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What Happened to Senior Airfares?

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What Happened to Senior Airfares?
Mark Kahler, licensed to About.com

It wasn't too long ago that airlines advertised senior airfares.

United even had an airfare club for senior travelers called SilverWings. Although the club still operates, it does not accept new members, and "no longer activates, renews or extends annual memberships."

Senior airfares were almost always booked by telephone. Frequently, you had to ask the airline operator for the discount, although some carriers would advertise the lower fares. Now, the focus is on getting customers to book through the airline website rather than by phone or through a third-party agency.

Airlines are in a competitive business, and they tend to operate with a pack mentality. For example, when some began charging fees for checked baggage, most of the others followed. The same is true of cuts or hikes in airfares. When senior discounts became costly, the industry cut them. Budget airlines never offered them in the first place. Their low-cost business model offers one low fare to everyone.

The demise of senior airfares didn't happen overnight. Hawaiian Airlines, for example, once offered senior airfares to travelers beginning at age 60. This policy remained in force for a number of years after most airlines had discontinued the practice. But when one asks for senior airfares today, the airline's operators say the best discounts on airline tickets are realized by booking online. Senior discounts are gone. Another factor: some of the airlines that once offered age-related breaks have since merged with other carriers.

A few airlines still offer senior airfares

Southwest Senior Fares are fully refundable and may be made by phone or online. Age verification is required with a government-issued photo ID. Once entered into the system, it becomes a part of the airline record so that such proof is not required for future flights.

United still offers a few senior discounts "to selected travel destinations for passengers who are 65 and older." You will notice that the airlines frequently provide a check box in their online reservations area for those of a certain age -- either young children or seniors. It is a good idea to provide this information for possible fare discounts that might not have been publicized.

The same is true of online travel agencies through which you might purchase airline tickets. Cheapoair.com offers a 15 percent discount for travelers 65 and older at various times. Travelocity asks how many passengers in a reservation are at least 65 years old. The same is true at Expedia, but neither appears to have a permanent policy webpage related to senior discounts.

The demise of senior airfares isn't all bad

That's right -- senior airfares might have done as much harm as good for budget travelers.

Senior discounts are usually subtracted from the most expensive fares for airline tickets. That price break -- typically 10 percent -- might not have been as cheap as other discounts offered to all ages. Worse, such weak discounts might have satisfied many travelers, who thought they were getting a deal when in fact they had been stopped from pursuing better fares elsewhere in the marketplace.

The same can be said of bereavement fares which airlines extend to mourners on the way to funerals. Those discounts frequently are not as attractive as what can be found with some searches of conventional fares. It usually pays to look for sale fares before any other specialized discount.

Bottom line: take a senior discount if it will make the airfare fit neatly into your budget. Check to see that it is the lowest fare possible. Understand that as with escalating airline fees and barriers to redeeming frequent-flier miles, the trends don't favor air travelers these days. The scarcity of age-related discounts is but another sign of the times in a struggling industry.

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