Many of you already know the bad news when it comes to discount air fares. They are either heavily restricted or require advance purchase or they're not available for the flight and date you want.
And even worse, if you change your schedule, you are more often than not subject to a stiff penalty.
But now there's even more bad news. Effective today the major U.S. airlines have increased their fares. Deeply discounted fares will be upped at least $20, a signal that for the time being, fare wars are over and cheap airline tickets on competitive airline routes will no longer be offered.
Many airline executives are gleefully hailing the new "fare peace." After all, the deep discounting of airline tickets was largely responsible for a whopping $669 million loss in the first quarter of this year.
The airline traveler is left with few choices at a time of the year when air fares are traditionally dropped.
And on some routes, where fares were traditionally discounted year round, the traveler is left with no choice. In the Denver market, for example, a popular Y-9 discount fare, which was unrestricted and carried no advance purchase requirements, has been canceled.
The Y-9 fare was offered by United from nine cities as a response to fare discounting by now-bankrupt Frontier. As a result of the elimination of the fare, a Tulsa-San Francisco ticket will now cost $387. The Y-9 fare for that route was $285.
But don't despair. There's at least one discount fare still left. It has remarkably few restrictions, offers the most options and mile-for-mile, could be the most inexpensive airline ticket in the world.
It's still being offered by two major airlines and it's one of the best-kept travel secrets.
Eastern Airlines calls it the Sky Pass and Delta Airlines calls it a "systemwide excursion fare."
The fare concept is not new. Eastern offered it seven years ago, calling it the "unlimited mileage" ticket. For about $650 (the fares fluctuated depending upon season of travel) one could fly anywhere that Eastern flew in the continental U.S. for up to 21 days. For an additional charge ($50 to $75), Eastern threw in its many destinations in the Caribbean.
The rules were simple. You bought your ticket and made your reservations 30 days in advance. Once you started using your ticket, you had 21 days to complete your trip. You could fly to any Eastern city once during your trip (you were allowed to transit a city, such as Atlanta, more than once to make connections).
And the best news was that once you started your trip, if you wanted to stay an extra day in one city, or leave a day or two early for another, no penalties were imposed, as long as you did so within the 21 days allowed.
Delta soon matched the Eastern program on its route system.
Neither program was heavily advertised or promoted by the airlines or by travel agents. "We looked at the unlimited mileage program as a seat-filler," says one Eastern spokesman. "We didn't expect to make a lot of money with it."
How could they? One didn't have to be a math whiz to add up the numbers. Anyone using the "unlimited mileage" ticket more than three times in 21 days was saving a substantial sum over regular coach fares. In many markets where "super saver" fares didn't even exist, the air fare savings were even greater.
Some savvy travelers who could plan their business trips in advance were savings thousands of dollars.
Then in 1984 Eastern quietly removed the fare. Delta quickly followed suit.
The fare stayed dormant until earlier this year when Eastern brought it back, just as quietly. "We had a lot of requests for the fare," says Barbara Fall, Eastern sales manager in Los Angeles, "but we felt it was too good a deal. When we brought it back, we added enough restrictions so that we could afford to do it."
But there aren't that many changes from the old fare, except that Eastern now calls it a Sky Pass. The only major difference is that instead of offering unlimited mileage for 21 days, the airline will sell you up to 14 flight segments for 21 days. It's still a terrific deal.
If you are flying within the continental U.S. the Sky Pass will cost you $559. Eastern will throw in its Caribbean destinations for another $90. An even better deal can be had if you travel with a friend. For two people traveling together on a Sky Pass the fare is $449 per person. (The Caribbean will cost an additional $50.)
"There's no way to beat this fare in many of our markets," says Eastern's Fall, "and there's absolutely no way to beat it to the Caribbean."
For example, the cheapest, discounted, restricted ticket between Los Angeles and San Juan will cost you $477. Other itineraries such as Atlanta to Bermuda will run $300.
But on domestic runs the savings can be just as great. The cheapest Chicago to Miami ticket, with restrictions, is $178. New York to Portland is $198. And Boston to San Francisco is also $198. If you change your itinerary on any of these flights you're subject to a 50% penalty.