Discount ticket offers for wily travellers

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The Independent Online

The ticket in my pocket shows a price of just over £1,000, the going rate for a flight from Heathrow to an up-and-coming business destination, eirut.

Despite the spectacular losses that they sometimes manage to achieve, airlines are in business to make money. So charging this sort of money for a round-trip to the Lebanese capital is sound economics. The ticket entitles me to more than just 4,000 miles of travel, it also gives some flexibility to change dates of travel, essential for the business traveller.

Yet rather than the face value of the ticket, I paid less than one-quarter: £227.50, one-tenth of which goes straight to the ritish and Lebanese governments in the form of airport tax. This saving is an extreme example of a phenomenon which can save your business thousands of pounds by cutting out the middle man.

Air fare structures are labyrinthine. Airlines, quite sensibly, dream up an official fare of considerable proportions, and see who will pay it - for one, plenty of business travellers, or whoever organises travel on their behalf, will pay. ut this leaves them with an awful lot of unsold seats. Some can be sold at promotional fares to leisure travellers, usually hedged with restrictions and rigidly inflexible. The remainder are supplied through consolidators - wholesalers who help to establish a respectable distance from the carrier's own sales operation. That most perishable of commodities, the airline seat, is then off-loaded for whatever the market can bear.

In order to dissuade most business travellers, the airline usually imposes the mandatory Saturday night stay, on the basis that we enjoy spending weekends at home and would be deterred by this clause. Yet if you are making repeated trips to a single destination, back-to-back tickets are a way around it. If you are obliged to go to Rome month after month, fly one way to the Italian capital then buy a series of round-trips from Rome to the UK. This will oblige you to spend at least one Saturday night in this country - which, after all, is the plan.

Another option is to buy a package containing accommodation. Travellers can side-step the Saturday rule by taking a city break. Time Off (0345 336622), for example, has a range of breaks to business centres such as Paris, Amsterdam and one of the newest EU capitals, Vienna. A two-night stay at the four-star Kaiser in Elisabeth Hotel, for example, costs £358 peak season - less than the normal economy fare.

The airline's official fare is a good reference in any quest for discount travel. London is the world centre of discount air travel and however arcane your journey, it should be possible to beat the airline. The objections to using a discount agent are well-rehearsed: "We're quite fond of our staff, and don't want to risk sending them on an unknown airline." Yet, discount fares are often sold on top-quality airlines, as well as the more exotic carriers.

And contrary to the popular belief, a bucket-shop ticket is often less restrictive than the official fare. And even if it isn't, you will usually find it cheaper to buy a discount return ticket, use it one-way and then buy another ticket in-bound.

"ut we need the ticket now - we haven't got time to mess around with an agent", you fret. Ticketless travel is becoming the norm in the United States, where to board some flights, you simply confirm your identity. Europe is some way behind, but if you pay for a ticket through a discount agent you can usually pick it up at the airline's desk at the airport. Some offer a guaranteed next day delivery service, while others install ticket printers at the offices of their big customers.

And don't neglect Air Miles. Travellers may feel that frequent-flyer rewards are a personal perk, but using them deftly can save your company a fortune. Next week, I shall use the points accrued on my travels to fly London-Toulouse and Paris-London. The normal fare is £464 plus tax; with Air Miles, you just pay the tax. .

The reason that London-eirut ticket is in still my pocket, though, is because I had to postpone my journey at the last minute. As it is now peak season, the airline requires an additional fee - much more than half the original cost of the ticket. You lose some in the realms of discount business travel; but, mostly, you win.