Airline Fare School # 11 – Differences between domestic and international fares

1522-AFS11 - plane and globe.jpg

The primary purpose of Airline Fare School is to acquaint you with the rules and structure of airline fares mostly as the system functions within the U.S. Nonetheless I’ve brought in references to international travel in the early chapter on understanding connections and stopovers, as well as more recently in the second and third installments of secret stopovers.

In this chapter I’ll cover some things worth knowing about international fares even if you may never really put them to use.

At root the purpose of fares for international air travel is no different than for domestic travel; they serve to get the passenger from Point A to Point B. However certain features of fares – in particular higher priced full-fare economy, business and first class tickets – have different attributes that don’t exist for U.S. domestic travel.

Let’s start with a quick look at the global airline industry today.

What was once a tightly regulated system marked by largely government owned or controlled flag carriers (Lufthansa, British Airways, Air France, Japan Airlines, etc.), has changed dramatically. Most of the big national carriers have been privatized, and some have merged or been taken over by other carriers. Examples include Air France-KLM, Lufthansa (owner of Austrian, Swiss, and Brussels Airlines), and now the proposed link-up between British and Iberia (Spain’s flag carrier).

Much like what has happened in this country, low-cost/low-fare European air carriers have sprung up with names like Easyjet, Ryanair, Eurofly, Germanwings, Wizzair, etc. to connect the dots. Akin to Southwest, these airlines only play in their own private sandbox; they do not codeshare, accept other airlines’ tickets, or check baggage through to other carriers. Moreover they have very simple fare structures based on point-to-point one-way fares. The increasingly common practice in the U.S. of charging for “extras” here such as checked luggage, meals, and seat assignments began in Europe with these airlines.

New low-fare carriers, coupled with the explosive growth of high-speed rail in short and medium-distance corridors throughout western Europe, have resulted in a troubled environment for many of the big European carriers. Elsewhere in the world the developments have been similar.

At the government level, bilateral agreements between nations that have regulated how many and which carriers could serve international routes and in some cases the fares they could charge, have loosened substantially over the past several decades, particularly between the U.S. and Europe. Now it is much easier for an airline to institute (or discontinue) transatlantic service, and to quickly raise or lower fares to match the competition.

Finally, three large global alliances of airlines have resulted in a kind of schoolyard picking of sides among the Star Alliance (United, Continental, US Airways in the U.S.), oneworld (American), and Skyteam (Delta). The product of these alliances is an analog to what we have here with code-sharing but on a global basis.

In theory, you could fly from Chico to Warsaw all on flight numbers preceded with the UA (United Airlines) code. However you would be using United Express to San Francisco, United or Lufthansa to Frankfurt, and then Lufthansa to Warsaw. If you were on a Lufthansa flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt, then you would not have a seat on even one flight operated under United’s true colors by United personnel.

Is this good or bad? Probably some of each, but on one measure of customer service it is better, as the specific example I gave in the last paragraph illustrates. Being able to fly Lufthansa instead of United on such a long international flight is a big plus. Economy class on United between the U.S. and Europe is like being on a never ending U.S. domestic flight, whereas transatlantic economy class on Lufthansa still retains some sparkle.

In most ways the fare structure for international travel is the same as within the U.S.

Open-jaw trips work pretty much the same way. (Why more people don’t open jaw their trips in Europe is one of the great unexplained travel mysteries to me. The only thing that I can think of that accounts for it is sheer ignorance on the part of the traveling public of the fact that you can open-jaw and still get the lowest available fare.)

Advance purchase and minimum stay requirements apply to discounted fares although both have gotten much easier over the years. It is not unusual to see 3 and 7 day advance purchase requirements on the lowest fares to Europe that once might have had 21 or 30 day advance booking requirements, though finding available inventory for the fare may be a challenge. Some of the examples in the “Secret Stopovers” chapters are partly the result of situations where more stringent advance purchase requirements for discounted domestic travel can be overcome by taking a longer trip that allows you to make a stopover in a domestic city.

One way international fares tend to be relatively much higher for international travel than for domestic travel. However, travel agencies (such as STA Travel) sell lower priced tickets to students, and a traveler of any age can look for a travel agent that resells tickets bought through consolidators. (Consolidators do not sell directly to the public.)

For example, on 24 November when I’m writing this post, the lowest published fare on I could get for travel 2 December from Chico to London on United 6193 to United 930 via SFO is $1589.60. However a travel agent working with a consolidator could get the very same flights for $355 plus her commission (around $400+ to the consumer).

You learned about routings in AFS #2, and how these govern the cities you can connect through on your way from Point A to Point C.

They function in the same way for most discounted international fares. Furthermore many airlines – in particular foreign carriers – that don’t serve most American cities may still publish fares from those unserved cities specifying the permitted routing to connect to a U.S. city from which they do fly.

For example, British Airways publishes competitive fares from Chico to London (and elsewhere in Europe) allowing that United be used between Chico and San Francisco and then, of course, British Airways to London and beyond.


1523-AFS11 - BA fares.jpg


Now instead of routings there is a different system that usually applies only to full-fare economy, business and first class tickets. It is called the mileage system.

Here’s your Cliff Notes summary of the mileage system
– fares between a city-pair are assigned what is called the “maximum permitted mileage” (MPM)
– a passenger can take any combination of flights between the two cities so long as the total mileage does not exceed the MPM

For example, the MPM on United between San Francisco and London is 6,429 even though the nonstop mileage on a flight between the two cities is 5,368. You have another 1000 miles or so you could play around with by stopping over in other cities along the way.

This is the most abbreviated explanation possible of a system that is remarkably complex and of which I have only a basic understanding. Airlines with international service as well as large travel agencies that manage travel for big companies have what are called “rate desks” staffed with experts who have worked for years in the industry.

They subject complicated international itineraries to rigorous scrutiny looking for ways to create the best fare. Rules and terms I can guarantee that you’ve never heard of, such as “higher intermediate point”, “circle trip minimum”, and “point beyond ticketing” are part of this world. Furthermore, big travel agency rate desks examine foreign currency exchange disparities to see whether it would save money to issue separate tickets in different currencies.

For the vast majority of international travelers – leisure or business – none of these issues will ever be a factor because they are using a discounted fares governed by routings. But for the small segment of international business travelers who buy expensive full-fare tickets on short notice for multi-city itineraries, well-trained pros at travel agencies and airlines are fare wizards.

The next chapter is the second to last of the Airline Fare School series. I’m going to show you a couple of ways – one free and the other low-cost – that enable you to get access to the fares and rules that lie at the heart of the airline fare system.

This entry was posted in Airline Fare School and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.