Airline Tactical Fares and the Upgrade Mindset


When airlines get tactical, it’s time to get practical

We thought it was a good time to revisit tactical fares.

A tactical fare (an airline industry technical term) is a fare that an airline intentionally and strategically discounts to move seats it doesn’t expect to sell at full price. A tactical fare’s shelf life is unpredictable, more of a one-off, and targeted to unsold inventory.

These “discounted” fares are affected by a wide range of specific factors, including season, holidays (Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, etc.), the airport of departure (JFK vs. Newark, for example), soft market destinations (London vs Florence), and other reasons.

Back in December 2017, we did a deep dive into this subject. Back then, low Business Class fares to Europe were in the $1,700-$1,800 range and didn’t stick around long. We referred to those fares as “flash” or “anomaly” fares. Unfortunately, we’re not seeing fares that low on major airlines now. These days they’re typically in the $2,400 to $2,800 range. While it’s not 2017 anymore, these tactical fares are still good in this climate of inflation compared to today’s typical high fares to Europe, which can often otherwise be $5,000+.

For example:

Oneworld: On American from New York to Rome, we’ve recently seen tactical fares for about $2,521. When these fares are not available, you can often find prices in the $3,200 to $5,000 range.

SkyTeam: From Los Angeles to Milan, recent tactical fares ran about $2,510. At other times, prices are often in the $3,200 to $5,000 range.

Star Alliance: We’ve seen tactical fares from Orlando to Zurich, on United for about $2,520. Otherwise, prices are often in the $3,200 to $5,000 range.

Tactical Trends

Pricewise, airline travel is such a dynamic industry. So, trying to view it like it’s a walrus lazing on a rock is a huge mistake. With over a million fare changes every day around the world, it’s more like a cheetah with wings and the reflexes of a condylostylus.*

The airline industry moves lightning-fast

That means you have to move fast too! And keep your eyes wide open for movement in the jungle. Let’s zoom in our binoculars on the current market’s tactical fare animals.

Today, fare dips seem to be the trend, although they are sporadic. So, it’s good to know where these volatile fare markets are. Plus, you need to be “upgrade-open-minded” to take advantage of them.

We’ve recently seen great low “Business Class” fare routes from all over the U.S. to Brussels starting at $2,525, Florence at $2,529, Frankfurt at $2,001, Lisbon at $1,639, Madrid at $1,782, Malaga at $2,524, Naples at $2,522, and Paris at $1,897.

So if you want to land these low tactical fares to Europe, you’ll need to be flexible and keep a close eye on FCF alerts for the best fares.

Speaking of which, our alerts are a simple tool in our overarching philosophy of either paying less for upcoming premium travel or getting a better deal with what you already booked. We call this “upgrading,” which is another way of saying that you’ve improved your travel situation.

When fares are high, more workarounds below about tactical fare mindset strategies for the upgrade mindful, traveler.

Tactical Fares: When Airlines Have a Sale and Don’t Tell Anyone

Airlines aren’t like Macy’s running a commercial every hour on your television. When airlines have a sale, they’re very particular about who knows about it.

That’s because Peter in 3B would be incandescent with fury if he knew that Paul next to him in 3A paid $1,574+ less for his seat.

That’s what tactical fares can do: They rob Peter to pay Paul.

Take the Chicago-to-Frankfurt route. United’s computers forecast some empty seats in Business Class, so they offer those traveling from Milwaukee to Frankfurt (who are willing to fly via Chicago) a spectacular deal to fill those seats. The difference is 63 miles and 35% LESS when departing from Milwaukee vs Chicago.

The shortcut to happiness? Be Paul, not Peter. screenshot
Business Class Fare $4,519 screenshot
Milwaukee-Frankfurt via chicago
Business Class Fare $2,945

Holiday Tactical Fares

Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Eve are all examples of holiday tactical fare discounting. It’s a time when many business travelers stay at home, so airlines historically have more unsold premium seats.

Holiday fares back in 2020 were in the $1,900 to $2,250 range from both the East and West Coast to Europe. This year, holiday travel saw higher than usual fares in the $2,500 to $3,000 range from all over the U.S. Instead of the typical short travel window from November 20 to December 3 for Thanksgiving and December 18 to January 4 for Christmas, the window expanded for travel throughout November, December, and January, as well as a short seven–10-day window both to and from Europe for Easter at the end of March to mid-April, which is still valid on many routes.

Below is a sample of Tactical Business Class fares for travel from Chicago to Amsterdam during the Easter holiday for $2,891, which typically go for $3,930 to $4,973 just one week later, from early April onward. That’s a savings of up to 42%.

Sample of Easter Tactical Fares

There are still several routes offering these low-cost tactical Easter holiday fares, which you can find in FCF’s newsroom.

This is great for the upgrade-mindful person who is flexible with their dates. Is that you? If so, this is a good opportunity to tick off your bucket list in no particular order.

If Amsterdam or Frankfurt are on sale — go there or use one of them as a bridge route to another nearby destination that is on your bucket list.

Departure-Specific Tactical Fares

Singapore Airlines charges $11,289 for a First Class round-trip fare from New York to Frankfurt. Lufthansa charges $7,549. The difference, apart from the price? The Lufthansa flight leaves from Newark, while the Singapore flight leaves from JFK. So, the upgrade-mindful are aware of how an airport location can yield big savings. They don’t pull the shutters down when JFK isn’t on the table. If a cheaper fare appears from Hartford, they might spend $120 on a limo to Hartford to save $3,740 on the fare.

Destination-Specific Tactical Fares

While London and Paris might be on sale because of excess capacity, other cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Brussels, Bucharest, Budapest, Copenhagen, Geneva, Lisbon, Oslo, Vienna, and Warsaw are examples of softer markets, and they’re all prone to market-specific tactical fares.

The airlines look for ways to bolster sales to those destinations when they need to. The upgrade-mindless person says: “I don’t want to go to Geneva, I want to go to Paris.” And so, like Swiss chocolate melting in the sun, there goes a great opportunity. The Upgrade Mindful, on the other hand, knows that most European cities are relatively close to each other. Flights within Europe are cheap, and even free at times when you fly within airline alliances. For example: the New York-Amsterdam route goes for $2,709 round-trip, compared to Prague for $3,953. That’s a savings of $1,244 (31%).

It’s closer than you think.

Close In Tactical Fares

For some reason that only airline execs could tell you, these fares seem to defy the norm when it comes to advance-purchase requirements. For example, flying from Houston to London nonstop in Business Class on major airlines such as American, Delta, KLM, Lufthansa, and United goes for between $3,500 and $3,700, whereas the Houston-to-Paris route is $5,750 to $6,600 on short notice.

Are you active or passive when it comes to fares? Maybe it’s time to consider what airlines are offering, and not just what you initially want. This is the Upgrade Mindset at work: being flexible, opportunistic, and taking advantage of the airlines’ own tactical game.

See you up front.

*Glad you asked. A condylostylus is a species of fly with a reflex response time of less than 5 milliseconds. For comparison, it takes us at least 100 milliseconds to blink our eyes.

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