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Special airfares, when available, may not be bargains

Seats for the military, seniors, kids and the bereaved are harder to find -- and may cost more than regular rates.

May 14, 2006|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

REMEMBER special airfares for children, seniors, the military and the bereaved?

They're still available, but in fewer numbers and places than they were 20 or even five years ago. Such fares save you money -- or not. And you may need a detective to find them.

Holdovers from a kinder, gentler era of flying decades ago when airlines were trying to drum up business, many special fares must be researched and booked the old-fashioned way, by telephone. Airlines' websites often reveal little.

For instance, Delta's website, www.delta.com, in one place says, "Children ages 2 and older must have a seat and pay a standard fare." In another, it states: "In some cases, we have discounted fares available for your infant or child under 12 years."

What to make of this?

When I asked Delta spokesman Anthony Black about special fares, he responded, by e-mail, "Delta may have fares for the select groups you mentioned, but in many cases the fares are specific to route, flight or season. They can only be acquired by calling our reservation number, (800) 221-1212."

It's almost as if the cash-strapped airlines don't want you to know about these deals.

"These are all revenue-diluting fares," said Kathryn Sudeikis, president of the American Society of Travel Agents, which is based in Alexandria, Va. "They have been disappearing for several years."

At one airline, there is none.

JetBlue Airways doesn't offer any deals for special groups -- not for children, seniors, the bereaved or even the military. That's been the low-cost carrier's policy since its founding in 2000, said spokesman Brandon Hamm.

"Traditionally, we have lower fares in most of our markets," he said. So presumably, there's no need for special discounts.

In fact, a low-cost carrier's walk-up fare may be cheaper than another airline's bereavement fare. But not always. And a "discounted" child fare may cost more than an airline's lowest adult fare.

Such are the eccentricities of special fares. Some are deals, but sniffing them out can require dogged research.

Or you could save time by hiring a professional, especially when trying to land a last-minute fare to attend a funeral or visit an ailing relative.

"Travel agents are very resourceful," Sudeikis said. "You've got to be creative."

Here's an overview of special fares still available on some domestic flights. I checked 11 of the biggest U.S. airlines by website or phone: Alaska, American, Continental, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Northwest, Southwest, United and US Airways-America West (which are being merged). These fares may no longer be available.

* Children: Many large airlines offer an infant fare, typically half of the adult fare. This is charged when a child under age 2 sits in a separate seat, in a safety seat. (Usually infants can sit on a parent's lap for free, except on international flights.) Children older than 2 generally pay full fares.

Exceptions include JetBlue, which has no child fares; United, which has begun charging full fares even for infants; and Southwest, which offers fares for infants (to age 2), children (ages 2 to 11) and youths (ages 12 to 21).

Southwest's child fares are not always the cheapest route. When I called the low-cost carrier on May 3 about booking a June 7-14 round-trip between LAX and Chicago's Midway, the agent offered a $258 infant fare and a $496 child/youth fare, plus tax. On Southwest's website that day, I found an adult fare for $198, plus tax.

"Any kind of discount [fare] that you can find is going to be less than a youth or child fare," the agent said. Southwest spokeswoman Paula Berg explained that the airline caps infant fares (at $129 each way, plus tax) but not the two other types.

* Seniors: "These fares are riding off into the sunset," said Terry Trippler, an airline expert for Cheapseats.com. "Very few airlines have them."

And when they do, they're not always bargains.

For instance, on the June 7-14 LAX-Chicago round-trip I priced above on Southwest, the senior fare was $278 plus tax -- $80 more than Southwest's lowest fare that day.

United's Silver Wings, www.silverwingsplus.com, a club for seniors 55 and older that charges $25 and up for annual memberships, offers what it calls "fixed low airfares" by zone. But under that system, I would have paid $409 (plus taxes and a $5 program fee) for an LAX-JFK round trip June 7-14 instead of $368.60 (including taxes), which I found online at www.ual.com. (Delta, at $278.60, was even cheaper, on a search at Orbitz, www.orbitz.com.)

America West in September ended its Senior Saver Pack, a four-coupon discount book, its website said. It and some other carriers still offer some senior fares.

American last year got rid of senior fares except from three Latin American nations, said spokesman Tim Wagner.

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