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Are International Airpasses Worth It?

The Skyteam airline alliance just announced a new “Go Africa” airpass, which joins the alliance’s existing regional airpasses for Asia, China, Europe and Italy. Skyteam is anchored in North America by Delta, and includes Aeroflot, Air France, Alitalia, China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, KLM, Korean, and a few smaller lines. The other two big alliances already offer an Africa pass, plus similar lists of regional and continental passes:

  • OneWorld (American, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, JAL, LAN, Qantas and others) offers passes for Africa, Asia, Japan, Australia/New Zealand, Europe and South America.
  • Star Alliance (United, US Airways, Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Lufthansa, SAS, Thai, Turkish, and others) offers airpasses for Africa, Asia, Brazil, China, Europe, Japan, Micronesia, Middle East, South Pacific and Thailand.

If your definition of a “pass” is based on the Eurailpass model, no “airpass” is a true pass. With railpasses you can travel as much and as often as you want, during the period of validity, for the same inclusive daily price. Thus you can, as my railroad-loving friend Don recently did, ride trains from Switzerland to Milan and Naples and back to Florence on one day’s use of a five-day Eurail Select pass. Instead of fly-all-you-want, airpasses are really what I call “visitor tickets.” You buy a group of vouchers for individual point-to-point air tickets at prices generally based on distance zones, but each separate flight requires you buy a separate ticket. You get these point-to-point tickets at supposedly “discount” prices, and they generally carry fewer restrictions and limitations than regular point-to-point tickets.

And, like most airpasses, the new one from Skyteam is likely to be of little use to most of you. In the real world, regional airpasses suffer from three serious problems.

First, using an airpass often requires doubling back through one of an airline’s regional hubs to reach even nearby points. On the new Go Africa pass, for example, to fly from Johannesburg to Harare, Zambia, a distance of just under 600 miles, you have to fly on Kenya Airways through and connect at Nairobi, a total flight distance of 3,000 miles. You can fly nonstop on a non-alliance line, but the pass doesn’t cover that option. This problem is not so bad where an alliance has two or more airline members based in the same region, but you still encounter it in most cases.

Secondly, you can’t book and compare prices and schedules online. When you log onto an alliance’s website, it instructs you to contact one of the alliance members for this information. And even those members don’t provide for airpass research: Delta, for example, says to call reservations. This limitation makes fare comparisons extremely difficult, especially if you’re exploring options and haven’t yet firmed up an itinerary

And finally, in much of the world, especially Asia, Europe, and the South Pacific, independent, low-fare airlines can now often undercut airpass prices and provide point-to-point flights at substantially lower prices than even the “discount” prices on the visitor coupons.

All three alliances also offer a few similar “circle” programs as well as fixed-price, round-the-world programs. Only round-the-world programs permit online booking, scheduling, and pricing, however, and itineraries can suffer from some of the same problems as regional passes. On Skyteam, for example, the only way to fly from Delhi to Dubai is via connecting flights through Moscow, and the only way to fly from Bangkok to Delhi is connecting through Guangzhou. Although these high-mileage detours don’t cost extra, they involve many extra hours of flying and waiting around hub airports for connections. Moreover, specialized discount agencies can usually undercut alliance fixed-price rates by a substantial amount.

All in all, I’m not big on these passes. But if you’re interested in flying around one of the regions covered, you can call for pass prices and compare the results with separate tickets on low-fare lines.

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Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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