The Lowdown on Charter Flights

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Not just a relic of the 1970s, charter flights offer big savings for savvy travelers

It's a bit of advice tossed off by so-called travel experts all the time: "When you're trying to save money, look into a charter flight." As if they were listed in the phone book. Even the Web fails to be much help in finding schedules and prices.

What exactly is a charter flight? 

Conventional airlines, including large carriers like United and smaller ones like Spirit and JetBlue, choose their routes and schedule regular departures. With charters, itineraries are set not by the airplane owner but by another party--possibly a very rich individual, but more often a tour operator that charters the plane. The latter scenario is the one that interests people who aren't CEOs or movie stars. "Think of the charter flight like a taxicab," said Betty Shotton, CEO of Sea Air, which operates charter flights to and from North Carolina's Outer Banks. "You pay the driver the same total whether there's one person or five. The more people, the cheaper it is per person." The names of some charter outfits sound like pseudonyms in a novel--Pace Airlines, North American Airlines, and Ryan International are a few examples--but there's little difference from the conventional carriers when it comes to safety regulations, security, and personnel.

It's Mostly About Convenience...

Instead of relying on mainstream airline routes--which often involve changing planes because of the old hub-and-spoke systems--our operators arrange for non-stop charter flights to cart passengers straight to popular vacation spots. The destination is almost always someplace warm. Flights are usually sold with lodging as part of a package and tend to depart at times ideal for vacationers. Club Med charters, for instance, leave the U.S. early on Saturdays so that guests can be on the beach by midday.

...And Price

Tour operators pay one price per plane trip, and they decide how much to charge each passenger. Rates fluctuate based on season and demand, but they tend to be less expensive than those of mainstream airlines. (Most charter passengers have no idea what their flight costs, however, because they paid one set price for a package that includes accommodations.) Though standard carriers tend to raise prices as the departure nears, that's when some tour operators sell seats on charter flights at bargain rates, either alone or as part of a vacation package.

The Downsides

Some charters fly two or three times a week, others are weekly, and then there are ones scheduled sporadically for special events and peak travel seasons. Limited departures mean little flexibility. If the schedule doesn' jibe with your needs, there's no alternative but the mainstream airlines. And if you miss your charter flight, chances are you won't be able to catch another later that day or even the day after that's--because there might not be one. Another negative: Many charters can only be booked via a travel agent, who may or may not tack on service fees and delivery charges (which can add $40 or more to your total).

Looking for last-minute deals 

You won't find a central list of charter departures anywhere on the Web. The only real source of info is a knowledgeable travel agent. Here are five companies that sell seats on charters, sometimes at fire-sale prices if you buy within two weeks of departure.

  • Apple Vacations (book via travel agent only),
    Origins/Destinations: 18 U.S. cities to over 40 destinations in Caribbean, Mexico and Central America
  • Funjet Vacations  (book via travel agent only),
    Origins/Destinations: 12 U.S. cities to Las Vegas, Florida, Hawaii, and 7 destinations in Caribbean and Mexico. Ski destinations in Colorado and Canada too.
  • SunTrips  800/786-8747,
    Origins/Destinations: Oakland, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and/or Denver to Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Azores
  • Vacation Express  877/784-3786,
    Origins/Destinations: 13 U.S. cities to Myrtle Beach, Orlando and 9 destinations in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Costa Rica
  • Worry-Free Vacations  888/225-5658,
    Origins/Destinations: 9 U.S. cities to Las Vegas, Florida, Hawaii, Costa Rica, and 16 destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico
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