Travel advice

Wealthy cheapskate: How to take a private jet for less

May 1, 2014 at 12:42 PM ET

Skip the lines, forget taking off your shoes, and hop aboard your private jet. Ok, easier said than done. With chartered private jet flights costing thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of dollars each way, this is not a viable travel option for the budget-minded. But Cheapism.com found ways to experience this luxury for less than the cost of a standard airplane ticket.

Empty Legs: The Key to Scoring Cheap Private Jet Fares

JetSuite, a West Coast-based charter-jet company, offers last-minute deals on a private jet.
Harriet Baskas / File photo
JetSuite, a West Coast-based charter-jet company, offers last-minute deals on a private jet.

Before your hopes soar too high, know that finding these rock-bottom prices means booking an “empty leg” flight. These are scheduled trips but the jets (sometimes turboprops) aren’t filled with ticket holders. “If we need a plane in Las Vegas for a charter customer but don’t have one there, we may have to fly it there without passengers,” explains Alex Wilcox, CEO of JetSuite.

The reverse is also true, and all those empty flights can be yours for cheap. For example, JetSuite offers occasional SuiteDeals on aircraft that would otherwise fly empty in one direction. Chartered flights that normally cost more than $5,000 are available for $536. The two types of planes available hold four to six passengers, so if you fill all the seats with friends and family, the individual price drops to $90.  (JetSuite is one of several companies that sell empty legs.) The downside of these flights is that you don’t get to pick your route or date or time of travel. You simply need to keep an eye out for a deal that works for you.

Jet Cards

Another way to access discounted private jet flights is with a jet card. Jet cards are offered by many companies, typically commercial airlines like Delta that also operate a fleet of smaller planes and smaller charter brokers like JumpJet or BlackJet (“the Uber of private jets”). You buy a membership (a.k.a. jet card) and make a large initial deposit that locks you into spending a set amount of money or flying a set number of hours within a stated time period.

Richard Zaher of Paramount Business Jets, which offers a membership service, warns that interested parties should pay close attention to the fine print. Some companies charge a fee to cancel a membership, for example, or allow funds on the card to expire. Others offer all-inclusive prices for trips but decline to itemize or mention extra fees for things like beverage service.

Charter Operators vs. Brokers

If you aren’t looking for a one-off deal you’ll likely work with a charter operator or a broker. Operators are companies, groups of individuals, or sometimes just individuals who own, maintain and operate a plane, or groups of planes. Operators are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation to fly charters for clients. Many customers looking to charter a plane go through brokers, however. Brokers serve as middlemen connecting anyone seeking to book a flight with operators, although there are companies that function as both operators and brokers.

In the best case, brokers help clients find safe, reliable, capable and courteous operators. But because it’s easy to enter this business, it’s important to choose a broker with care. Sometimes clients don’t even realize they’re dealing with a broker instead of directly with an operator and may be surprised by last-minute changes and unexpected charges.

DOT is proposing a rule that would require all brokers to be transparent about fees and prior relationships with operators, and to warn clients of last-minute changes early enough to modify their plans. The intent is to help consumers find reasonably priced brokers and jet card services. In the meantime, be sure that the broker or operator offers a guaranteed, itemized and all-inclusive quote upfront.

The CEO of ClipperJet, James Occhipinti, recommends against brokers all together, largely to avoid the middleman fees. Instead, would-be passengers can troll Charter Hubmagazine (available free online), which is something like a Yellow Pages for finding private planes available for charter. Mr. Occhipinti suggests calling three or four local operators for quotes for a given itinerary and going with the best one. A broker, by contrast, might just turn to whichever operator he has a relationship with.

Tips for Going the Broker Route

On the other hand, relationships brokers have built with local operators suggest they may be able to find special discounts and the most reliable and safest options. Brokers’ experience and ongoing dealings may enable them to secure better terms on the extra fees associated with chartered flying, such as catering, fuel surcharges, de-icing, ground handling, excise taxes, and so on.

For frequent private-jet travelers, the best strategy may be finding and sticking with a trustworthy broker, according to Bernie Burns of B2Aviation. Giving all your business to one broker can help them negotiate even lower rates with charter operators and fixed-base operators (the ground support and crew).

But everyone doesn’t need a jet. The Pilatus PC-12, for example, is a turboprop equipped with many of the luxuries found on a jet. Its range is shorter, but for shorter trips it has a high cruising speed and relatively low fuel consumption, all of which means you’ll arrive on time, in style, and with a little extra money in your pocket.

Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct the pricing information for JetSuite flights.

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