THE AIRLINES' SECRET HOLIDAY SALES
By Joe Brancatelli
July 31, 2013 --Huge swathes of America are on their annual summer vacation this week, but savvy business travelers know that now is the time to think about fall and holiday bargains for premium-class travel to Europe.
The last taboo against dealing in the up front cabins fell years ago and major carriers that operate across the Atlantic discount lustily in order to fill their cushiest seats. The rationale is simple, too. Especially over the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years holidays, business travelers are disinclined to fly, so there are fewer takers for up front seats that can run as much as $20,000 roundtrip. Slashing prices by upwards of 75 percent during these periods of weak demand will entice leisure fliers--some of them business travelers seeking a holiday, of course--to take a flier on the best seats on the plane.
What has changed recently is the willingness of airlines to advertise these up front bargains. In the years immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, carriers would promote the special holiday sales with newspaper ads, email solicitations to members of their frequent-flier programs and purpose-built landing pages on their websites. Today, however, the sales are never advertised, email and social-media promotions are rare and even special web pages detailing the deeply discounted holiday fares are hard to find.
Why the attitude adjustment? Depends who you listen to. Some airline executives say they don't want to be seen offering uber-low holiday fares on premium classes because it makes business travelers wonder about why they are being charged so much more at other times of the years. Others insist a "public" sale locks them into published terms and conditions that don't fit today's ultra-sophisticated yield-management programs, which change fares and rules literally millions of times each day. Still others claim there is no longer a need to promote the low fares because anyone interested in buying them are quick to ferret out holiday bargains on their own.
If you're interested in a holiday bargain in a premium class but don't know where to look, start with my suggestions below.
Flying with the niche players
The BA subsidiary OpenSkies got off to a heady start in 2008, but these days it only serves Paris' Orly Airport from Newark and New York's Kennedy airports. Its premium-economy product, now called Prem Plus, is a little less spacious, too. But with 47 inches of legroom and 2x2 seating on specially configured Boeing 757s, it remains the most comfortable ride in the premium-economy skies. The current promotion pegs fares at just $1,293 roundtrip and means a cheap, comfy ride to Paris between Sept. 1 and Christmas Eve.
Air New Zealand's Premium Economy class offers 41 inches of legroom at seats laid out 2x2x2 on widebody Boeing 777-300 aircraft. That's a lot of comfort on the longish haul (10.5 hours) between Los Angeles and London for $1,500 roundtrip. If you book this week, you'll catch that fare for flights between October 25 and November 30.
If London is where you want to be, but your departure point is the East Coast, try Virgin Atlantic. It's offering special business-class fares for Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year from both JFK and Newark. The prices are extraordinary given the high quality of Virgin's business product, cheekily dubbed Upper Class. For travelers anxious to celebrate Turkey Day in the British capital, it's just $1,602 roundtrip. If an end-of-the-year holiday appeals, it's $2,348 between December 16 and January 7.
The star of transatlantic bargains
Lufthansa's business-class deals for the Thanksgiving weekend include $1,639 roundtrip from New York/Newark to Lisbon; $2,179 from Dallas/Fort Worth to Madrid; $1,959 from Boston to Geneva; $2,699 from Denver to Florence; and $1,869 from Philadelphia to Munich. If you really want to throw financial caution to the wind, Lufthansa's first-class Thanksgiving sale includes prices such as $5,969 roundtrip from Seattle to Stockholm and $5,509 from Houston to Amsterdam. Prefer the Christmas/New Year period? Lufthansa says prices begin at $2,529 in business class and $4,209 in first class.
Best of all, Lufthansa is the public face of the Star Alliance on these sales. You'll not only find similar Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year prices on the German carrier's own subsidiaries (Austrian Airlines and Swiss International), but also on its Star Alliance partners United, Air Canada and SAS Scandinavian.
Italy and beyond on SkyTeam
Alitalia says its Thanksgiving season business-class prices start at $1,740 roundtrip from New York to Milan. Flights to Rome are a few hundred dollars more and Boston-Rome comes in this year at $2,256. The outbound travel period is November 24-29 with returns permitted until December 4. For Christmas/New Year, the travel period is December 16-January 3 with returns permitted from December 25 to January 7. Prices for the end-of-the-year period include $3,036 for Miami-Rome; $2,970 for New York-Venice and $2,826 for Boston-Rome.
But Italy is hardy the only place you can catch a bargain up front from the SkyTeam carriers. Poking around the Delta.com website in recent days turned up deals such as New York-Madrid for $1,884 roundtrip over Thanksgiving and $2,232 between New York and Paris during the Christmas/New Year period.
Last call for procrastinators
For as little as $1,699 roundtrip in premium economy and $2,599 in business class, SAS will fly to you Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo or Helsinki from Newark, Washington or Chicago. For just $200 more in each cabin, you can fly to those four Nordic destinations from San Francisco. You will have to fly midweek (Monday-Thursday) and stay over on a Saturday night, but those are minor conditions for such great last-minute prices on comfortable flights.