That’s the Ticket
Dallas to Honolulu for $211 round-trip? It’s possible if you know the ins and outs of discount travel. Tom Parsons does.
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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 less than full fare to fly with a friend. “Continental has a deal right now with Toys ‘R’ Us,” Parsons says. “You buy $50 worth of toys and you get a fifty-percent-off coupon for a companion anywhere in the U.S., including Hawaii. If your fare to Honolulu is $563, you can take a second person for $282. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to realize that a $50 donation of toys to charity, which you can write off, will save you more than $280.” (Earlier this year, Parsons dug up an even sweeter deal: a $211 round-trip fare between Dallas and Hawaii that the airlines posted on the Net for a few hours on three occasions. “In January we’re installing a search engine on our Web site, www.bestfares.com, so subscribers can find fares like that on their own,” he says.)
He applies the same methodology to hotels. “If you’re going to San Diego, don’t call your local travel agent, because she or he most likely has never been there. Call a travel agent in San Diego. They’ve got the local deals and know the good parts of town and the parts of town to stay away from.” What about car rentals? “Avoid the franchises unless your business requires it. Local agencies are always cheaper.” Taxis? “In Manhattan I take a limo instead. It’s cheaper and more comfortable.”
Parsons’ straight-shooting has made him a media darling. His first radio appearance was on Tom Snyder’s nationally syndicated show in 1987; eleven years later, he averages one hundred radio spots and ten TV spots a month, and he’s been featured in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, on CNN, and on the network morning shows. “The only thing I haven’t been on is Jerry Springer,” he jokes. You get the idea Parsons has never met an open mike or a camera that he didn’t like. “It’s worth millions of dollars a year to me,” he says. “My ad budget is zero.”
In February 1997 Parsons took his act to a whole other level with his Web site. The online version of his magazine caught on fast, attracting 200 subscribers at $78 a pop in the first month alone; he currently brings in about 5,600 new subscribers a month at a rate of $59.95 each and averages 40,000 visits to the site a day. The Internet’s rapid-response capabilities serve his customers well because the cheap fares he finds typically last from a few hours to a few days.
Since the Web site went live, Parsons’ company has doubled in size and now logs $30 million a year in sales. His magazine, now called Bestfares.com, has nearly doubled its circulation to 98,000 and has started accepting advertising from travel-related businesses—provided, Parsons says, they do right by their customers. His empire also includes four associated travel clubs, including the Discount Travel Network; they’re located just down the hall from his office so that Best Fares subscribers can plan trips. Then there’s his self-published book, Insider Travel Secrets, the second edition of which came out in July; it’s a collection of his favorite advice for a general travel audience. “Everybody loves to save a buck,” he says.
If it sounds like Best Fares is something of a one man-show, it is, though Parsons knows he can’t do it all forever, which is why he has begun training other employees in the complexities of fares and schedules and has added four staffers to handle media relations. “We don’t want to kill him, but we want to keep him busy,” says Guerra. “When his eyes glaze over and he goes into computer mode, just spouting numbers and prices, you step back and get out of his way.”