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What happened to senior airfare deals?

SmarterTravel

“Where can I get discounted senior airfares?” is the most common question I receive from the readers of SmarterTravel.com’s Senior Travel section. Unfortunately, my short answer to such inquiries is: “Look for the cheapest fare available to anyone, because senior fares aren’t what they used to be.”

In my three years as SmarterTravel’s Senior Travel editor, I’ve seen many airlines drop senior programs entirely, and I’ve discovered through numerous fare comparisons and tests that most of the senior discount programs still left aren’t very helpful. Senior fares are often difficult or impossible to find for many routes, and when they are available, they are usually the same or only slightly lower than the cheapest fares available to anyone. In some cases, the senior fares I’ve found not only offer no savings, but cost quite a bit more than other fare types.

Some recent research I did on American Airlines’ senior fares illustrates this. The American website notes that it has senior fares for travelers ages 65 and up and the reservations box on its homepage allows you conduct a search for “Senior” passengers. I performed searches for nine different routes both for last-minute travel and travel three months out. In all cases but one, the lowest fare I found searching as a “Senior” was exactly the same as the fare I found searching as an “Adult.” In the case of a last-minute flight from Los Angeles to New York (JFK), I turned up a fare that was $77 cheaper when searching as a Senior.

Pleasantly surprised to find any deal at all, I called American’s Corporate Communications office to ask what rules and restrictions apply to online senior fares so that I could give recommendations to my readers that would help them to find these fares. The representative I spoke with said he was unaware that American offered any senior fares online and was surprised I found one at all. Even after I pointed out the “Senior” search function on American’s website, he recommended that senior travelers call a booking agent in order to get the best deal.

All in all, senior discounts are not a high priority for the airlines. I have a few theories about why this is. Some of my ideas are supported by comments made by airline spokespeople, while others are based on my speculation alone.

  • With skyrocketing fuel and operating costs, the airlines have cut back on their routes and the frequency of flight; as a result, the flights that are operating are flying at or near capacity. With so much competition for seats, the airlines have no need to entice people to buy by offering special discounts.
  • Amidst the cost-cutting and streamlining that follows airline bankruptcies and mergers, senior programs are easy targets for cutbacks. Since 9/11, all of the major carriers except American and Continental, and several of the smaller airlines, have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy at least once. US Airways’ canceled its AARP senior zone fare program shortly after it declared bankruptcy in 2004, America West discontinued its discount after merging with US Airways last fall, and Delta’s senior shuttle fares disappeared sometime after it filed for bankruptcy last September.
  • In the past, some airlines offered senior fares that weren’t necessarily cheaper than fares available to anyone but had the added benefit of flexible rules such as minimal or no fees for changing or canceling tickets and generous maximum-stay policies. However, in the past two to three years, many airlines have relaxed or removed many of these restrictions for all travelers, negating the value of their senior tickets. This was the case earlier this year when Midwest Airlines discontinued its senior program.

  • The population of the U.S. is aging and more travelers than ever are entering into the 50- to 65-plus “senior” zone. Seniors are also traveling more than ever, even as they enter into their 70s and 80s. It doesn’t make financial sense for the airlines to offer big (or any) senior discounts when so many travelers now qualify.
  • Once some of the major airlines dropped their senior deals, others followed suit.

There are a few rays of light in the current dark state of senior airfare programs, most notably Southwest’s senior fares. For years, Southwest has offered one of the best senior airfare discount programs in the U.S., giving travelers ages 65 and up exclusive access to affordable fares for last-minute travel. Southwest senior fares can be booked online, and the way the airline’s website displays fare types make it easy to compare available senior fares with other occasionally cheaper sale fares. Plus, senior fares have no advance-purchase requirement and are completely refundable.

United also has a somewhat useful program for flyers ages 55 and up, Silver Wings Plus, which offers club members special zone fares. Zone fares are not always cheaper than fares available to anyone; they tend to offer the most savings for flights from smaller, out-of-the-way airports. You can learn more by visiting the Silver Wings Plus website.

Whatever you may think of the current state of senior deals, it’s important to always comparison shop for fares—senior fares and fares available to anyone—and not rely on special discounts to get you the lowest price.

Although good senior fares are hard to find, I would still suggest looking for them online (or calling the airline), especially if you’re traveling on a route Southwest flies. If you can be flexible with your travel dates or fly to or from an alternate airport, you may also be able to save.

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