Travel: San Francisco; Business-class banquet or bargain basement

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The Independent Online
Air fares to California are so low, says Simon Calder, that it could be time to trade up

You work 22 hours and what do you get? A flight to California and back. Read this sentence carefully: if you are lucky enough to earn the average British wage of pounds 368 a week, then you can earn the money for a round trip to California and back in less than the time you will spend in flight.

Air New Zealand is so concerned to fill the seats on its new flight from Heathrow to Los Angeles that it has cut the economy fare to below pounds 200, at least through some discount travel agents. See Deal of the Week, above left.

Some sophisticated travellers are taking advantage of the absurd prices to trade up. Discounted economy tickets are dragging down premium fares: if you're going to San Francisco, then "upper class" on Virgin Atlantic can be bought through agents for pounds 3,047 return instead of the pounds 4,584 regular fare - as long as you ask for a flight on Continental Airlines.

It works like this. Earlier this month, Virgin Atlantic teamed up with Continental for a "codeshare" arrangement - increasingly common in the murky world of aviation. Each airline has an allocation of seats on the other's transatlantic routes. So Virgin's daily departure from Heathrow to San Francisco has two flight numbers: VS19 for Virgin, CO8419 for Continental. You sit in the same seat, sipping the same champagne as other "upper class" passengers, but because your ticket is issued by Continental not Virgin you save more than pounds 1,500 on the deal.

Although US and UK airlines are doing what they can to protect business- class and first-class revenue on their most profitable routes, carriers from other parts of the world are taking advantage of "fifth-freedom" rights to offer excellent premium-class fares across the Atlantic.

"Fifth-freedom" means an airline is allowed to fly between two points, neither of which is in its country of origin - Air India between Manchester and Rome, for instance. Because most passengers use a carrier based in either their own or their destination country, smaller players have to reduce fares.

Air New Zealand, the airline responsible for cutting to the bone economy fares from west London to the Pacific Coast, has an excellent business- class product. Taking the comfortable way to California will cost you more than 10 times as much as the lowest economy fare, but at pounds 2,081 return (through discount agents) you could take a partner in business class and pack a couple of pals into economy for less than BA's Club World fare.

If you're prepared to change planes en route, the fare falls still further. TWA flies daily from Gatwick to its home base in St Louis, with onward connections to San Francisco and Los Angeles, for pounds 1,845 return through Trailfinders. Airline Network has a deal from London, Birmingham or Manchester to San Francisco via Paris for pounds 2,115 return.

Continental (the real thing, not Virgin Atlantic in disguise) is rapidly becoming a key player in the regions. It flies from Birmingham and Manchester, via its hub at Newark, to either San Francisco or Los Angeles for pounds 2,946 (through Quest Worldwide); from July it will also fly from Glasgow.

Quest Worldwide also has one of the lowest-ever business-class transatlantic fares to the other coast: Heathrow to New York on Kuwait Airways for pounds 650 return. The catch, for those who regard good-quality alcohol as a perk of business-class travel, is that Kuwait Airways is a dry airline.

Many discount travel agents offer cheap business-class fares. Those mentioned here are Airline Network (0500 747757); Quest Worldwide (0181- 546 6000); Trailfinders (0171-937 5400).