Don’t Trust Senior Flight Discounts

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Despite what you read about airlines offering senior discounts, we learned the hard way that it’s very rare to get a good senior deal on flights. After contacting numerous airlines (and enduring more time on hold than we’d care to admit), we found that many airlines have discontinued their senior programs. In addition, after comparison-shopping a number of flights, we discovered even the few senior tickets that exist are actually more expensive than your standard economy fare.

We bring you the real story behind senior airfares: which programs are worth looking into (there are only two) and which are marketing gimmicks, so you don’t go on a wild goose hunt looking for that elusive flight deal.

Southwest Senior Fares (Recommended)

Southwest offers senior fares on most flights for those 65 and over. Senior Fares are simply discounted Anytime fares. They aren’t guaranteed to be the cheapest tickets (we found the Wanna Get Away prices are consistently cheaper). However, they have one amazing perk that sets them apart from Wanna Get Away tickets: they are fully refundable.

Traditionally, you have to pay a hefty premium for refundable tickets since you’re essentially buying insurance on top of the cost of the flight. I wish I’d known about Senior Fares when I was recently looking for refundable tickets from San Diego to Chicago. My daughter-in-law was close to her delivery date and I knew there was a chance I’d have to cancel my flight.

However, I found refundable tickets to be as much as three to four times the price of the non-refundable tickets. At that premium, I ended up just buying a non-refundable ticket and figured I would just eat the cost if it turned out I had to skip the flight.

But Senior Fares are sold at a discount to normal fares, despite being refundable.

If you want to be clever about it, you can buy a Senior Fares ticket to lock-in a certain price and then refund them if you find something cheaper or decide to cancel your trip. They are available on both domestic and international flights. To book a Senior Fare for an international flight, you have to book your ticket separately from people who are under 65.

Our Southwest Experiment

On a flight from Orange County, CA to Orlando, FL, the Senior Fare was approximately 40% cheaper than Anytime fares, and 20% more expensive than Wanna Get Away fares. Southwest limits the number of Senior Fares they sell and they do go quickly, so plan ahead if you can.

We also checked a flight from New York City to Raleigh, North Carolina and found the Senior Fares to be on average 15% more expensive than the Wanna Get Away Flights. So they are a great deal for refundable flights, but not the cheapest ticket in town.

This program is only available to people who are 65+, and yes they will verify you meet the criteria. If you’re traveling on a Senior Fare, you can’t just check-in at a kiosk or online. You must show your ID to a customer service agent before you’re allowed to check-in.

The good news is, you only have to do this once to be age-verified for all future travel. Once you check-in with an agent, they’ll update your Rapid Rewards or Southwest account to indicate you qualify for Senior Fares.

AARP British Airways Promotion

AARP is a senior membership group that partners with a number of companies to bring its members flight, hotel, and vacation-package discounts. Their partnership with British Airways is by far the best travel deal they offer and the best flight deal on this list.

AARP members and anyone traveling with an AARP member get:

  • $65* off for travel in economy (World Traveller)
  • $200* off for travel in business (Club World)

Since this offer is exclusive to AARP members, you have to book the flights through the AARP website. This means you’ll need to fork over $16 for an annual membership. In general, we tend to advise that AARP isn’t worth joining anymore since it is a thinly veiled marketing outfit to sells insurance packages to members (and collects a nice 5% royalty on those sales). But if you do take advantage of the British Airways deal, it may be well worth low fee.

AARP-Expedia (Not Recommended)

In 2008, AARP teamed up with Expedia to offer members a travel search engine that applies travel discounts on top of Expedia’s ticket prices. AARP members can book travel online without having to pay a $25 booking fee. Also, if you book a group trip, you get a $350 cash back rebate per group.

Other than these two “perks,” what flight discounts is AARP-Expedia offering seniors? None that we could find. When we searched for a LAX-NYC flight in the AARP-Expedia portal, we got the same fares as ones from searching directly on Expedia, which suggests no AARP special discount was applied.

This “deal” is a classic example of how companies use senior specials as a marketing gimmick. They advertise senior programs, implying that seniors who qualify will get access to cheaper flights. Sadly, since there’s nothing forcing these travel companies to actually offer better deals, oftentimes the senior flights are priced exactly the same as Economy tickets.

And since we’re talking about Expedia, be warned that Expedia doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to customer service. There are a ton of negative reviews for the booking service from frustrated consumers. It’s worth booking directly with the airlines just to avoid the headache of dealing with Expedia because it is not going to be easy to change anything about your trip through them.

Delta Senior Program (None Offered)

Delta has frustratingly little information on their site. They simply state, “Senior discounts (available in certain markets).” The kicker is, such fares (if they exist) aren’t even available online. You have to call their reservations department to book over the phone (800-221-1212). Adding insult to injury, they will charge you a mandatory $25 over-the-phone booking fee.

Well, we bit the bullet and endured a long wait to reach an agent. He’d never heard of a senior program and put me on another lovely hold to double check with his manager. In the end, he came back and confirmed that Delta does not offer any kind of senior discount. He also cautioned against relying on Googling information about their promotions because much of it is out of date or false (yup, we are finding that out the hard way).

American Airlines (Not Cheaper)

American Airlines technically has senior flights, but when we price checked five different trips, we didn’t find any difference in the ticket costs. You can select a senior ticket by clicking on “Multi-city/Advanced Options” when you go to their site. When we tested flights with different departure cities, toggling between a Senior ticket and a regular fare, we didn’t find any difference in price between the two. It’s worth adding that AA took down the page on their site that used to explain their senior program.

We have a feeling this program is pretty dead, but AA hasn’t removed it from the site. Still, we persisted, A few different articles recommended calling their promotions department at (800) 435-9792 to book directly with a representation. But the employee we talked to said AA doesn’t run any senior programs. We asked her to double check and she insisted that, nope they no longer offer any special pricing for people over 65.

United Airlines (Not Cheaper)

United used to offer Silver Wings Plus, a travel club for seniors 55 and older. But they discontinued that in 2014. Because they had guaranteed lifetime membership, they allow members who joined before 2005 access to special Zone Fares. They had to do this after a member brought a class action lawsuit against UA.

 However, those of us who didn’t sign up before 2005 are out of luck. The Silver Wings Plus “no longer activates, renews or extends annual memberships.”

 Outside of the Silver Wings club, United claims they do offer senior fares for select destinations to customers age 65 and older. To get this discount, go to the United site and click the “Advanced Search” option. Then, navigate to the “Travelers” drop-down menu and select “Senior.”

We tested a few different flights to see if there’s actually a price difference between Economy and Senior tickets and discovered: for all five flights we tested (departing in different cities), there was no difference in the ticket price.

Also, unlike Southwest, United doesn’t actually separately display a Senior fare, so it’s very difficult to tell when you are getting a special fare and when you aren’t.

These Airlines Don’t Offer Senior Flights

Much of this article is devoted to debunking the mythical senior flight fare and we aren’t done. Here are all the airlines that unequivocally do not offer discounts for senior (no matter what you read online). We got this information the old-fashion way: by calling the airlines to triple verify.

  • Alaska: There’s misinformation circulating that Alaska has 10% off fares for passengers who are 65+. An Alaska Air representative confirmed that they don’t offer any senior specials.
  • JetBlue
  • Hawaiian Airlines: Senior discounts discontinued
  • Spirit Airways: Their site has the sassy message, “Our fares are already very low, and we are unable to offer additional discounts.”
  • Virgin

Conclusion

Don’t mourn the death of senior fares, we don’t think they were ever great deals to begin with. They seem more like marketing gimmicks, where unsuspecting seniors thought they were getting a good deal when there are cheaper fares available.

Your best bet for finding the best flight deal is to shop around on Kayak and Google Flights. Keep your dates flexible and check prices frequently, as they are updated every second.

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