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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE INTERNATIONAL
BUSINESS-CLASS FARE BAZAAR


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

April 27, 2006 -- I don't want to get into the yin and yang of fares this week, but I do need to tell you some bad news so that the good news can be revealed.

International business-class fares are skyrocketing. (That's the bad news, in case you hadn't guessed.) New York/Kennedy to London/Heathrow has now cracked the $9,000 mark on a roundtrip, walk-up basis. Expect to pay more than $12,000 if you want a C-class seat to Sydney. It's $7,100 walk-up roundtrip between Atlanta and Zurich, $6,600 between Los Angeles and Paris and more than $7,000 between San Francisco and Tokyo.

Now the yang: As the major international carriers inflate the walk-up price of business-class seats, they've also been forced to discount like crazy. There are more special promotions, fare sales, advance-purchase discounts and price-cutting gimmicks than ever. Sprinkle in a few new airlines attempting to create an all-business-class market and several niche carriers looking to carve out an international presence and you've got nothing less than a worldwide fare bazaar up front. Add in some old reliables--consolidators and packages--and you're looking at business-class discounts of 50, 60 or even 70 percent off the walk-up fares.

Structured Business-Class Fare Discounts Where shall we start searching for deep-discount business-class seats? Well, how about the carriers' own Byzantine fare structure? Since they have run amok at the walk-up end, they've been forced to adopt coach-style yield-management practices in business class. Hence the creation of the advance-purchase business-class fare. 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 3-day advance San Francisco-Tokyo fare in business class is $4,258 roundtrip on Japan Airlines, about 45 percent off the full fare. A 50-day advance Los Angeles-Paris fare in business class is $2,726 on Air France, about 60 percent off the walk-up fare. Delta Air Line's 50-day advance fare on Atlanta-Zurich is $2,498 roundtrip, or 65 percent off the full C price.

What do you need to know about these bargains? They are usually nonrefundable and the change fees are stiff. They're not offered every day or on every route. And, 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.

Business-Class Fare Sales They're not as omnipresent as coach fare sales, of course, but business-class fare sales are now fairly common. British Airways has offered up a series of business-class sales to London in recent years. Although the buying period is short (two or three days), the fares are startling, often as low as $2,000 roundtrip from the East Coast, and the travel window is generous. Austrian Airlines, bmi, LAN, Aeromexico and Malaysia Airlines have each mounted business-class sales in recent months. Lufthansa is offering summer business-class fares for as low as $2,100 roundtrip from its U.S. gateways. And Continental Airlines is the master of the summer and Christmas/New Year business-class sales. Its current Summer Sale, for example, cuts fares to as low as $1,700 roundtrip from its Newark hub. Some connecting-flight sample prices: $2,218 roundtrip from Sacramento to Geneva; San Diego to Lisbon; or Austin to Rome.

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 these sales. The Continental and Lufthansa summer promotions, for example, are nearly invisible. The Continental Web site displays just one unobtrusive link on its home page. And Lufthansa's U.S. home page doesn't even promote its sale: The offer is buried three clicks deep and only if you know enough to start at the generic "Top Offers" link.

The 'Secret' Airlines In these days of gigantic airline alliances and frequent-flyer program partners, 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 selected U.S. gateways. Want some examples? LTU, a German carrier, offers business-class fares between Miami and Dusseldorf for as little as $2,100 roundtrip. It's $700 more from New York, Toronto or Vancouver. The Italian carrier Eurofly is flying nonstop from New York to Rome, Naples, Palermo and Bologna this spring and summer. Its business-class fares are as low as $2,259 roundtrip. Martinair, a subsidiary of KLM, flies from Orlando to Amsterdam for $1,500 roundtrip.

Finding these carriers and their lower up front fares is the business-travel equivalent of a hedge maze. These guys almost never advertise at the retail level and their promotion to the travel trade is also discreet. But try a good travel agent. You may luck out. Otherwise, try clicking on some of those obscure carriers linked on JoeSentMe's Airline Deals page.

The Package Paradox You know that $9,000 fare to London? British Airways will cut it by almost two-thirds, no questions asked, when you buy it as part of a "London In Style" package. Besides the business-class fare, the bundle includes three nights in a luxury hotel, daily breakfast and roundtrip airport-to-hotel private-car transfers. Most other international carriers have business-class packages at extraordinary prices. There are some restrictions, of course--two flyers must travel together, share the package perks and meet advance-purchase and day-of-travel rules--but package deals almost always offer eye-popping discounts over a "naked" walk-up business-class fare.

How do you find a great business-class package? Although the airlines are getting better at displaying and selling these deals on their Web sites, package offers remain the purview of good travel agents. In fact, their expertise in finding and securing deals like these is reason enough to make sure you use an agent for your business-travel needs.

Consolidator Savings Consolidators, the third-party brokers 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 they haven't disappeared. In fact, consolidators remain the best option for last-minute discounts on business-class travel. Etravelbid.com, for example, is selling East Coast-to-Europe seats for as little as $1,900 roundtrip this summer. West-Coast-to-Asia fares start at $2,300.

How do you deal with a consolidator? Like most consolidators, Al Thomas of Etravelbid prefers that you buy consolidator fares through a travel agent. "It's just more comfortable for everyone that way," he explains. "Travel agents know how to deal with us and they are better-suited for dealing with flyers." But like many consolidators, Thomas willingly sells direct to travelers, too. "Savvy international flyers know how much money we can save them on short notice."

The London Connection With the arrival of Maxjet Airways and EOS Airlines, two all-premium-class carriers that fly to London/Stansted airport, Americans now have a direct connection to Ryanair, Easyjet and Air Berlin, three big European discounters with large operations at Stansted. It's hard to argue with the prices: Maxjet, which operates Boeing 767s configured with 102 business-class seats, flies from New York/Kennedy or Dulles in Washington for about $2,000 roundtrip walk-up. Its promotions are even more compelling. Right now, for example, the airline is selling $1,000 roundtrips to London. From Stansted, the three discounters fly nonstop to most anywhere on the continent.

The drawbacks? For starters, the three discounters are all-coach carriers. And they have brutal checked-bag rules, a real problem for Americans who may be loaded with luggage for a long continental trip. Ryanair, for example, charges for all checked luggage--the price is about $9 a bag--and its total checked allowance is just 45 pounds. Every extra pound carries an additional fee. And Ryanair won't even accept a bag that weighs more than 70 pounds.

The Dublin Connection If all these fare games, strategies and tactics frustrate you, there is a solution. It's called Aer Lingus. More than a year ago, the Irish carrier jettisoned all of the silliness in favor of simple, everyday, walk-up fares. It flies to Shannon and Dublin from JFK, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles; business class fares start at about $1,400 each way from the East Coast and $1,800 one-way from Los Angeles. From Dublin, Aer Lingus flies to about three dozen European destinations in a comfortable, all-coach configuration at surprisingly low fares.

"We decided to stop playing games and price our business class in a rational way," says Jack Foley, Aer Lingus' top executive in the United States. "It's better for us and better for travelers."

Copyright © 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.