The downturn of business travel creates an unexpected gift for vacationers: Cheap first-class and business-class tickets in big-city markets abound with airlines no longer holding back premium seats for corporate customers.
Fare-watchers say there are great bargains on roomy seats this summer and into the fall—not to beach destinations but to cities that typically attract corporate fliers. Airlines expect some rebound in business travel later this year. Until that happens, the discounting is extreme.
“I’ve never seen anything quite this volatile on pricing,” says Rick Seaney, chief executive of 3Victors, a Dallas data firm that tracks airline pricing. His research found first-class and business-class fares 20% to 70% below the same seats on comparable dates in 2019, with savings of as much as $4,000.
One particular bargain opportunity: business class to Europe. The European Union agreed last week to let countries lift restrictions on nonessential travel from the U.S. Some, like Italy, Greece, Spain and Croatia, already have opened up for vaccinated U.S. travelers.
And some vacationers are betting on locking in cheap tickets now and hoping the rest of Europe will open to trans-Atlantic visitors in the months ahead. (Of course, there are still risks to travel with a rapidly spreading virus variant threatening to set back recovery in Europe and elsewhere.)
Jack Ezon, founder and managing partner at Embark Beyond, a luxury-travel adviser, says his company has been booking business-class seats to Rome for about $1,800 round trip, cheaper than premium seats on much shorter flights to the Turks and Caicos Islands or Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Clients are calling his agents when they hear of deals and agents are contacting clients about the business-class discounts. Mr. Ezon thinks the deals are short-term—seats will sell out for summer and fall and then things will get back to normal.
“The value is tremendous and it’s only encouraging international travel, which is great,” he says.
Even short trips offer eye-popping luxury deals. Edith Herrera, a 29-year-old financial strategist from San Francisco, jumped at first-class seats on Alaska Airlines to Las Vegas for $150 each way—only $60 more per flight than standard coach, and the coach fare didn’t include a checked bag.
“I was honestly in disbelief at the pricing,” she says. “I will usually only splurge on business class for long flights, since I’m tall and want the extra leg room.”
A frequent traveler before the pandemic, Ms. Herrera says she’s “never seen rates be so low for first-class flights.”
Mr. Seaney says she’s basically correct—fares in many markets have gone up with the travel surge, but some prices for first- and business-class sit at historic lows.
Travelers won’t find great discounts everywhere they want to go. Beach destinations are already priced “super high,” he says.
“It’s not like American, Delta and United have deals on nonstop routes across the board. It’s very route-specific,” he says. “My guess is it’s probably going to be that way for the foreseeable future, especially on long-haul.”
From Chicago to London, Mr. Seaney says American has been offering business-class tickets as low as $2,389 for trips in September, less than half the price for the same trip in 2019.
Between New York and Paris, business-class tickets for September can be had for $1,662 on La Compagnie, a French airline offering all-business-class flights. That’s 68% cheaper than the 2019 price. New York to Vienna on Austrian Airlines in business class priced out at $1,861 for September travel, or 70% less than in 2019.
The discounts aren’t as great for domestic first class, but they are significant. A Chicago-Atlanta trip on Delta was available in both July and August for $407 round trip when Mr. Seaney examined pricing data for this story. That was 40% cheaper than the lowest price in 2019 for the same trip.
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Mr. Seaney says airlines have dropped restrictions they put up on ultracheap first-class and business-class deals that normally would prevent leisure travelers from seeing the best prices. Knowing that demand for the front of the airplane will be strong, airlines set available inventory of their lowest prices at zero so the cheap fares never show up. But that’s changed.
“The fences are down for business travel,” he says. “Cheap prices are available even at the last minute.”
Indeed, travel agencies say leisure travelers have been acting more like business travelers by booking trips closer to departure, since there’s been so much uncertainty with travel restrictions.
Travelers are likely to see continued low prices for trips starting in late August through fall as kids go back to school and vacations end. Traditionally business travelers then fill planes. While there likely will be increased business travel, it will still be depressed compared with 2019.
“In the business-class cabin, they need to put some people in those seats. I think you’ll see some good deals there,” Mr. Seaney says.
Airlines are discounting business-class and first-class seats because business-travel demand remains depressed. Here are some examples comparing prices today vs. the same time in 2019.
New York-Miami American & United July and August—$535 vs. $815 (-34.4% drop in price)
New York-Kansas City, Mo. Delta in August—$407 vs. $625 (-34.9%)
Chicago-Atlanta Delta in July and August—$407 vs. $675 (-39.7%)
Chicago-Orlando United in August—$565 vs. $720 (-21.5%)
Chicago-Portland, Ore. Alaska in July and August—$608 vs. $890 (-31.7%)
INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS CLASS
New York-Barcelona American in September—$1,841 vs. $5,200 (-64.6%)
New York-Krakow, Poland LOT Polish in September—$1,944 vs. $5,325 (-63.5%)
New York-Vienna Austrian in September—$1,861 vs. $6,211 (-70%)
New York-Paris La Compagnie in September—$1,662 vs. $5,215 (-68.1%)
Chicago-London American in September—$2,389 vs. $4,925 (-51.5%)
Chicago-Madrid Iberia in September—$2,389 vs. $4,400 (-45.7%)
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