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Here's One Way to Beat the High Cost of Flying

June 25, 1989|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer .

A few years ago, United Airlines offered a special promotion to coincide with its announcement that it had become the only U.S. airline to fly to all 50 states.

As part of the deal, United said that any passengers who flew the airline to every state within 30 days would get a one-year, first-class pass.

That proved more of a challenge for passengers than a promotion for the airline. United liked the idea not only because it showed the public how vast the airline's system was but because it also seemed virtually foolproof.

Using the airline's own computers, United's fare experts projected that even if someone did fly to all 50 states on United within 30 days, the cheapest anyone could do it for was $16,000--and that was if they used nothing but discount fares, and only if those fares were available.

Wrong. One knowledgeable passenger won the challenge and it cost him little more than $800. Flabbergasted officials were forced to acknowledge his achievement and award him his well-deserved pass.

Series of Coupons

How did he do it? With something called a VUSA ticket. VUSA stands for "Visit USA," and it's more than just a ticket--it's a series of flight coupons that allow people visiting the United States to do just that.

Virtually every U.S. airline sells this coupon, or air pass, and not only is it a remarkably inexpensive way to fly across America, but it carries very few restrictions.

The concept was designed primarily for foreign tourists on a budget. Not surprisingly, U.S. airlines don't market these tickets in the United States, and their position is that they can only be bought by foreigners overseas.

Not true. The VUSA tickets can only be bought in a foreign country, but you don't have to speak a foreign language to buy one.

In recent years a growing number of alert U.S. travelers have bought VUSA tickets and have saved themselves, or their companies, substantial sums.

If you are planning on doing any domestic travel in the next 12 months, read on. And then, before you take your next foreign trip, do a little planning.

Round-Trip Ticket

The rules are simple: You can buy a VUSA ticket only in conjunction with the purchase of a round-trip ticket to the United States. Then for an additional fare ranging from $197 to more than $1,200, you can buy a VUSA ticket valid for from two weeks to two months.

The VUSA tickets originally were designed for people whose vacation plans allowed for short stays in multiple destinations. It is an officially published fare, but it is not widely advertised.

"We look at it as a loss leader," said one airline official. "It's a way for us to fill up seats on domestic U.S. routes without compromising the fares we charge Americans."

Savings usually are substantial. For example, an air pass on Piedmont Airlines, allowing you to stop in three U.S. cities, costs only $197. And a 12-coupon Continental ticket costs $1,188.

By comparison, if you attempted to fly to 12 cities in the United States without the passes, your air fare could well exceed $2,500.

Some VUSA plans are offered by U.S. airlines that have surprisingly comprehensive route systems. Both Northwest and Republic Airlines had offered air passes, but in 1987, when Republic was absorbed into Northwest, the air pass offered by Northwest became one of the best ever.

With a combined route network, the Northwest VUSA ticket covers virtually every mainland U.S. city of any size.

Then there is USAir. Once primarily an Eastern carrier, the airline bought the West Coast-based PSA in 1988 as well as Piedmont, a Southern carrier. Now the airline offers five VUSA plans.

The first allows travel in the entire USAir system, with prices starting at $199. Each additional sector costs $40. For example, if you travel on USAir to New York, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, then back to Buffalo, the regular coach fare is $357. A USAir VUSA ticket costs $229.

Indeed, the USAir plan is flexible because it divides the U.S. into segments. If you are only interested in visiting the East Coast, the airline offers one-sector travel for $99, two sectors for $189. Again, each additional sector costs $40.

Substantial Discount

There are three new West Coast fare plans on USAir. The first allows passengers to visit Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado on three sectors for $129. If you include Oregon and Washington, the fare is $189, still a substantial discount over regular fares. A third West Coast plan allows international travelers to select two segments in California and Nevada for $109.

Another example: For $279 a TWA VUSA ticket gives travelers four flight coupons and a choice of more than 100 U.S. destinations. TWA's VUSA tickets are valid for 60 days, and travelers can even buy up to four additional coupons for $25 each.

(Note: All of these VUSA fares are approximations, due to foreign currency fluctuations and some seasonal fare adjustments.)

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