A Few Tips on Avoiding the Higher Cost of Flying

<i> Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i> .

A friend recently called me from New York City in a panic. She had to come to California in a week, stay two days and return the same week. She called half-a-dozen airlines and each told her the bad news: Her round-trip coach air fare would cost more than $1,100.

The only way she could get a cheaper fare would be to stay over on a Saturday night.

She had to make the trip, but didn’t have the money.

Sound familiar?

Yes, air fares are slowly rising. Also, airlines have been offering fewer discount seats, and those seats are carrying more restrictions.

It sometimes seems that the only way to qualify for a discount fare on heavily traveled routes is to agree to change your name to Hubert, fly on a Tuesday, visit relatives you hate on a Saturday and change planes in Chicago when it’s snowing.

After falling for three consecutive years, domestic air fares jumped 10.7% last year and threaten to go higher this summer.


Within a few days of the Eastern Airlines strike in early March, air fares began to rise in markets where Eastern once dominated. Since then, air fares have risen across the board.

At the same time, airline profits have soared. United, Delta and USAir each reported substantially higher first-quarter earnings for 1989.

In some markets, particularly transcontinental and the north-south California corridor, air fares have risen dramatically. A round-trip ticket between Los Angeles and San Francisco at one time cost $296.

The picture changed last week in California when American announced a series of discount fares, including a $98 round-trip fare from Los Angeles to San Francisco or San Jose, bought seven days in advance. Other major carriers, such as United and USAir, quickly announced that they would follow American’s lead.

But what should my friend do? The round-trip, full-coach fare was $1,120, providing she left New York City on Tuesday and returned on Thursday. A discount fare existed for $418, but she would have to stay over a Saturday night.

Airlines believe there are good business reasons for requiring the Saturday night stay to qualify for the cheapest fares. With a few exceptions, that requirement knocks out most business travelers, who fly during the week. But that requirement abuses everyone, especially leisure travelers who sometimes need to fly on specific days or for family emergencies.


Finally, I suggested a Plan B.

I advised her to buy two round-trip discount tickets for $418 each, plan a separate vacation to California and save nearly $300 in the process.

One ticket would enable her to leave New York City on a Tuesday, with a return date from Los Angeles sometime in the summer. The second ticket would enable her to leave Los Angeles two days later--on a Thursday. She could choose a return date for sometime in summer. Her air fare for both tickets would be $836.

She could use the first New York City-to-Los Angeles ticket to get to Los Angeles, and hold the return ticket. She then would return on the first Los Angeles-to-New York City ticket, and similarly hold that return ticket. As a result, this summer she could treat herself to a weeklong vacation in California.

There is nothing illegal about such moves. And now she can fly to California during the week without paying more than $1,100.

My idea was not really an original one. I learned it from a well-traveled businessman who was disgusted with the high airline fares.

There are other ways to keep from getting gouged by airline pricing.

Take the “hidden city” tickets. Let’s say you need to fly to Dallas. The cheapest Los Angeles-to-Dallas ticket is $300. Instead, buy a Los Angeles-to-Omaha ticket with a stop in Dallas for $150. When the plane lands in Dallas, you get off.


Hidden-city ticket techniques can work, if you follow some rules.

One, never check baggage; it will be checked to your ticket’s last stop.

Second, whenever possible ask for all of your boarding passes in advance. That way, when you return (from Dallas, in this case), you won’t have to check in for a flight you should already be on, because it originated in Omaha.

Be aware, however, that using a hidden-city ticket is not illegal but it does anger the airlines. Some carriers have even cracked down on travel agents they claimed had issued such hidden-city tickets, knowing the purpose. In the cases of those travel agents, the airlines billed the agents for full-fare coach tickets. But airline enforcement against individual travelers is infrequent.

If you’re going overseas, check on something called “cross-border” tickets. Most airlines frown on the practice and few travel agents admit to it, but these tickets work and can save you hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars.

These tickets are also called “false-origin” tickets, and they are frequently used on trips that originate in Europe. The tickets are less expensive because of shifting exchange rates, currency fluctuations and the way some governments set air fares.

For example, assume the one-way London-to-New York City economy fare is $900. Instead, buy a ticket that lists your itinerary as, say, Karachi (Pakistan)-London-New York City for $650, then use only the London-New York City portion and save $250. (The saving on business- and first-class tickets can be substantially greater.)

The trick is to find airlines that fly through the city you want to originate from. Do some comparison shopping by simply calling various airlines.


Once overseas, you can take advantage of some more legitimate air-fare deals. In Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Pacific some airlines offer special air passes that provide discounted air travel within specific countries or entire continents. These passes are usually issued in conjunction with your original airline ticket to that destination. Check directly with your travel agent or the specific airline.

Domestic airlines in Brazil, India, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia and Spain are just a few that offer such deals. And a new travel pass in Canada even offers discounted air travel among 16 cities in Canada’s four Atlantic provinces. The pass costs $209 for three one-way tickets, up to $334 for six one-way tickets.

TWA has just introduced two attractive new travel-pass programs. One is called the Takeoff pass. For $1,995 TWA offers six low-cost round trips (one to Europe, one to Hawaii, one to the Bahamas or Puerto Rico and three within the continental United States).

The good news about the pass is that it makes economic sense for longer trips in the case of foreign travel. You get 20 European destinations and 80 cities in the United States and the Caribbean.

The bad news--at least for frequent fliers--is that you receive no mileage credits when you use the pass.

Another new program, the TWA Breakaway Club, is worth checking on. The program is similar to one started two years ago by Eastern, called the Weekenders Club. And the deal is virtually the same. Each week, members receive a listing of great “breakaways” at special prices, including hotels.


Example: Hawaii for the weekend from Los Angeles. Round-trip air fare per person: $220. Hotel (optional): $72 a night. Or London for the weekend from New York City at similar savings. There are only a few holiday blackout periods.

Annual membership costs $100 for an individual. An individual can get a companion membership (the member travels with any companion) for $175. And couple memberships (two members traveling together) are also $175. Memberships for children under 12 are free. Children ages 12 to 17 are $50 each. Call toll-free (800) 872-8364 for more information.

If you’re under 18, you’ve got it made. Some airlines, including Continental, TWA and American, are slashing kids’ fares this summer.

Continental launched the children’s air-fare wars with an announcement that kids could fly anywhere in the continental United States for just $1 on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, if accompanied by an adult paying the “maxsaver” fare. From Thursday through Monday the kids’ fare is half of the applicable “maxsaver” fare.

American matched the offer (and forgot the $1 charge), good from June 1 through Sept. 10. For both deals, tickets must be bought by May 26.