Navigating Flights – When Group Airfare Makes Sense
You’ve chosen your next destination, decided on the itinerary, and you’re finalizing your brochure to get the word out to your travel community. Did you forget something? Often overlooked, a critical piece of your group program is your air travel. Not only can flights be the most expensive component, but the wrong flight strategy can jeopardize the success of your entire trip.
As the organizer, you need to decide at the outset if group airfare is right for your travelers. There are many benefits to group fares as you will see below, but there are also pitfalls. For one, group flights can be more expensive than promotional fares. You'll want to be ready when someone calls you and says they can get the flight for $200 less on Kayak. Understanding flight planning “rules” and benefits will go a long way to getting your group off to a great start.
What is a “group” in airline terms?
Airlines define a group as 10 or more traveling together on the same flight. New regulations have allowed this to include your gateway city all the way to the destination, not just a particular flight leg. With 10 or more travelers, your group will get special consideration from the airline. All major airlines have a groups department, but their terms can vary slightly on penalties and timing. If your group doesn't all live in the same geographic region, you will not want to consider group airfare. Group airfare is best for select affinity groups and schools that have members leaving from the same gateway.
What are the specific benefits of group airfare?
One of the obvious benefits of a group flight is the easier logistics with departing and arriving together. This makes it simple on transfers to and from the airport, plus can provide an opportunity for communications and group bonding from the outset. Second, the price of group airfare is the same for all. Your travelers won’t get distracted by a member who waves around an amazing deal they had from Priceline.
But the biggest benefit of group airfare is that tickets are generally refundable up to 95 days before departure. If you have to cancel the trip from lack of sign-ups, no one has purchased a non-refundable ticket. Or if someone cancels and you replace that spot, you can substitute another traveler. In fact, you don’t have to submit the traveler names until 30-45 days out. Finally, you can usually block group airfare 11 months in advance. This is where working with an agency or company with a flight department helps. Blocking usually requires a deposit and these companies can not only negotiate rates and terms, but their “credit” means you don’t have to provide funds for a deposit.
What are the risks or downsides of group airfare?
Group airfare can be tricky as you get close to departure. Once you are inside of 95 days, you have to be careful to maintain the 10 person minimum, plus your utilization must be within 10-15% of your block. Simply stated, 95 days is the last time you can reduce space without being penalized. If your group is looking to be smaller than the original plan of say, 30, you should consider releasing some of the block at this point. The airlines usually build in some flexibility if your group shrinks but it should not be by more than 20%.
Choosing the best airline for your group flights
You can select more than one group flight option outside of the 95 days, but it is advisable to make a commitment to one airline early. Be sure to research all airlines that fly the route and compare quotes and penalty terms. Your travel provider can manage this for you and negotiate on your behalf. Plus their expertise might help you with finding the best flight times. If you decide to work directly with an airline, be aware of a “ticketing fee” for issuing tickets on top of the stated group airfare. Most international airlines charge from $25-$60 additional per ticket, even if they are e-tickets. With all the extra fees these days, including fuel surcharges, look out for these extra charges.
Competing with promotional fares
Nowadays it is rare that group airfare is less than what you can find online in economy class. Economy class is actually made up of 20 or more levels, each with more restrictions the lower the price. It’s important that if you go with group airfare that you educate your travelers on why this option is less advantageous. One more reason, in addition to reasons already stated, is that it is unlikely there are many seats at the promotional fare. If you attempt to outsmart the online availability for your group of 20, you run the risk of only getting 5 or 10 seats at the lowest price, then pricing can go way up. Suddenly you could be paying more for your tickets as a whole or buying flight itineraries with times that do not match. Another restriction is “deviations.” Usually only 10-20% of your block size can depart early or return later from the main group. This can be an issue if you have an extension with a high take-up rate.
Down to departure – the final process
One you get to 35-45 days the airline will require you to provide all the passenger names, dates of birth, and genders, plus make final payment. This is a very important step, as having names that do not match the passport EXACTLY can be costly. Airlines may allow for one or two name fixes or changes, but there are usually high fees to make a change. Then, at 30 days out, your travel provider or agency or airline will issue the tickets. These are almost always electronic tickets now that will allow travelers to get boarding passes at the airport with proper identification.
Does all this make you nervous about group flights? While there are risks, group airfare makes a lot of sense for certain groups traveling together. You don’t have to put down deposits, you can cancel with no penalty until 95 days, and you don’t have to give the final names or pay the balance until 35 days before departing. Plus, you guarantee the itinerary and the price are the same for everyone in the group. Finally, if you are traveling in low season, the airline might offer one free ticket per specified amount which you can spread across the group, lowering the overall price. Be open to try airlines that are less known and be flexible with the travel dates to secure the best group fares.