By Joe Brancatelli
February 16, 2012 -- For the first time in years, there really do seem to be fewer international business-class deals around. And those that remain are higher in price and with more onerous purchase restrictions.

Bargains still abound in Europe--at least compared to the inflated walk-up business-class prices that the airlines try to charge. But even the sale prices are creeping up as the carriers restrict their supply of business-class seats, especially in the periods of lowest demand.

This winter, for example, a destination such as Rome lost virtually all of its capacity. Both Delta and American dropped their routes during the slow winter season and Continental Airlines reduced the number of days it flew to the Eternal City. That left just one carrier, Alitalia, to regularly fly the route nonstop. Near-monopoly status isn't good for low fares, especially up front.

The cutback in Europe merely mirrors the tight supply of business-class seats in other global markets. If anything, South America is short of seats from U.S. destinations, so fare sales are rare. With so few business-class seats even on the schedule to Africa, sales there almost never happen. Transpacific business-class sales are somewhat more common, but only when business-class demand is soft. The great distances from U.S. population centers-- distance means burning fuel and jet-fuel prices are at record highs--also mean discounts are not something transpacific carriers are eager to offer.

Still, you can score a bargain if you know the game and understand how and when (and why) airlines will discount in the front of their aircraft. Here's a basic primer on current conditions.

Seasonal Business-Class Fare Sales The concept of seasonal and holiday business-class sales to Europe is now entrenched in the airline business.

The idea is based on a simple reality: Fewer business travelers are on the road during major holidays (Easter/Passover, Thanksgiving) and during specified time periods (summer and from mid-December through the New Year). Those happen to be the exact times when leisure travel surges. So it makes sense for the airlines to upsell leisure travelers out of coach and into business class by offering deeply discounted up-front fares. Those cheap business-class fares fill otherwise empty up front cabins and free up coach seats that the airlines can then sell to other eager holiday flyers.

As airlines get better at predicting demand for holiday business class at a discount--and savvy travelers get smarter at sniffing out when carriers will offer bargains--the game has gotten more sophisticated. The Easter/Passover sales often break in January now. The summer-sale period often begins as early as February and airlines require tickets to be purchased around 60 days in advance with other heavy restrictions. Thanksgiving is when fares are lowest, but the window is quite restricted, lasting from just a few days before the holiday for departures until the following Sunday for returns. The end-of-the-year fare sale is carefully crafted, too. You'll rarely be able to fly much earlier than the week before Christmas; returns must be completed by three or four days after New Year's.

One thing that hasn't happened since these fares first debuted more than a decade ago is a geographic expansion. With only a few exceptions, airlines resolutely restrict the fares to destinations in Western Europe. If you're looking to fly anywhere else in the world, you're usually out of luck.

Structured Business-Class Fare Discounts Where shall we start the search for deeply discounted business-class seats? Well, how about the carriers' own Byzantine fare system? The advance-purchase business-class fare is now a worldwide staple. Depending on the airline and the route, you can score large discounts as high as 80 percent if you book between three and 60 days before departure, travel midweek and stay over on a Saturday.

What do you need to know about the airlines' advance-purchase business-class bargains? They are almost always nonrefundable and the change fees are stiff (and some carriers won't allow any changes after the trip begins). They're not offered every day. 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. And be sure to check a "fare-scraping" site such as Kayak. Choosing "Business" from the fare pull-down box will yield a blizzard of quotes from other Web sites. Kayak has even added a "Premium Economy" option to its search function.

Tactical Business-Class Sales They're not as omnipresent as coach sales, of course, but business-class sales are now fairly common, too. Most last just two or three days or are targeted promotions to help publicize a new route. And some will be mounted by an airline promoting a counter-intuitive routing over its hub. One recent example: Finnair has been trying to develop Helsinki as a connection point for American and Western European travelers headed to Asia. As a result, its up-front fares into China and India are often about half what other carriers charge.

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 the sales. Some won't even publicize them in their E-mail promotions. Still, it makes sense to sign up for the E-mail blasts most airlines push out--and make sure you select a preference for premium-class travel deals if that option is offered.

The 'Secret' Airlines In these days of gigantic airline alliances, we naturally focus on the big-name U.S. and international carriers. But there's a fleet of second-tier airlines out there and they offer good business-class service and better prices from select U.S. gateways.

Want some examples? The Italian carrier Merediana Fly operates nonstop from New York to Naples and Palermo during the spring and summer. Air Berlin flies into Dusseldorf from four U.S. cities. You will find that Air New Zealand usually has the cheapest fare between Los Angeles and London. Aer Lingus, the Irish carrier, has positioned its Dublin hub as a jumping off point to Northern England and Scotland. Business-class fares into Dublin are always a fraction of the prices into London. Don't forget about OpenSkies, BA's boutique airline that flies from Newark to Paris' Orly Airport. It offers seat-beds for about half the price of Air France and other carriers that use Paris/Charles de Gaulle.

On transpacific routes, where flights are longer and nonstop options not always available, second-tier operators like Malaysia Airlines and Asiana of South Korea will often promote much lower connecting fares than Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines or better-known carriers. Service is competitive, too.

Finding these airlines and their lower up-front fares is the business-travel equivalent of a hedge maze. These guys rarely advertise at the retail level beyond their home markets and their promotion to the travel trade is also discreet. But try a good travel agent, Kayak or ITASoftware.com. You may luck out.

Consolidator Savings Consolidators, the third-party middlemen 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 contrary to expectations, consolidators haven't disappeared. In fact, they remain the best option for last-minute discounts on business-class travel. You can routinely find 50 percent discounts on routes around the world.

How do you deal with a consolidator? Most urge you to buy their fares through a travel agent. "It's just more comfortable for everyone that way," one consolidator explains. "Travel agents know how to deal with us and they are better-suited to deal with flyers." (For more background on consolidators, check this column.)

Other Useful Strategies Depending on the market, the time of the year and the whim of the airlines, there are several other ways to save big on business-class travel. Several carriers offer packages that include business-class seats, luxury hotel rooms, private-car airport transfers and other perks. If you plan ahead, the package prices for two people traveling together are often as low as the price of one walk-up business-class seat. Some carriers offer upgrades to business class if you purchase a full-fare coach ticket. And as we discussed recently, the once-common practice of "at the gate" purchased upgrades has returned. Naturally, however, this is a space-available and ultimately unreliable tactic if you insist on a confirmed business-class ride.

A peculiar backwater of the fare structure called "round the world" tickets can also slash business-class costs. For less than the price of a point-to-point business-class ticket, an airline and its global marketing partners permit you to travel up front and visit several destinations--as long as you keep flying in the same direction. Check the excellent round-the-world primer posted by my friend David Rowell, the Travel Insider.

About That American Express Promotion Then there's the much-publicized International Airline Program, a perk offered to travelers who carry some American Express cards. Amex would have you believe that you can get a free companion business-class ticket whenever you buy one ticket from one of its 23 airline partners. But what Amex doesn't tell you is that you pay the highest walk-up business-class fare for that one ticket you are required to purchase. For leisure travelers, that is usually an awful deal since a little advance planning will usually yield two paid seats in business class for less than Amex wants you to pay for one. However, the Amex plan does have its place in the discount firmament: If you're traveling at the last minute, you may be asked to pay the walk-up business-class fare anyway. In that rare instance, the two-for-the-inflated-price-of-one program is actually a bargain--as long as you have a companion to take along for "free."

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.

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This column is Copyright 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.