Irene Croft Jr.
Nobody, even those who can most easily afford it, wants to pay full-freight for absurdly inflated first-class domestic airfares, especially in a precarious economic clime when every dollar counts, no matter the size of your wallet. So how do you sit up front without paying a king's ransom?
The airline industry's best-kept secrets are their "Y-Up" and "Q-Up" fares, deeply discounted first-class tickets available for travel only within and between the United States and Canada. They price like a full-fare coach ticket; they read like a coach ticket; but they put you up front with the comfort of more spacious seats, hot meals and complimentary drinks.
Although a knowledgeable travel agent can place you on the path for these elusive fares, many of us like to do our homework online. There's a nifty Web site, www.farecompare.com, that will start you on the yellow brick road to first-class travel at coach prices. This site tracks more than 100,000 of these Y-Up/ Q-Up airfares that are intentionally published by the airlines to look exactly like a coach ticket although the seats are allocated in the premium cabin. I suspect that this little deception allows high-yield business travelers to legitimately and inexpensively skirt a corporate travel prohibition against flying first class.
In any event, Y-Up fares are not the solution for rock-bottom budget fliers; however, as they are very similar in price to the business walk-up and seven-day advance purchase airfares, leisure travelers with moderate bank accounts can splurge without guilt. Since Y-Up airfares are driven by competition within certain markets, you'll have to shop for the best deals.
Go to the FareCompare home page, then scroll way down to Services and click Discount First Class. Type in your departure airport, as in HNL for Honolulu, and look at the resulting matrix chart of nearly 2,800 deeply discounted first-class fares to every airport in the U.S. and Canada for which a special fare is offered.
You can manipulate the column heads — Destination, Airline, Fare Class, Base Fare, Total Fare with taxes and fees, Distance and Price Per Mile (PPM) — as you please. Choose, for instance, to see the fares in ascending order; look at destinations in alphabetical order; or, my favorite, organize the PPM from lowest to highest just to see what the best and worst first-class values are. This week when I checked, the cheapest price per mile was $.12 for a $1,311 roundtrip first-class ticket from Honolulu to Sidney, Nova Scotia, on Westjet Airways. The most expensive was on Northwest Airlines to Walla Walla, Wash., on a first-class ticket of $4,724 that computes at a pricey $.84 per mile flown. And there are lots of choices in between. I love this Web site!
When you click your desired destination, 12 months' worth of fares appear in a chart for you to choose from. Pick the lowest fare within your selected departure and return month to see a page full of itineraries and fares for your selection. When you click the Select button next to your desired itinerary, FareCompare, which does not sell tickets, directs your itinerary request to the relevant airline or an online travel agency for purchase.
From there you can provide passenger and credit card information if you prefer to buy on the Internet. Caveat: Ensure that flights are actually in the first-class cabin on the itinerary review page before you purchase. You will be ticketed electronically and receive a record locator/confirmation number that identifies your itinerary and details of purchase. You're good to go.
What you should know about these special fares:
1. Seat inventory for Y-Up/ Q-Up airfares is almost always available — even on full flights, peak days and times (Mondays, Fridays, Sundays, holidays) or last-minute trips.
2. When purchasing a Y-Up fare, you get a confirmed first-class cabin seat before those hordes of frequent fliers are automatically upgraded within a five-day window.
3. Ask for Y-Up airfares by name, as many airline and travel agents may be unfamiliar with these discounted fares.
4. Most Y-Up airfares are available one-way. If you miss your flight, ask the airline ticket agent to check for a Y-Up that will likely be cheaper than the walk-up coach ticket for the flight replacing the one you missed.
5. In many cases Y-Up airfares are refundable and are always exchangeable.
6. Make sure the planes on your itinerary have a real first-class cabin, which may not be true on any segment flown by a regional jet.
7. Because Y-Up airfares are booked in the first-class cabin, you will earn frequent-flier mileage based on buying a first class ticket — usually twice the mileage award of a coach ticket.
Irene Croft Jr. of Kailua, Kona, is a travel writer and 40-year veteran globetrotter. Her column is published in this section every other week.