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Better deals than the Web

Warm-weather destinations are a summer traveler’s dream, which means many vacationers will soon be prowling airline Web sites and popular search engines in pursuit of low fares. But the cheapest prices aren’t always found on Orbitz and Travelocity.

Discount tour operators like SunTrips and Pleasant Holidays — widely known for their low-priced packages to Hawaii and Mexico — offer air-only fares to several destinations that, in many cases, beat the best fares on major carriers and online travel sites.

A round-trip fare from Oakland, Calif., to Honolulu, for example, is $391 on SunTrips when booked at least one month in advance. On Pleasant Holidays, it’s $339 from San Francisco.

Book it online from American or United from San Jose, Calif., and it’ll set you back $427. On Orbitz, it’s $413 on American, United and US Airways from San Francisco.

Traveling with a tour operator has its limitations: You might not be able to depart from your favorite airport or travel on the date and time you want. But when price is the primary factor in choosing airfare, you can save a lot of money by using a low-cost operator.

SunTrips and Pleasant Holidays usually fly beneath the radar when travelers start looking for low fares. One reason, at least in SunTrips’ case, might be that it uses charter carriers on flights from Oakland to Hawaii and Mexico — and flying by charter sometimes means trouble. Even a small mechanical problem can delay a flight an hour or more, and passengers have been stranded overnight, although rarely.

That’s an image that San Jose-based SunTrips believes it has outgrown. General Manager Scott MacDougall said he could recall only a few flight delays over the previous six months, and none that forced travelers to stay overnight.

“There’s a perception that because it’s a charter airline that there’s a chance of a delay, or that something’s going to happen,” he said. “There’s also a misperception that a commercial airline has 10 planes sitting at the terminal, so if something happens they can just move all these people over to another gate and put them on.

“The funny thing is, when we did our reports, we found that United had the same amount of delays and the same amount of time they were delayed. American had the same thing. You just didn’t hear about it as much.”

Although SunTrips still uses charters out of Oakland — it has two aircraft owned by North American Airlines and several others owned by Ryan International — it also contracts with commercial carrier ATA Airlines for certain flights, including air-only from San Francisco to Honolulu. (SunTrips only contracts with ATA out of San Francisco in the Bay Area, not Oakland or San Jose.) MacDougall said SunTrips also contracts with its charter airlines’ service and maintenance crews in Oakland and Denver to ensure that mechanical issues are resolved and planes are kept on schedule. In other cities, it also has contracts with maintenance crews to correct problems.

But some travel agents are still wary of recommending SunTrips to clients because of possible delays. Paul Kloetzel, co-owner of O’Brien Travel in San Jose, said he uses SunTrips as “a last resort. They fly out of Oakland, and that’s it. They can’t obtain another plane like American and United can.”

However, SunTrips’ deal with ATA, Kloetzel said, “should beef up their reliability.”

The Department of Transportation doesn’t keep on-time figures for charter airlines, but SunTrips spokeswoman Helen Zimmermann said departures from Oakland were on time 92.8 percent in 2003. By comparison, the on-time performance for the nation’s 19 largest airlines was 77.5 percent in February.

Pleasant Holidays, formerly Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays, doesn’t employ charter airlines. It contracts with ATA Airlines to fill about 85 percent of the airline’s seats on scheduled flights from San Francisco to its Hawaiian destinations and also has access to seats with other major airlines, including American, United, Delta, Hawaiian and Aloha. In all, Pleasant has associations with 35 airlines to various destinations.

That means it also has fewer problems with delays that might plague SunTrips.

Both companies say they offer passengers amenities that exceed most major carriers, besides low fares. SunTrips, for example, flies newer Boeing 757-200 planes that seat 214, all with leather seats, towel service, hot meals, free movies and more room between rows, better than that offered in economy by United or Continental. Pleasant Holidays has 230-seat Boeing 757-300s (ATA planes) with the same amenities; it plans to offer a business class in January.

Travelers can get to Hawaii and Mexico on both. SunTrips also offers service to Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and the Azores. Pleasant Holidays goes to the Caribbean, Tahiti, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and more than a dozen countries in Asia. Not all, however, are offered air-only.

But catching a flight isn’t always at the flier’s convenience. SunTrips flies to its Hawaii destinations 11 times a week, on average, during the peak summer months and goes to Mexico six or seven times a week (but rarely more than twice a day). On United and American, there are several daily flight options.

Still, moving air-only passengers to places like Maui or Cancun isn’t a major part of either company’s business: About 20 percent of SunTrips’ clients book air-only flights, while about 8 percent of Pleasant Holidays’ customers choose air-only. Most choose air-hotel or fly-drive packages.

But when they do fly, it’s likely they’re going to save money — usually 20 to 30 percent off retail, said Pleasant spokesman Ken Phillips.

“Our planes are pretty full, so I would say that most people are aware” of the savings, said Tim Irwin, president of Pleasant Holidays. “I’ve had people say that they’d rather pay less to fly on an airplane and spend their money on the destination.”


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