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Fares Are Rising Fast, But There are Some Options
February 15, 1996 -- If you're feeling a little light in the wallet these days, you've probably been flying the nation's decidedly unfriendly skies.

Average airfares increased by more than 15 percent in 1995 and the nation's major carriers are planning similar price hikes this year.

But don't despair: there are many ways to get airline bargains in 1996. You'll need to do some more homework and plan more carefully, but the discounts are there. It's just a matter of knowing where to look.

Here's how to do it.

FIND A DISCOUNT AIRLINE
The six largest airlines--United, American, Delta, Northwest, Continental, and USAir--now control more than 85 percent of the nation's traffic and that gives them the clout to raise fares at will. But more than a dozen discount carriers have sprung up in the last few years and they dramatically cut the cost of flying wherever they operate.

Consider the 844-mile Baltimore-Tampa route, for example. USAir had been charging a staggering $339 for a one-way unrestricted ticket. Yet when Southwest Airlines (800-435-9792), the nation's largest discounter, entered the market in late January, prices plunged by more than 50 percent thanks to Southwest's one-way unrestricted fare of $159.

Unlike Southwest, however, most discounters are not household names, so ask your travel agent for assistance or call your local airport and ask if a low-priced carrier has launched service there. Among the fastest-growing discounters are Valujet (800-825-8538), based in Atlanta; Western Pacific (800-930-3030), based in Colorado; Tower Air (800-221-2500), which flies coast to coast, to Florida, and on some international routes; and Vanguard (800-826-4827), which concentrates on the Midwest.

USE AN ALTERNATE AIRPORT
Lower fares are available to travelers willing to use a less popular airport. In Chicago, for instance, United Airlines flies from O'Hare International and charges $732 for an unrestricted one-way ticket to San Francisco. Fly American Trans Air (800-382-5892) from Chicago's Midway Airport, however, and the unrestricted one way fare is 84 percent less, or just $119. If you're traveling to or from Denver, consider using Colorado Springs Airport instead of Denver International. Flying to or from Burbank or Long Beach is frequently less costly than using Los Angeles International. Other cities with more than one airport include Dallas, Houston, Miami, New York, San Francisco, Tampa, and Washington, D.C.

WATCH FOR FARE WARS
Despite the hostile pricing environment, the major airlines indulge in regular fare wars and you should buy tickets during these skirmishes. But be warned: recent fare wars have been shorter (lasting just a few days rather than few weeks); less dramatic (offering 25 or 30 percent discounts rather than 40 or 50 percent reductions); and have more rigorous restrictions. (Tickets are usually nonrefundable and must be purchased immediately and as far as 30 days before departure.) One tip: fares are cheapest for flights on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and for itineraries that include a Saturday-night stay.

DON'T FORGET THE 'SENIOR' DISCOUNT
Rules and age requirements vary, but most carriers offer a senior-citizen discount of 10 percent off published airfares. Also worth considering are senior-citizen coupon booklets. Most airlines charge $596 and the books are valid for four one-way flights. The discounts and coupon booklets are both available through your travel agent or directly from the airlines.

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

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