Most people of a certain age know about the airfare discounts we fall heir to when we pass 62. But now, like almost everything else available to the increasing older population, the small type, while getting smaller, is also growing longer, and the asterisks are proliferating. More than that, airline programs are much less alike than they used to be.
Two years ago, all the airlines offered seniors 10 percent discounts for any published fare - which they still do - plus senior books with coupons to be used in lieu of a ticket. Prices and conditions were much the same. Now there are four airline "clubs" with other sorts of offers, and the coupon books cost more and have new rules.
If you use different airlines, you might as well take the 10 percent discount, enhancing it by using promotional fares requiring purchase far in advance. If you are flexible about days of travel, travel agents can maximize the advantage.
Here is what's available in senior airline discounts now.
Four airlines have programs - "clubs" - for seniors that involve paying to join: United, which has just revised its club-fare system; Continental; Delta; and American, which is not open to membership now but is expected to reopen in the spring.
* United's program is called Silver Wings Plus and is open to people aged 55 and over who belong to the airline's frequent-flier plan. A lifetime Silver Wings membership costs $225; a two-year membership is $75. The basic benefit is a set of four certificates that permit purchase of four reduced-fare round-trip tickets, all for the member or two for the member and two for a traveling companion of any age.
A new system uses mileage and the day of the week to set the fare. The lowest fare, for a round trip totaling 500 miles, is $98 from Monday to Thursday, $118 Friday to Sunday, airport charges and departure taxes not included. A 6,000- to 7,000-mile round trip, for example, from Colorado Springs to Honolulu, has prices of $598 and $618. The recent lowest fares on this route, with the 10 percent senior discount, were $683 and $751.
Tickets must be bought 14 days in advance, and there are length-of-stay requirements and blackout dates. These memberships come with other discounts and coupons for travel, hotels and cruises. Members may buy four additional certificates for $25. United Silver Wings Plus: 800-720-1765 or www.silverwingsplus.com.
* Continental's program, Freedom Flight Club, has the virtue of avoiding asterisks on its offers other than those that exist for the basic ticket. People 62 and over who join get 15 percent or 20 percent off any fare the airline offers, first class included, with no blackout dates.
A membership for domestic travel costs $75 a year; for travel outside the United States, $125. For travel in the United States, to Mexico, Central and South America, Canada and the Caribbean, the discount is 20 percent Monday to Thursday and on Saturday; 15 percent Friday and Sunday. For tickets to Europe, the 15 percent applies Friday, Saturday and Sunday; 20 percent Monday to Thursday. This plan does not accommodate a companion. Continental Freedom Flight Club: 800-441-1135 or www.flycontinental.com.
* Delta uses the zone system for its Skywise Program. This also covers both first-class and coach tickets. The cheapest coach ticket, $118 round trip, would provide a trip from one place to another in the Southeast: North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.
From the Northeast to California, the round-trip fare would be $298; to Hawaii or Alaska, $658. Annual membership is $40, but Delta, like American, closes membership at an undisclosed level.
Each member 62 or over may enroll up to three companions of any age for $25 each. Saturday night stays are required, with a maximum stay of 30 days and no blackout dates. Skywise does not apply on Delta Express or the Delta Shuttle. Delta Skywise: 800-325-3750 or www.delta-air.com/skywise.
* American Airlines calls its 62-and-over program the AActive American Traveler Club. This year, it accepted members from June 1 to the end of October. Domestic and international fares are based on the zone system, starting at $98 for short hops Monday to Thursday, and $20 more each way for Friday, Saturday or Sunday travel.
Membership was $40 for the person over 62, or $70 for the senior and a companion of any age. Membership will open again in the spring; names are taken for a waiting list. American Airlines AActive American Traveler Club: 800-421-5600 or www.amrcorp.com.
The seven major airlines all sell coupons in books of four to those over 62, each valid for a year for a one-way trip in the lower 48 states and sometimes farther afield. For confirmed seats, reservations must be made 14 days in advance.
Coupon books are worth having in two circumstances, even if the prices do not beat every promotional fare. One case is when a senior makes an annual trip to someplace warm, for example, and does not plan to return for a few months. Some deep-discount tickets have a 30-day limit for the return trip. But coupons can be used one at a time.
The second circumstance is an emergency, when the traveler can take a coupon to the airport and stand by for a seat.
* Northwest Airlines' Northbest book of four coupons costs $540. They are valid in all 50 states and to and from Canada. Extra coupons are required for greater distances. 800-692-6961 or www .nwa .com.
* Trans World Airlines' Senior Travel Pak costs $548 for four, $1,032 for eight, and covers the lower 48 states; Hawaii; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Montego Bay, Jamaica; Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic; and Toronto. A pack for a companion of any age costs $648 for four, $1,132 for eight. 800-221-2000 or www.twa.com.
* American Airlines' coupons cost $596 for four; the lower 48 states and Hawaii are covered. 800-237-7981.
* US Airways' book of four coupons costs $579. The coupon holder may also use them to take along up to two grandchildren aged 2 through 11. 800-428-4322.
* Continental sells its four-coupon book for $579, books of eight for $1,079. These cover the lower 48 states, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Alaska and Hawaii require two coupons each way. 800-441-1135.
* United's books of four coupons are $596, as are Delta's. For information, call United at 800-633-6563, Delta at 800-325-3750.
Several smaller airlines also sell coupons. Listings (but not prices) are in "Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures That You Absolutely Can't Get Unless You're Over 50" by Joan Rattner Heilman, a paperback published by Contemporary Books, in its 10th edition. The book may be ordered for $15.50, postage paid, from Morton Booksellers, 812 Stuart Avenue, Mamaroneck, N.Y. 10543.
Pub Date: 12/27/98