Barnett on Business Travel



January 29, 2004 -- One wise way to save big money on airfares today is also incredibly simple. Pick your destination, check the Internet for the best available round-trip fares and then buy two one-way tickets on two airlines over the phone. The few extra minutes of shopping are worth it regardless of whether you're a self-employed entrepreneur picking up your own travel tabs or reimbursed by a cost-conscious corporation.

I recently had to fly from the San Francisco Bay Area to New Orleans, but missed the 14-day cutoff for a bargain ticket. My first instinct was to call Southwest, but its cheapest fare was $282 one-way--or $564 roundtrip from Oakland.

Southwest wanted nearly $600 for a nonstop outbound flight and a one-stop return flight. I dug deep into the Web site and called a Southwest reservations agent, but could not unearth any lower fare. Only a rookie or a plutocrat would pony up that kind of money today for an advance-purchase, bare-bones, grab-any-seat-you-can flight.

So I checked, punched in my dates and preferred travel times and searched for the lowest fares. Now bear with me while I crunch the numbers. Orbitz showed 72 different flight and fare combinations. The top price? $703 roundtrip. Its rock-bottom rate, $331 roundtrip, was a 42 percent savings over Southwest's price--but I had to fly two different airlines. No problem. The outbound flight was on Frontier Airlines with a plane change at its Denver hub. Fine, Frontier is one of the best discounters in the skies and I can live with a connecting flight. But the return trip for this money-saving itinerary was on low-fare AirTran. It also made a connection--in Atlanta.

That's right. Orbitz's best fare would cost me plenty of wasted time. To fly home to San Francisco from New Orleans, Orbitz suggested that I fly nearly two hours eastbound to Atlanta, change planes, then travel nearly coast-to-coast westbound--an 8-hour, 20-minute haul airport to airport.

I also checked Its lowest fare was $318 for an AirTran flight that required Atlanta connections in both directions. That would have added a minimum of five more hours to the roundtrip, assuming no weather or mechanical delays. Ridiculous.

Instead, I tried something the major airlines have long avoided like the plague. I bought a one-way fare on that early-morning Frontier flight out of San Francisco for $131 and matched it with a one-way America West return flight from New Orleans that took off at the civilized hour of 8 a.m. and stopped in Las Vegas. That price was $136. So for $267 total--or less than half the $564 Southwest quoted for virtually the same trip, I got pre-assigned aisle seats on all four flights and flight times that worked with my schedule.

What's more, the reservations agents for both Frontier and America West sounded genuinely grateful for my business, even though each airline was only getting 133 or so of my dollars.

You can credit pioneering discount carriers like California's Pacific Southwest Airlines for having the foresight and flexibility to sell reasonably priced one-way tickets without forcing a traveler to buy a roundtrip itinerary. Most airlines then would sell you a one-way ticket, but it was often pricier than one leg of a full-fare roundtrip. That's a rip-off that still exists today.

A Delta Air Lines reservations agent recently quoted me $325 for a seven-day advance-purchase San Francisco-to-Atlanta roundtrip. The one-way price was $209. Hardly half-price, but both fares were cheaper than I expected. The candid Delta agent told me that "on more than 50 percent of Delta's flights, the one-way fares are more than half as expensive as the roundtrip. Some one-ways are two or three times higher. It's crazy."

United Airlines does sell one-way tickets at half the price--but not as a standard policy. The airline quoted $686 about 10 days before departure for a San Francisco-to-New Orleans roundtrip and would not discount it for a connecting flight. Yet it would sell a one-way ticket at $343. But a United reservations agent told me that "rarely" are its one-way fares exactly half the roundtrip fare. "You got lucky," she said.

One way for travelers to avoid the lunacy, cut costs and cobble together an itinerary that fits their schedule is to factor in a JetBlue Airways flight whenever possible. That's especially true now that JetBlue's $99 one-way fares have plunged to $69 and $79 on certain transcontinental and East Coast routes. Match it up with another discounter's flight to a city not on JetBlue's route map and you'll find that the cost of flying can be less than the price of a Greyhound Bus ticket and a lot lower than Amtrak. The same strategy can work with other discount carriers, too.

Sure, this shopping strategy can chew up some personal time, but unless you work for a Fortune 500 outfit that reimburses your travel costs, no questions asked, why toss away good money on needlessly bloated airfares?

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.