Companion Fares Can Be Your Best Friend

Thinking of taking the Concorde to Paris for the weekend, but don't have the

cash to bring along a playmate? This could be the time to catch a fare that's, well, extraordinaire.

Two can now have a petit rendezvous at grand savings in the City of Light--and in many other cities--by using a companion fare. Although the Concorde special is limited to Air France's supersonic flights, other airlines, such as Continental and American, are selling two-for-one tickets to some overseas destinations and dozens of U.S. cities. Some of the fares are available through travel agents or the airlines directly; others are exclusive promotional deals for frequent fliers and credit-card holders.

Companion fares are especially appealing in the summer months when kids are out of school and parents want to take the family on vacation. They are also one of the few airfare bargains that work for business travelers, since they typically require only a 24-hour advance purchase and an overnight--rather than weekend--stay. "If two people are headed to the same meeting, that can mean tremendous savings for corporate travelers," says Thom Nulty, president of Associated Travel International in Santa Ana, Calif.

The destination was Phoenix, rather than Paris, for Jerry Finley of Philadelphia and his family when they flew to a figure-skating convention last month. Finley had planned to attend with just his daughter, a champion ice skater, but the companion ticket enabled his wife, Sandra, to tag along. "My wife and daughter's tickets cost a total of $471 round-trip. That kind of nonstop can cost from $900 to $1,200 for each ticket," he says. Finley's two-for-one deal came from a special offer to USAir frequent fliers.

One of the most popular programs is Southwest Airlines' Friends Fly Free, which started in 1991. It is now marketed in all of the 45 U.S. cities Southwest serves. And it pushed American, Continental, Delta, America West, and other carriers to offer similar packages on many routes where they compete with Southwest and even on some where they don't.

LET'S MAKE A DEAL. For example, you and a friend can buy a round-trip ticket between Chicago and Houston on Southwest--as well as on American and Continental--for a total of $458, a $238 savings off the 7-day advance peak fare and $66 off the 21-day price. Southwest also offers round-trip tickets for two from Chicago to Seattle for $748 and Los Angeles to Phoenix for $138. Without a companion plan, airfare for two between the Windy City and Seattle can cost more than $1,000. A pair of individual tickets between L.A. and Phoenix adds up to almost $250, even when bought seven days in advance.

That doesn't mean a companion fare is always the best choice. Sometimes it pays to buy two separate deep-discount tickets, although that may mean a longer advance purchase requirement. American offers a companion rate of $538 between Chicago and Phoenix. But if you buy two tickets at least seven days in advance, the same flights can cost $376.

You may, however, have to do extra work to find a two-for-one deal. "Companion fares come and go quickly, so they might not come up right away in the computer," says Ivonne Vega, an agent with World Travel in Washington, D.C. "Urge your travel agent to do a bit of investigating or to call the airline."

When it comes to flying overseas, two-for-one options are limited. But that could change later this summer, when business travel slackens and international carriers are anxious to fill seats, especially in first and business classes. Right now, if you buy a business class ticket from Lufthansa using an American Express Platinum Card, you can get a free companion pass. As for the Concorde deal, it still doesn't come cheap. A companion ticket costs $8,310--$4,466 less than the usual price, but enough for 10 round-trip coach tickets on regular flights.

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