carrier. The difference for the same seat in the same business class could vary by hundreds of dollars.
MODEST COST-CUTTING STRATEGIES
Should you abandon all hope for a discount this summer? Of course not. There are always strategies, albeit modest ones.
Go somewhere new. It is no accident that the cheapest route on the chart is Los Angeles to Changsha, the capital of China's Hunan Province. When airlines open new routes, introductory prices are low. Hainan Airlines especially has a block of new nonstops to intriguing China cities and they're all selling for fabulously low rates up front.
Fly someone new. Condor, once the charter carrier of Lufthansa, is now part of an operation that also flies as Thomas Cook. Condor's business class offers all the perks and it flies a slew of seasonal summer nonstops. But you will find great deals even on some of Condor's year-round runs. This summer, a Condor business class seat on that Seattle-Frankfurt route costs thousands less than what United or Lufthansa charges.
Try Norwegian. I am reluctant to recommend Icelandair, which connects dozens of U.S. and European cities over its Reykjavik hub. Why? Besides the connection, Icelandair's so-called business class offers just 40 inches of legroom, often on narrowbody Boeing 757s. However, I can, within reason, recommend Norwegian. (Read my review here.) Its premium class is not a full-fledged business class, but prices can be startling. On the Newark-Barcelona run, for example, it is charging as little as $1,550 roundtrip in July and August compared to United's $3,700+ fare.
Without delving into the idiocies of the airline industry fare structure--it often prices connecting flights at much lower rates than nonstops--let me simply assure you that notable business class bargains can often be had if you accept a connection. I am not a fan of the strategy. Connections double your chance of a flight disruption or lost bags. Besides, who wants to fly through Tokyo/Narita, London/Heathrow or Paris/CDG if you can avoid it? But your mileage and wallet will vary, so book according to your sense of price, time, value and tolerance for inconvenience.
If you can countenance a connection, try Finnair through Helsinki, LOT Polish over Warsaw or Korean Air via Seoul. Those are efficient airports for connecting travelers. And TAP Air Portugal is offering five-day free stopovers and other perks if you connect to Europe via Lisbon or Porto.
SHOULD I USE MY MILES?
If you have to ask the question, you're doing it wrong. Of course you should burn your miles. As a general strategy you want to be long cash, not long miles, especially these days as airlines relentlessly devalue their frequent flyer programs. Even if you have to pay what we used to call the "double miles" (unrestricted option), you're probably better cashing out. Two notable exceptions: Delta SkyMiles, now fully revenue-based, often demands eye-watering amounts for a summer business class award. And American Airlines frequently shunts you to a British Airways routing for award travel. It's not only that BA's business class is inferior and Heathrow is always a messy connection, it is also that AA imposes punitive taxes and carrier fees on those BA seats.
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