The Brancatelli File



November 1, 1995 -- The take-no-prisoners fare war raging between Southwest Airlines and United Shuttle leaves Bay Area travelers with a badly skewed view of airfares. Ticket prices within California and around the Pacific Northwest may be dropping, but elsewhere the airlines are jacking up fares with wild abandon.

Even with the salubrious effects of the fare war, in fact, the typical fare paid by San Francisco business fliers was 7 percent higher this past August than in August, 1994. And the average fare paid by all Bay Area travelers was up a hefty 10 percent.

Outside San Francisco, however, those increases seem like spare change. According to the American Express Business Airfare Index, prices in Baltimore, Cleveland and Denver were more than 40 percent higher this past August than last. Increases were in the 20-percent range in cities such as Cincinnati, Newark, Omaha, Orlando and Miami. And keep in mind that all this fare finagling has occurred while the cost-of-living and inflation rates were as flat as pancakes.

Short of chaining yourself to your desk, are there any ways to keep your airfare costs down? Yes, but the options aren't always simple or palatable.

Plan farther ahead The airlines' cheapest fares often must be purchased as much as 21 days in advance. If that seems unfair, that's the point: airlines know business fliers can't or won't plan that far in advance. But if you want the low fares, you will have to adjust your schedule accordingly. And don't be put off by non-refundable tickets; most can be changed for the comparatively reasonable fee of $50.

Two can fly cheaper than one The airlines' lowest fares usually require you to stay over at your destination on a Saturday night. That wrinkle is also aimed at discouraging business travelers. But you can outwit the airlines: buy two Saturday-stay tickets, which often cost less than the price of one full-coach seat. Then bring your friend or spouse along and enjoy a romantic weekend getaway for less than the cost of going it alone.

Fly first instead of coach If you must buy full-fare tickets, at least purchase them from an airline that allows you to fly first for the price. On many connecting routes, Northwest offers "ConnectFirst" prices that permit you to fly in first class for the full coach fare. Continental ("YOnePass" fares), USAir ("A4Coach" fares) and TWA ("YFirst" fares) also offer first class seats at coach prices on some routes.

Use a discount airline There are now more than a dozen discount airlines mimicking Southwest that undercut the big carriers' fares. Ask your travel agent if one of them can get you where you're going.

Turn your miles around Rather than use your frequent-flyer miles for vacations, claim an award for a business trip. It's often cheaper to purchase a vacation ticket than to buy a seat for a last-minute business trip. One example: a restricted roundtrip ticket to Maui costs as little as $399, but an unrestricted roundtrip to Denver will cost at least $1,064.

This column originally appeared in San Francisco Focus magazine.

Copyright 1993-2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.