It’s another day at the office for Tom Parsons, the high priest of low-cost travel. After whooshing past his secretary, he pops in to see his vice president, Roger Guerra (“What day is this?” he asks—only half joking, since he’s fighting jet lag), then plops in the chair behind his desk and fires up a Marlboro just as the phone rings. On the line is the Business News Network, a syndicate of 194 radio stations coast to coast, which wants his take on the pending alliances proposed by several U.S. airlines. “It’s a gimmick,” he says. “All that’s gonna do domestically is eliminate competition, which will let the airlines raise fares without anyone trying to match them.”
The clock on the wall—surrounded by airplane memorabilia and a life-size painting of the interior of a Boeing 777 cockpit—reads 10:40 a.m., but Parsons has already been hard at work for hours. He woke up at four, turned on his computer, and analyzed the latest fares, which the airlines post on the Internet for travel agents three times a day. Before the sun was up, he had advised radio listeners in Toledo, Ohio, on how to get bumped from a flight so that they could earn money and free tickets and phoned Dallas’ KDFW-TV with his hot travel tip of the day. During the next three hours, he spoke with a TV station in Birmingham, Alabama, did another spot on the Toledo radio station, went on the air with a St. Louis deejay, and did a pre-interview for an upcoming appearance on a Cincinnati TV station.
That’s life for the president and CEO of Best Fares USA, the Arlington company dedicated to finding bargains all across the travel industry and spreading the news. Sixteen years of such subversive activity—more pro-consumer than anti-corporate—has earned the 48-year-old Parsons a reputation as “the man airlines love to hate,” in the words of TV talkmeister Larry King. By extension, that makes him the man travelers love to love. “This little thing started by accident,” he says, barely able to contain a laugh. “When someone says it can’t be done, I bet there’s a way to do it. I use every trick in the trade.”
The eldest child of American expatriates, Parsons grew up in Santiago, Chile, where he learned first-hand the economic realities of the black market. “My mother taught me that no matter what the price is, you can find it cheaper if you look a little harder,” he says. He accidentally found his calling in the seventies while working as the assistant director for loss prevention at Fort Worth—based Pier 1 Imports, a position that required him to tear apart in-store security systems to ensure their integrity. Whenever he traveled back then—and he did a lot—he’d ask other passengers how much they had paid for their tickets. The day he found out that the guy next to him had paid $200 less for a seat than he had, he took it upon himself to investigate how airlines priced tickets. The rest is discount-travel history.
“Back in the late seventies, Pier 1 was going through a reorganization,” Parsons says. “They were looking for ways to save money, specifically to cut air travel and hotel expenses.” That’s when he coined the term “hidden city.” “I said, ‘Why the heck does an airline like Braniff have an airfare from Chicago to Dallas of $284, yet from Chicago to Houston, it’s only $129—and the plane stops in Dallas first?’ I thought, ‘What stops you from getting off the plane in Dallas?’” He learned about split fares too. “If I buy a ticket today to fly tomorrow on Delta from Dallas to Washington, D.C., the price is $680 one-way. But if I buy a ticket today to fly tomorrow on Delta from Dallas to Atlanta, where there’s a fare war going on, it’s $173 one-way, and a ticket from Atlanta to Washington is $149. So I buy two separate tickets for a total of fifty percent less, although I have to stop in Atlanta. For a savings of $300, I’ll do it.”
Armed with that knowledge, Parsons circulated a two-page memo around the office every month listing hidden cities and split fares that he’d found. Pier 1’s president, Luther Henderson, was so impressed that he started telling his friends about how this one employee was saving him so much money, and requests from executives at other companies began to pour in. That led Parsons to create The DFW Report, a subscription-only newsletter for business travelers in the Metroplex. Almost immediately, several airlines told travel agents they could no longer pass along information to their clients about hidden cities or split fares, but Parsons was undeterred. “The airlines created this mess,” he says. “All I did was tell the world about it.” The DFW Report gave rise to similar local publications, including The Austin Report and The Chicago Report, then a national publication, The USA Report, and finally, in 1985, Best Fares, a magazine he launched with only $500 of his own money. It was successful enough that within two years he quit his job at Pier 1. “When I left, they gave me a plaque that read ‘The Man Least Likely to Give Up a Buck.’ It’s true; I like to fly like a king on a pauper’s pay.”
That attitude may have earned him the disdain of the industry, but he insists the feeling isn’t mutual. For instance, he says he loves Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, whom he credits with introducing low-cost fares and an easy-to-understand pricing system. “The airlines and I have learned to deal with each other during the past sixteen years,” he notes, “and when they do something good, I talk about it. When they do something bad, I jump on them hard. I don’t beat the system; I take advantage of it. My job is to tear it apart and show you that you can do it too.”
But how? Let’s say you want to pay