Of the many online agencies I know that claim to specialize in premium-class tickets, only three permit online fare searches for specific itineraries: ASAP Tickets Business (www.asaptickets.com), CheapOair (www.cheapoair.com) and Fare Buzz (www.farebuzz.com). All three are full-market online airfare agencies that offer business-class discounts along with other kinds of tickets (but not premium economy).
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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.
What kind of deals can you get? I checked a round trip from San Francisco to Paris in late February:
-- As a benchmark, I used Delta's nonrefundable fare $5,388, all-up, for nonstop flights, as shown on its website. The flights are actually code-shared flights on Air France.
-- None of the three discount agencies could beat that figure by more than a few dollars for nonstop flights on any airline.
-- However, all three quoted all-up round-trip fares in the range of $3,800 to $3,900 for one-stop flights -- some with fairly short connecting times, others with unacceptably long connections.
I suspect those findings are pretty typical of the current marketplace: Your best deals are on connecting itineraries. Discount retail agencies get their tickets on the big lines through wholesale consolidators, and although the lines that supply these consolidators do not want to "dilute" their own nonstop markets, they're perfectly willing to undercut competitors' nonstops fares on itineraries that require connections. Thus, for example, you'll find flights to Paris via London cheaper than London nonstops and flights to London via Paris cheaper than nonstops to Paris. Quite a few of the lower-priced quotes for my test trip used US Airways flights connecting over Charlotte or Philadelphia and Air Canada trips connecting over Toronto.
Do the agencies that don't offer fare search do any better? Many show much lower "sample" fares, but those figures are suspect: They typically don't specify the relevant U.S. gateway, they aren't clear whether some are one-way rather than round trip, and they aren't clear whether they include all taxes and fees.
I suggest a three-step process for finding your best deal:
-- Start by looking for discount business-class deals on the big airlines. These days, many offer two business-class prices -- flexible "full" fares and cheaper nonrefundable fares that may also require advance purchase. That's your benchmark.
-- Next, try one or more of the three agencies that provide a fare search option.
-- Then send in an inquiry to a few of the agencies that ask you to request quotes for a specific itinerary. Make sure you specify if you want a nonstop.
Choose the best combination of schedule and price, including your own assessment of how much extra you have to pay for a nonstop.
Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at email@example.com. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through www.mybusinesstravel.com or www.amazon.com