"Status fares" provide discounted airline tickets based on who you are rather than how you're flying. Senior citizens, children, students, active military, employees of certain corporations, and bereaved persons all qualify for these discounts.
Much to our disappointment, most airlines have eliminated long-standing discount programs for seniors; however, some are still intact (such as America West) or newly created. In general, senior citizens can receive a standard 10% discount on fares from U.S. and international airlines. Several carriers also operate special programs for seniors that allow for more significant savings. The travel site Smarter Living (www.smarterliving.com/senior) monitors senior discounts on dozens of airlines.
Ways for Seniors to Save
There are several other ways for seniors to find cheap flights. Because most seniors do not have to report to work on a daily basis, they make perfect candidates for courier flights, where you can receive deep discounts--and sometimes even free fares--by allowing a courier operator to use your luggage allowance. One minor drawback: You'll need to pack economically to fit your belongings into one carry-on. Flights also often come up only at the last minute. But your schedule is likely to be more flexible than that of younger travelers.
By the same reasoning, seniors are much better able to take advantage of the last-minute sales that airlines offer to fill up unsold seats. By all means, sign up for E-saver programs with your favorite airlines for vastly reduced fares, even on international flights, for travel the following weekend. Also be sure to check the newspaper for late-breaking flight discounts.
Finally, if you've got all day and love to get away, make a habit of volunteering your seat on overbooked flights. Chances are you'll only have to wait a few more hours for the next flight out, and you'll receive free tickets for future travel to other destinations.
You can also take advantage of the myriad organizations, publications, and tour operators that cater to senior citizens. Though most won't entitle you to discounted airfares per se, many do purchase airline tickets in bulk--usually at relatively low rates--as part of package-travel programs for older travelers.
Grand Circle Travel is one of the hundreds of travel agencies specializing in package vacations for seniors, 347 Congress St., Suite 3A, Boston, MA 02210 (tel. 800/221-2610 or 617/350-7500; www.gct.com). While you can save on airfare through many of these packages, however, be aware that they are often of the tour-bus variety, with free trips thrown in for those who can organize a group of 10 or more. If you prefer more independent travel, you should probably consult a regular travel agent.
If you want fare discounts for something more than the average vacation or guided tour, try Elderhostel, 75 Federal St., Boston, MA 02110-1941 (tel. 877/426-8056; www.elderhostel.org), or the University of New Hampshire's Interhostel (tel. 800/733-9753), both variations on the same theme: educational travel for senior citizens. On these escorted tours, the days are packed with seminars, lectures, and field trips, and the sightseeing is all led by academic experts. Elderhostel arranges study programs for people 55 and over (and a spouse or companion of any age) in the United States and in 77 countries around the world, including Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific. Most courses last about 3 weeks and many include airfare, accommodations in student dormitories or modest inns, meals, and tuition. Write or call for a free catalog, which lists upcoming courses and destinations. Interhostel takes travelers 50 and over (with companions over 40), and offers 2- and 3-week trips, mostly international. The courses in both these programs are ungraded, involve no homework, and often focus on the liberal arts. They're not luxury vacations, but they're fun and fulfilling.
Publications for Traveling Seniors
Two recently published books provide good general advice and contacts for the savvy senior traveler. Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures That You Absolutely Can't Get Unless You're Over 50 (McGraw Hill) has been revised regularly for a decade, and Travel Unlimited: Uncommon Adventures for the Mature Traveler (Avalon) focuses on off-the-beaten-path trips like Alaskan eco-tours and African safaris. Also check out your newsstand for the quarterly magazine Travel 50 & Beyond (www.travel50andbeyond.com).
Another helpful publication is 101 Tips for Mature Travelers, available from Grand Circle Travel, 347 Congress St., Suite 3A, Boston, MA 02210 (tel. 800/221-2610 or 617/350-7500; fax 617/346-6700; www.gct.com).
While students don't qualify for nearly as many price breaks as senior citizens, a few airlines, travel agencies, and associations make it easier for young people to see the world on a shoestring budget. The travel site Smarter Living (www.smarterliving.com/student) monitors deals for students. Here are some of the best:
Delta and US Airways offer discounted youth fares on their shuttle services between Boston, Washington, and New York City. US Airways requires that passengers be between the ages of 12 and 24 and not travel during rush hours (before 10am, and 2:01-6:59pm weekdays). US Airways charges $78 round-trip to or from New York if you book online; packs of four one-way tickets between Boston and Washington are $343. Delta's $98 round-trip fare applies to passengers ages 2 to 22, except during rush hours, and a Friday night stay is required. Book by calling the airlines or through Council Travel.
AirTran's X-Fares program lets travelers from 18 to 22 stand by on any AirTran flight for $52 per segment, plus around $5 in fees. No checked baggage is allowed. For details, call tel. 888/493-2737.
Student Travel Agencies
Many airlines, especially international airlines, offer student fares that are only available through a travel agent. The best resource for students is the Council on International Educational Exchange, or CIEE. Their travel branch (recently acquired by STA Travel, www.sta.com), Council Travel Service (CTS) (tel. 800/226-8624; www.counciltravel.com), is the biggest student travel agency operation in the world. They can also set you up with an ID card that will entitle you to other travel discounts. Ask them for a list of CTS offices in major cities so you can keep the discounts flowing (and aid lines open) as you travel.
From CIEE you can obtain the student traveler's best friend, the $22 International Student Identity Card (ISIC). This card gets you cut rates at museums, tourist attractions, railway lines, airlines, and almost anywhere else a student tourist might go. It also provides you with basic health and life insurance and a 24-hour help line. If you're no longer a student but are still under 26 years of age, you can get a "GO 25" card from the same outfit, which will entitle you to insurance and some discounts, but not student admission prices in museums.
In Canada, Travel CUTS, with offices in nearly every major city in the country (tel. 866/246-9762 or 416/614-2887; www.travelcuts.com), offers similar services.
Although a child younger than 2 years old can ride for free on a parent's lap on domestic flights, your infant will be much safer booked in a separate, discounted seat and secured in an FAA-endorsed restraining device. All major domestic airlines except Southwest now offer 50% off the parent's fare for infant seats (for children 2 years of age or younger, except on Continental, which gives children under 3 infant discounts or allows them to ride free on a parent's lap), to make it more affordable for you to reserve a separate adjacent seat and a restraining device for your baby. (Southwest does offer infant fares, but at variable discount rates.)
If a seat adjacent to yours is available, the child can also sit there free of charge. When you check in, ask if the flight is crowded. If it isn't, explain your situation to the agent and ask if you can reserve two seats--or simply move to two empty adjacent seats once the plane is boarded. You might want to shop around before you buy your ticket and deliberately book a flight that's not very busy. Ask the reservationist which flights tend to be most full and avoid those.
On international journeys, children may not ride free on parents' laps. On flights overseas, a lap fare usually costs 10% of the parent's ticket (check each carrier's specific policy). Children who fall below the airline's age limit (which ranges from ages 11-15 years) can purchase international fares at 50% to 75% of the lowest coach fare in certain markets. Some of the foreign carriers make even greater allowances for children.
Northwest provides unusual "adoption fares" for parents heading abroad to pick up adopted children--50% to 65% off undiscounted fares, with great flexibility on the tickets. See www.nwa.com/features/adopt.shtml or call tel. 800/322-4162.
If a child is traveling alone: Individual airline policies differ, but for the most part children ages 5 to 11 pay the regular adult fare. Kids from 5 to 7 can generally travel alone as unaccompanied minors only on flights without a change of planes; children 8 and older can usually travel on any flight. An unaccompanied minor gets an escort from the airlines--a flight attendant who seats the child, watches over her during the flight, and escorts her to the appropriate connecting gate or to the adult who will pick her up. Fees for the service vary widely, from $30 to upwards of $90, depending on the airline, and whether the flight is domestic or international.
Active-duty military can get discounts of up to 50% off regular fares with their white (formerly green) identification cards. Special rates are also available to military dependents and personnel within 7 days of discharge (bring your papers). Alert your travel agent to your military status.
Corporate Bulk Fares
The deals that large companies make to get discount business fares can often trickle down to their employees. Employees of Disney and its subsidiaries, for instance, get 40% off the lowest available fares on United when they book through their corporate travel desk. If you work for a large company, inquire whether your corporate travel desk handles personal travel.
Airlines try to ease the pain of death and illness by offering discounted, last-minute tickets to travelers who can produce a doctor's note or the name and number of a funeral home. These tickets are fully refundable and changeable, unlike most discount tickets. But they're rarely the cheapest you can find. Hotwire, Priceline, and discount airlines can usually beat major airlines' bereavement fares--though remember that those tickets come with sharp restrictions on refunds and exchanges.