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Could This New Members-Only Air Service Mean Cheaper U.S. Flights?

SmarterTravel

A new service called Wanderift has launched a new approach to booking air travel. Travelers can join the program for a one-time fee of $500, and then pay $100 to $125 each for up to 50 airfare “tokens” per year. One token can be used for a one-way itinerary anywhere in the lower 48 states and some Caribbean points, but bookings can only be made eight days in advance or fewer.

Business and frequent travelers alike might benefit from Wanderift, which bills itself as the first airline travel membership. The potential benefit seems to be the ability to fly within the 48 states for no more than $250 round-trip. Here’s how Wanderift works, and what it includes.

How to Use Wanderift

  • Wanderift users must pay a one-time membership fee of $500, which includes membership in Clear, the fast-lane airport screening program that normally costs $179 per year.
  • Individuals have two membership options: $5,000 per year for 50 tokens ($100 per token) or $500 per month for four tokens per month ($125 per token).
  • Tokens are valid for a year after joining. Unused monthly tokens roll over to later months.
  • When you want to fly, book through the Wanderift website between eight days and three hours prior to your proposed travel date.
  • Wanderift will provide one or more flights that meet your needs, subject to availability.
  • Specific seating class also depends on availability. You could wind up anywhere from basic economy to first class. Fees and other add-on options will depend on the class of service your token gets you.
  • If you find an itinerary you like through Wanderift you’ll pay one token each way, which includes connecting flights when necessary. Round-trip travel requires two tokens.
  • Wanderift flights earn the usual frequent flyer points and benefits per airline.

Where Wanderift Is Limited

A map on the Wanderift website shows close to 100 flight destinations including options throughout the 48 states, but oddly excluding Boston, Charleston (West Virginia), Chattanooga, Indianapolis, and a few others you might expect to be included. A Wanderift spokesperson indicated it can provide flights to/from most sizable airports—however, it includes some small hubs, too (even my home field of Medford, Oregon).

Another possible downside: Wanderift does not identify the airlines until you actually book, but it appears to include a mix of low-fare and legacy lines. Tokens are also non-transferrable. Thus, to make full use of the program, you’d have to take 24-25 round-trips a year.

Wanderift is working on a modification to allow members to share tokens with a companion, however. For a couple, that would reduce the full-use travel to 12 round-trips a year, a figure that many might reach. Moreover, you wouldn’t have to use all 48-50 tokens to make the program pay off: In lots of cases, it would be worthwhile for somewhere around half the maximum travel allowance.

Wanderift’s Implications for Air Travel

From an airline perspective, Wanderift is the latest in a series of off-line programs for filling unsold seats without in any way disturbing the nominal fare structure. Well before deregulation and the Internet, Airhitch operated such a system, which caught on with charter lines but never with any of the giant lines, and died after airfares were deregulated. Later, Priceline’s “you bid” program initially included airfares—but it, too, didn’t last.

From a user standpoint, Wanderift will ultimately succeed or fail depending on how much useful flight availability it can deliver. We won’t know that until it’s been in operation a while. The program will look much more attractive to typical travelers when tokens can be transferred to companions and possibly children, but again, that’s still unanswered. And the inability to book flights more than eight days in advance will be a dealbreaker for many leisure travelers.

All in all, my take is that anyone who travels a lot might benefit from some savings through Wanderift. If everything falls into place, the ability to fly within the 48 states for no more than $250 round-trip can look extremely enticing. But, as is so often the case, the devil is in the details—many of which are yet to be determined.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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