Given today's low standards of comfort and service in coach/economy class, I'm not surprised many travelers are seeking an inexpensive way to move to the still-roomy and still-well-served front cabins. One reader recently put it this succinctly:
"Where do we find cheap business class air from San Francisco to Rome?"
The short answer is that "cheap business class" is an oxymoron. Sure, you can get discounts, often as much as 50 percent off and sometimes more, but even a big discount seldom brings business class into the realm of "cheap," as most of us know it. Still, low-priced business class is attractive enough to generate a niche marketplace.
The biggest business-class discounts I've seen have been from the airlines themselves. In recent years, several major airlines have cut business-class fares more than 50 percent. However, those deals are highly restricted—nonrefundable, on limited travel days, during periods of low business-travel demands, and subject to a minimum stay and an advance-purchase period as long as 45 days. As I remember, Air France and Continental have been active in this market. However, as of September, I couldn't find any current offers.
The big airlines routinely offer slightly discounted restricted-business-class options. For our reader's trip (San Francisco-Rome), United quotes a restricted (nonrefundable) round-trip of $6,565, compared with full fare of $7,874. That discount is nice, but even the restricted fare is more than four times the best economy fare.
Airline discounts are sometimes better. British Airways and its competitors quote restricted round-trips from various U.S. cities to London at almost 50 percent below the unrestricted level. But even at the half price of $6,166, for example, a round-trip from Boston to London is many times the cost of an economy ticket. Of course, London is generally the most expensive business-class destination in Europe—maybe one of the reasons those lines frequently offer such deals.
Quite a few online agencies promote discounted business class for overseas flights. Some are specialists in premium travel only; others are departments of larger agencies.
The following agencies allow you to enter an itinerary, which they then price, as you can do with most regular online agencies and search sites. Among them:
Others list only a few sample fares—or none at all—and ask you to submit your itinerary for a bid or to call a toll-free number. Among them:
- Executive Class Travel
- First Class Travel
- First Ticket Travel
- Fly First Class
- Join Us Travel
- Cook/American Express Representative
- The Travel People
- Travel Team
Warning: As far as I can tell, several of these sites list fares—either search results or samples—as "plus taxes and surcharges," which means they may add fuel surcharges up to $500 to the featured prices. This practice, of course, is highly deceptive, as well as in violation of federal regulations on airfare advertising. Also, I haven't used any and can't vouch for any; if you plan on buying, your usual due diligence will be key.
My take: Although these sites promise discounts of more than 50 percent, those claims are often—to put it kindly—unrealistic. As with any self-proclaimed "discount" agency, never buy without (1) checking individual airline sites, (2) checking the "usual suspect" mass market sites such as Expedia, and (3) ascertaining that any quoted figure does not omit mandatory add-on fees that should really be part of the base fare.
Credit Card Twofers
Two premium credit cards feature twofer airline tickets in business and/or first class:
- Holders of AmEx Platinum cards ($450 per year) can buy twofers in business class on 18 airlines: Aeromexico, Air France, Air New Zealand, Alitalia, Asiana, Austrian, Cathay Pacific, China (Taiwan), Continental (limited cities), Delta (limited cities), Emirates, LAN (limited cities), Lufthansa, SAS, South African, Swiss, and Virgin Atlantic.
- Holders of Carte Blanche—the premium version of Diners Club ($300 per year)—can buy an unlimited number of business-class twofers on British Airways (also in premium economy and first class).
In both programs, you buy one ticket and get a second at no additional cost. The traveler on the companion ticket must follow the exact itinerary of the primary ticket holder and pay all taxes and fees that apply to a paid ticket; the companion ticket does not earn frequent flyer credit. Seats are limited. There is no limit on the number of trips taken. Both cards offer additional benefits, such as free admission to airline airport lounge clubs and (on Carte Blanche) primary rental car collision coverage. The big catch in both programs is that to get the twofer, the qualifying purchased ticket is limited to the most expensive list-price unrestricted fare.
The Premium Economy Alternative
As I've noted, premium economy is a much better product than regular economy. In fact, it's very similar to what you used to get in business class before Virgin Atlantic launched the "flat-bed seat" battle. Unfortunately, there are no premium economy flights to Rome.
Business class is the cabin that basically supports international long-haul flights, and that cabin is mainly filled with business travelers. For that reason, airlines are loath to do much open discounting on business class—none without very heavy restrictions.
Nevertheless, with the weakening economy, I suspect demand for full-fare tickets will be weak for the next year or so. Don't be surprised to see more discounting in the future, either by the airlines themselves, with heavy restrictions, or through discount agencies.
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)