Originally created 12/30/98

Supermarket shopper



Have you priced an airline ticket and almost fainted when you learned how much it cost? Or have you found an inexpensive fare advertised and then been disappointed to find there were no seats left in that fare class on the dates you wanted to travel? These are common complaints expressed by consumers who try to travel economically.

However, there may be some relief if you live in an area with a supermarket that participates in a discount-travel program offered by TWA. Farm Fresh supermarkets in Norfolk, Va., decided to offer its customers the TWA promotion. For each $100 in qualifying Farm Fresh purchases made by March 31, shoppers receive a free TWA travel certificate. The certificate allows Farm Fresh customers to purchase a discounted round-trip zone fare for travel to and from Norfolk. For example, the round-trip fare to Massachusetts is $190, to Minnesota is $250, and to California is $310.

Yes, there are restrictions, such as a 14-day advance reservation and a Saturday stay (except for travel to or from Las Vegas, Reno, Nev., or Steamboat Springs, Nev., where a two-night minimum stay applies). Travel must be from noon on Monday through 11:59 a.m. Thursday, and from noon Saturday through 11:59 a.m. Sunday. There are holiday blackout periods. You also get the option to use the certificate for a 15 percent discount on any published TWA round-trip fare, seven days a week, with fewer restrictions. Travel using the certificates must commence by June 15.

The Meijer chain in Cincinnati, Dayton and Indianapolis is also participating in the TWA program. Typical zone round-trip fares from these cities are $188 to Minnesota and $263 to California. Qualifying purchases must be made by March 31, and travel must commence by June 15.

If you shop at any of the seventy participating HyVee supermarkets in Iowa, you can take advantage of the TWA discount program. Purchases must be made by April 30, and travel must be completed by May 15. Zone round-trip fares include $185 to Toronto, $245 to New York and $290 to California.

Shoppers at Kroger stores in Columbus, Ohio, and Louisville, Ky., can also participate. Purchases must be made by Feb. 6; travel must commence by April 25.

I called TWA's toll-free number for information about participating in the promotion. That number is: (800) 221-2000. I spoke to an agent who told me that one of the problems with the promotion is a perception among some supermarket customers that the TWA travel certificate entitles them to free airline tickets. It does not. The certificate merely offers a discounted fare. The agent, who asked not to be identified, told me that the likelihood of finding an available seat for this class of service is reasonably good, but cautioned that travelers should make their reservations as far in advance as possible.

Are these fares bargains? Jim Brown, a TWA spokesperson, said "This is a type of fare that is similar to regular fares that are on sale, and it has fewer restrictions. They are a good deal for consumers, for supermarkets, and they work well for TWA."

Supermarkets that would like to participate in TWA's travel-certificate program should call Barbara Pottinger at (281) 648-1542. She's in charge of the travel-certificate marketing program.

TWA is not the only airline interested in working with supermarkets. AirTran, a low-cost carrier, has teamed up with Acme supermarkets in Philadelphia to offer discounts on one-way tickets to or from Philadelphia and 18 cities. Among the 18 cities are Atlanta; Boston; Chicago; Dallas/Fort Worth; Houston, Texas; Jacksonville, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; Miami; New Orleans and Orlando, Fla. For each qualifying $50 Acme purchase made by Jan. 31, an Acme customer can purchase a one-way ticket to any of these cities for $79.95. This special fare is only good on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; an additional charge of $30 is made for travel on other days. A 14-day advance reservation is required. Tickets are nonrefundable, but can be changed with a payment of $45 and any fare difference. There are holiday blackout dates. Travel must be completed by Dec. 15.

Airline-ticket discounts are a nice bonus for shopping at a participating supermarket, because smart shoppers need every possible opportunity to bring down the high cost of air travel. The programs are also good for supermarkets because they cost very little. In some cases, they cost the supermarket nothing but what is spent advertising them. TWA and AirTran get free advertising by the supermarkets and the opportunity to fill empty seats. I hope more airlines will consider the benefits of working with supermarkets.

Write to Martin Sloane care of United Feature Syndicate, 2006 Madison Ave., fourth floor, New York, NY 10016.