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By Joe Brancatelli
June 7, 2014 -- If you want proof positive that airline-industry pricing is crazy, consider this: The deal of the week I posted on Thursday was the British Airways summer first-class sale to Europe. Meanwhile, yesterday was the day the Star Alliance and SkyTeam Alliance carriers posted their Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year business-class sales to Europe.
Yes, you read that right: The winter holiday sales are already out. And it is much wilder this year than in previous holidays:
Unlike previous years, Star Alliance and SkyTeam prices are not identical. In fact, fares seem $300 to $1,200 higher on SkyTeam than Star Alliance in markets where they directly compete with nonstop flights or easily compared connecting itineraries.
Unlike previous years, prices for Thanksgiving travel are identical, give or take $5-to-$25 roundtrip, for most flights during the Christmas/New Year period. That's very good news for travel on Star, because it means fares for Christmas/New Year are notably lower than last year and roughly the same for Thanksgiving travel as last year. It's bad news for SkyTeam because its Thanksgiving fares are sharply higher than last year and hundreds more than last Christmas or New Year.
Unlike previous years, Star and SkyTeam travel dates are slightly different and the purchase-by dates are radically different. Since SkyTeam's buy-by date is just weeks away, it is possible that SkyTeam may be back with another sale, perhaps with lower prices.
Unlike previous years, fares from West Coast destinations are only several hundred dollars higher than from the East Coast. At least that's true on the Star Alliance carriers.
Unlike most previous years--but not the last year or two--fares are not locked in. There are some differences based on travel day during the applicable travel periods and some days where there are no holiday bargains at all. Broadly speaking, however, availability looks quite good. That includes Spain, Italy and Paris, which often tops the list of preferred holiday destinations.
But enough generalities, let's get to the specific fares and specific restrictions since I know many of you immediately plan holiday and vacation travel when these offers appear.
WHAT STAR IS CHARGING
The Star Alliance carriers--for this sale, that is primarily United, Air Canada, SAS and the Lufthansa group (Austrian, Brussels, Swiss and Lufthansa itself)--are clearly the price leaders this year. If you're in a market where a Star carrier flies nonstop, you'll save as much as $1,200 roundtrip than a comparable SkyTeam nonstop. On connecting itineraries, you'll save at least $300 roundtrip. At least that was true as of 5 p.m. today.
From Newark, where United Airlines maintains its international hub, sample business-class fares include: Brussels for $2,104; Milan for $2,363; London for $2,392; Madrid for $2,348; Rome for $2,378; and Paris for $2,253. From New York/Kennedy, where the Lufthansa group is strong, it's $2,175 roundtrip to Frankfurt; $2,194 to Munich; $2,303 to Vienna; and $2,270 to Zurich.
From Washington/Dulles, sample roundtrip fares are $2,510 to Dublin and $2,577 to Munich. From Chicago/O'Hare, sample roundtrip fares include $2,593 to Frankfurt; $2,668 to Paris; and $3,313 to London.
From Los Angeles, sample roundtrips include $3,015 to Frankfurt and $3,315 to Paris. From San Francisco, it's $2,923 to Copenhagen.
Some other routes I checked: $3,157 roundtrip from Denver to Vienna; $2,663 from Charlotte to Munich; and $2,640 from Houston to Zurich.
WHAT SKYTEAM IS CHARGING
If you're aligned to SkyTeam--and for these holiday fares, we're predominantly talking about Delta, Alitalia, Air France/KLM--expect to pay much higher fares. That's true if you're in a Delta fortress hub such as Atlanta or Minneapolis, if you're in a competitive market such as New York metro, or even if you're looking at connecting itineraries from cities around the country.
This may change, of course, since the current SkyTeam sale may not be its last word on the topic. If you're wedded to SkyTeam because of miles or because it operates a nonstop not offered by Star, wait to see if it posts a better sale. But for everyone else, try to find a Star Alliance fare and book it now.
That said, here are SkyTeam sample fares: $5,082 roundtrip from Atlanta or Minneapolis to London; $3,738 from Detroit to Frankfurt; $4,858 from Seattle to Amsterdam; $4,346 from Boston to Paris; and $2,894 from New York/Kennedy to Madrid.
For the most egregious example of how much higher SkyTeam prices are, consider New York-London. As I mentioned, it's $2,392 roundtrip on United out of Newark. Delta and its Virgin Atlantic partner are asking $3,583 roundtrip from New York/Kennedy.
THE TRAVEL WINDOWS
Star Alliance carriers offer Thanksgiving fares from November 22 to November 28 for the outbound with returns permitted from November 27 to December 3. SkyTeam carriers permit outbound flights from November 23 to November 28 with returns allowed between November 28 and December 3.
For the Christmas/New Year period, Star Alliance offers outbound travel from December 15 to January 3 with returns permitted from December 22 until January 7. SkyTeam again is less generous. Its travel dates are December 16 to January 3 for departures and December 26 to January 7 for returns.
RESTRICTIONS AND CODES
For both alliances, the minimum stay is three days with a maximum stay of 10 days. Fares are nonrefundable with a $450 change fee. Star Alliance tickets must be purchased by September 29. The SkyTeam purchase-by date is June 20.
Star Alliance carriers have put their holiday inventory in P class. For Thanksgiving, find fares coded PQNC3S for the lowest prices. For Christmas, it's fare basis PQNC4S.
SkyTeam holiday fares are in Z class, but the coding is more diffuse. Their lowest fares also seem harder to find on weekend travel days. On the positive side, however, Delta has posted a promotional page on its Web site and Virgin Atlantic has listed its prices on its standing Upper Class sale page.
If you want a holiday fare from American Airlines, British Airways or other Oneworld carriers serving Europe, you're out of luck--at least for the moment. None has posted sales or matched the SkyTeam or Star fares. So wait out the weekend and see if they match on Monday.
SOME FINAL TIPS
If you want a holiday fare from your city, start hunting. Just because I haven't mentioned your market that does not mean the sale fares aren't there. And if your favorite European destination isn't listed, an emphatic ditto. Especially on Star with the Lufthansa Group and SAS networks buttressing the United and Air Canada nonstops, you'll probably find a deal almost anywhere in Europe you want to go.
If you don't use the wonderful (if a bit tricky) monthly fare matrix from ITA Software, check the expanded search days boxes on United.com and Delta.com. That'll broaden your search for as many as three days before and after your chosen dates. There are some pricing differences this year, so look broadly and be as flexible on travel dates as you can.
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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.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.