Group Airfare: Pros and Cons

Air arrangements are a key component of any faculty-led education abroad program. Like other aspects of program logistics, it’s worth thinking through how airfare contributes not only to program cost but also how it may affect individual student experiences and the program as a whole.

Given the complexities of managing airline reservations and contracts, in addition to the reality of expanding work load and contracting resources in education abroad offices–some education abroad offices see the work of managing group air reservations as more of a disadvantage than a benefit, and are making the decision to eliminate air arrangements from faculty-led programs and are asking students to buy their own international airline tickets.

Is this a good idea?

It used to be that you could count on a group reservation being more affordable for students than buying individual airline tickets. Now, there’s more variability. Sometimes airlines charge more for a group block reservation than if you were to buy an individual ticket. On the other hand, booking a group reservation early may save students money over buying individual tickets.

Group bookings tend to have restrictions that can make them less flexible. But, on the other hand, they also carry with them benefits you can’t find when buying individual tickets.

From our perspective of a provider who organizes programs both with and without air arrangements, I will say that we much prefer working with a program whose air arrangements we have booked along with making on-the-ground arrangements. Let me list some of the advantages as we see them.

  • Group air reservations can be reserved 11 months in advance of travel, making early planning possible. The schedule is booked and the fare is locked in, ensuring that you’re not scrambling later on to find enough seats on a particular flight for your group, or hoping all your students buy their tickets in time to arrive when they need to arrive.
  • A group booking can be held with a deposit (more or less refundable, depending on the airline and the particular contract) 11 months in advance, with final payment not due until about four months before departure. Individual tickets, as all of us know, are non-refundable, must be paid for in full when you book them, and changes can cost several hundred dollars.
  • With final payment for group reservations occurring 90-100 days before departure, this allows for student cancellations due to illness or other unforeseen circumstances without a student forfeiting the entire ticket price. And if one student withdraws, a student from a waitlist can be substituted–with or without a fee, depending on the timing.
  • An individual ticket may be found on-line for a lower cost than a group fare, but it can be nearly impossible to find, say, 20 seats at those lower fares.
  • When a provider has responsibility for both air and on-site logistics, managing delays, cancellations, weather disruptions, and other problems becomes the work of one person or organization, allowing for smoother, more efficient solutions and less coordination among many players. In times of stress or emergency, having one source to manage changes or cancellations can be a big advantage.

The question of affordability. Are individual tickets truly more affordable for students? I tend to think not–at least not in the long run. While a particular student may find a good deal or a sale, overall, having students buy individual tickets may cost them more. When an airline ticket is rolled into the program cost, students can apply for financial aid (where it’s available, of course) for the entire program cost. For some institutions, when students buy airfare separately, they pay out of pocket and may not be eligible to use financial aid. In addition, when program costs are billed to a student’s account, they often can pay on their regular tuition payment plan rather than needing to come up with a thousand dollars or more all in one shot. And there are always the students who procrastinate and those who cancel at the last minute. What, then, happens to them?

I have a particular bias here–clearly. But I also believe it’s important to consider all points of view when thinking about what contributes to a successful program. Affordability must be a factor in education abroad programs. Yet, how will the experience be affected for students–and for faculty–with group airfare vs. individual airline tickets? If you are a faculty director with a short amount of time to teach your course abroad, is it important that everyone arrive and begin the experience together? Will this maximize the possibility for a successful beginning to your program? On a short program, the start of the course can shape both the experience and the teaching of the whole program.



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