Airline Fare School # 7 – Circle trips

This is a circle trip:

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– Sacramento to Atlanta (stopover, not connection)
– Atlanta to Cleveland (stopover)
– Cleveland back to Sacramento

And if you’re thinking this is a triangle, not a circle, I completely agree but the industry term is circle trip so we’ll stick with that.

This lesson builds on what you’ve learned before, especially in the preceding chapter about open jaws.

If you haven’t already read that, then I strongly recommend you do so – “AFS # 6 – Open-jaws and Tinkertoys” – and then come back here. On the other hand, if you’ve already read AFS # 6, please step right this way.

Let’s establish context for a circle trip. Why? Well, to go more places, of course!

Lest you think I’m just being flippant, I’m not. Money and time matter. Instead of taking two separate round-trips, it’s more cost and time effective to make two stopovers on the same trip, whether it’s for leisure, business, or half-and-half.

And for business travelers, the circle trip can open windows of opportunity to mix business and leisure travel for those whose companies want them to stay over a Saturday night in order to save money. More on that later.

Regular students of Airline Fare School should know very well by now that one-way fares can be put together in any old combination because there aren’t contingencies of round-trip purchase, minimum stay, requirement of using the same airline, and so on and so forth that apply when using round-trip fares. Since in many markets (also called “city-pairs”) the lowest fare now is purely one-way in nature you may be able to assemble a trip with a mish-mash of separately booked one-way fares on different carriers, by simply selecting the ones that have the best service and price.

In this era however, most people are inclined to stick with one carrier in order to gather as many frequent flier miles as possible. So what happens with fares when you put them together for a circle trip like this?

In AFS # 6, you learned that in open-jaw trips when the lowest fare between each city-pair is a round-trip fare (and you qualify based on advance purchase, minimum stay, etc.), that airline fare systems will take half of each round-trip fare and add it up to produce a fare for the open-jaw trip.

Well, the concept is applied in essentially the same way for domestic circle trips. The system will use the best fare it can find for each of the three legs of the trip, provided all of the usual criteria are met (advance purchase, day of week/time of day, minimum/maximum stay, availability of seat inventory, etc.).

To take it a step further, when you fly domestically on one airline for a purely round-trip journey, an open-jaw trip, or a circle trip, fare rules generally allow any combination of one-way fares or half round-trip fares provided all of the rules for all of the fares are observed.

For those of you who travel for your work and are given incentives (or mandates) to keep the fare low by staying long enough (typically over a Saturday night) to use fares that would otherwise be unavailable, understanding circle trips could be to your advantage as well as your firm’s.

Here’s a made-up example using very real fares.

Sally Salesrep has to go from Sacramento to Houston for business, leaving Wednesday, 21 October. The only nonstop service is on Continental Airlines and the best round-trip fare, if she returns on Friday, 23 October, is about $1038 (see below). However if she were stay overnight in Houston and return on Saturday the fare would drop to only $318.

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The problem is that Sally doesn’t know anyone in Houston and is not the least bit interested in spending any more time in Houston than she absolutely must for work.

The solution is to go somewhere else on Friday and then return to Sacramento on Sunday (or later if she wants to take some time off) to satisfy the minimum stay. Sally has friends in Washington, D.C., so she adds D.C. to her trip.

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The new price for the same flight from Sacramento to Houston on 21 October, a late afternoon flight on 23 October, from Houston to Washington, D.C., and then an afternoon connecting flight on Sunday, 25 October, from D.C. back to Sacramento comes to about $622 (see below). It saves her company over $400 on airfare (plus the cost of Sally’s hotel and meals for Friday night in Houston), Sally doesn’t have to be somewhere she doesn’t want to be, and she enjoys visiting friends in D.C. she wouldn’t otherwise see.

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Sure sounds like a good idea to me and it’s all because she’s using a circle trip.

Here’s a variation on this theme of satisfying the minimum stay requirement with our old buddy, the open-jaw.

Let’s reset the context for Sally.

One of her friends that works for the same company lives in Shreveport, La., and she’ll be in Houston at the same time Sally is. Instead of going to D.C., Sally decides to drive back with her friend and spend the weekend in Shreveport. She’ll fly back on Continental to Sacramento from Shreveport on Sunday afternoon. Now you have an open-jaw: flying into Houston and returning from Shreveport, and staying over a Saturday night. The fare for that would be about $433.

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Two more points are worth understanding.

One is that adding a leisure stop on a business trip in order to meet minimum stay rules doesn’t have to come after the business portion of the trip but could be before it. If you have a business trip Monday through Wednesday you could leave on Friday for your leisure destination, fly on Sunday night or Monday morning to your work destination and then return home on Wednesday. The minimum stay of the Saturday night is still being met.

The other point is that if the airline you are flying for the first and third legs of the trip does not offer acceptable service (price and/or schedule) between the two stopover points (the second leg of the trip) then you could simply book a separate one-way flight on another carrier if it’s better.

Let’s consider the example I used at the beginning of the post to illustrate a circle trip.

United’s service between stop 1 (Atlanta) and stop 2 (Cleveland) requires you change planes in Washington Dulles. You don’t care for that, but you have a choice of nonstops at an attractive price on Delta between Atlanta and Cleveland. So instead of using United, you buy a separate ticket on Delta to fly this leg of the trip. To United it simply looks like you’re open-jawing Atlanta and Cleveland but from your perspective as the one actually taking the trip you have a circle trip made up of one carrier (United) for legs 1 and 3 and another carrier (Delta) for leg 2.

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Remember that when you want to plan an open-jaw or circle trip you need to use the “multi-city” or “multi-destination” option on a website. Or consider paying a service fee and putting it in the lap of a travel agent you trust. It could be money very well-spent.

And don’t forget the Tinkertoys principle of trip planning! Mix up planes, trains, cars, buses, and water transport into a coherent whole for the best trips.

The next subject up on Airline Fare School is a personal favorite yet one that is obscure even to many people in the travel industry. I think you’ll enjoy it and you may find it remarkably useful down the line.

Don’t miss “AFS # 8 – Secret stopovers, Part 1“!

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