I suspect that most visitors to this site are looking for the lowest possible fares, not a comfortable flight. But some of you would certainly like to ride up front—where the seats are roomy enough to accommodate adults without crowding and the service is what it used to be—if you didn’t have to pay up to 20 times the economy fare. A few weeks ago a reader put it this way:
“I believe that most of the new business-class-only airlines are out of business. Where can I now find a reasonably priced business class ticket from the U.S. to Europe?”
The short answer is that one business-class-only airline is still operating to Europe: OpenSkies, flying from New York (JFK and Newark) to Paris. According to industry rumor, the airline’s parent corporation is not happy with OpenSkies’ financial performance and is considering folding it. For now, however, it’s still taking reservations. For reference, it currently quotes restricted round-trip fares for a trip in mid-October at $1,358 plus tax in “Biz Seat” (lots of room, but not lie-flat) and $2,555 plus tax in “Biz Bed” (full-flat recline). I believe that even if the airline does fold, ticket holders will be accommodated on another line at no extra charge, so if this deal looks good, go for it.
Although not a separate airline, British Airways just started its new all-business-class flights from London’s close-in City Airport to New York. Eastbound flights operate nonstop, but westbound flights stop in Ireland to take on fuel—runways at London City are too short for the A318 to take off with a full fuel load. The upside, however, is that you can clear U.S. customs and immigration in Ireland, so your arrival in New York is like a domestic arrival.
As to the question of getting a price break, you have two main options: published promotions on one of the big airlines or discounted tickets through specialist discount agencies. To check out the options, I started with round-trips on October 21-28, but I adjusted plus or minus a few days when lower fares were available.
As with economy seats, the big lines frequently announce short-term airfare “sales,” usually with a very short purchase window. Once rare, such promotions are now more common, a reaction to the really weak business travel market in general and the need to fill seats. Even when the airlines offer no promotions, many big liens now routinely offer reduced-price business class tickets with various typical restrictions.
Fully flexible business class round-trip tickets from the U.S. to Europe list from about $10,000 to close to $14,000, depending on route. Here are some of the restricted-fare deals I found for the test period (all exclusive of tax but including phony “fuel surcharges,” if any):
- Aer Lingus: Boston-Dublin, $4,454
- Air Canada: Toronto-London, $3,457 US
- Air France: San Francisco-Paris, $4,708
- Airberlin: (German low-fare line, formerly LTU), Ft. Myers-Dusseldorf, $5,144
- American: Chicago-London, $4,589
- British Airways: Boston-London, $2,826
- Continental: Houston-Paris, $3,164
- Delta: Atlanta-Paris, $3,612
- Lufthansa: Los Angeles-Frankfurt, $3,500
- Singapore: New York-Frankfurt, $2,621
- Virgin Atlantic: New York-London, $3,218
- United: Chicago-Zurich, $3,684
- US Airways: Philadelphia-Rome, $3,060
In several instances, the airline’s website displayed a notice that only one or two seats remained for sale at the stated price. In general, these nonrefundable fares are about one-third of the fully flexible fares, but still three to six times the cost of nonrefundable economy tickets.
“Discount” Business Class Agencies
More than a dozen online agencies actively advertise that they sell “discounted” business (and first) class tickets. Only two that I found—1st-Air and Wholesale Flights—allow an online fare search for a specified itinerary. Most display only sample fares and ask you to submit an itinerary for a quote by return email or phone; a few claim discounts, but provide no samples at all. Some identify airlines during search; others do not. Two say they also sell discounted premium economy seats. I checked for prices for trips comparable to those I for the big lines:
- 1st-Air: San Francisco-Paris, $4,365, permits fare search, specifies airline, also handles premium economy. Agency claims “savings” of up to 20 percent additional for travelers who become “Passport Premiere” members at $349 per year.
- AccessFares: New York-London, $1,675, sample fares only.
- AOW: New York-Paris, from $1,949, sample fares only.
- ASAP Tickets: U.S.-Dublin, $1,975, sample fares, supposedly allows fare search, but system failed each time I tested.
- CheapOair: Chicago-Frankfurt, $2,310, sample fares only, specifies airline.
- Corporate Airfares: Seattle-Paris, $2,700, sample fares only, specifies airline.
- Executive Class Travel : U.S. to Europe, $2,999, sample fares only.
- Fare Buzz: U.S. to Paris, from $1,250, sample fares only.
- Horizon Travel: Dallas-Ft Worth – Rome, $2,430, sample fares only.
- Join Us Travel: U.S. to Europe, from $2,395, sample fares only.
- The Travel Team: Europe from $1,799 from East Coast, from $2,299 from Midwest, from $2,599 from West Coast, sample fares only, also handles premium economy.
- Wholesale Flights: New York-Paris, $1,702, permits fare search, specifies airline.
As far as I know, none of these agencies is a coupon broker that arranges supposedly discounted premium air travel by selling frequent flyer awards. Given the difficulty of scoring award seats, I can’t recommend using coupon brokers at this point.
In most cases, you don’t know the airline until you’re into the purchase process. Therefore, you can’t be sure that the cheapest available ticket is on a nonstop flight, even on routes where nonstops are available. Also, traditionally, some of the best deals have been on the U.S.-to-Europe leg of flights ultimately headed to/from Asia, as on Air India’s flights from Newark or Chicago to Frankfurt. Also, at least in past years, some of the biggest discounts have been on Canadian lines, with stops (and plane changes) at Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver.
Although this report focuses on Europe, all of the listed agencies also sell tickets to other parts of the world. And, of course, the big airlines based outside of Europe and the U.S. also run occasional business class promotions.
Another warning: I’ve seen some “discount” agency postings that exclude fuel surcharges from their featured prices. This practice, illegal in the U.S., is a scam, and I suggest not dealing with any agency that excludes these phony charges from its base fare figures.
Other Information Sources
I’ve found three online sources of information claiming to focus on finding good business-class deals, but content is disappointing:
- Upgrade: Travel Better, a blog, nominally focuses on upgrades, but current coverage is mostly news items about airline stuff, generally.
- Upgrade Success, a blog, posts data on upgrade success rates as reported by contributors but nothing else.
- First Class Flyer issues a free email newsletter, but it has no useful content: Instead, it’s just a promotion for $97 yearly membership.
Don’t expect any genuine “fly business-class for the price of economy” opportunities. You’ll always pay more—typically two to three times as much. If you’re interested in comfortable flying at more reasonable prices, consider premium economy as an option—far less opulent than today’s international business class, but also a lot cheaper.
Overall, given the broad availability, the best place to start looking for discount business class deals is on the big airlines. If you can live with nonrefundability and (occasionally) advance purchase, you can currently find lots of seats for about one-third of the full-fare price. Once you’ve found the best big-line deal, then can see if any discounters can beat it.