How to Fly Private Even If You’re Not a Millionaire: 10 Airlines to Consider
Though having a private plane may still be the ultimate sign of luxury and status, a growing number of transportation startups are leveling the field for the rest of us.
These companies all offer variations of the same service: private flights that can compete with commercial airlines on price and convenience.
“Air travel doesn't have to be the painful endeavor that the airlines, airports and security regulations have created,” explains Chris Dupin, a captain for Hopscotch Air, one of the airlines offering private flights. “Nor does it have to be accessible only to multimillionaires.”
The flights offered by these companies are still nowhere near cheap, but for those of you who consider your time to be very valuable -- and have some dollars to spare -- flying private is worth a look.
The Benefits of Flying Private
Why would you want to lay out the extra cash for a private plane? Here are a few reasons some travelers say it’s worth every penny.
Less Wasted Time
By far, the time savings is the biggest draw touted by both the companies and their customers. Most private plane companies require you to show up only 15 minutes before your scheduled departure, which is a far cry from the one to two hours recommended by commercial airlines.
“We are generally off the ground 10 minutes after you board,” says Dupin, “and we use private terminals so there is little delay.”
Chances are, the people on your private flight are going to be highly successful, and being on a small plane together will afford you unparalleled opportunities to network and connect.
“Networking opportunities with other members are not to be overlooked,” says Stewart Noble, whose employer Club Sportiva has a corporate membership with Surf Air. He’s made seven or eight trips between LA and the Bay Area in the past few months and says he would “absolutely” recommend the service to others.
One of the worst aspects of flying commercially is the rigidity of the tickets; life is impossible to predict, and no one likes paying hefty change or cancellation fees. Many private airline companies allow you to make alterations to your booking for free.
Private plane companies often use smaller airports, which may be closer to your home or work. Hopscotch Air, for example, flies from White Plains, NY directly to Bedford, MA (where many technology companies are based); in traffic time alone, Dupin estimates this saves his passengers an average of 45 minutes.
The Drawbacks of Flying Private
Before you swear your allegiance to one of these private plane companies, keep in mind there are certain drawbacks to flying this way.
For the cheapest private plane deals we’ll explain below, you’ll often need to pack up in a jiffy, as well as bring several of your closest friends to fill the plane.
Unless you’re booking a jet for millions of dollars, your plane is going to be small, sometimes only seating three passengers plus a pilot. Smaller planes experience stronger turbulence and are more likely to crash -- so they’re probably not a good fit for nervous flyers.
Though small airports are located across the country, the networks of discounted private plane companies are still developing, and may not fly where you want to go.
Fees normally included in the cost of commercial airline tickets, such as de-icing and fuel surcharges, may be tacked on to the price of your private plane ticket. Before booking, be sure to clarify what’s included.
Who Offers Private Plane Service?
If you’re interested in flying private, your next step is to figure out which company to use. We’ve rounded up the big players and their services and prices below, but keep in mind that this information is constantly changing.
Founded by some former Surf Air execs, this airline hopes to start carrying passengers in late summer or early fall of 2015. They plan to fly only the NYC to Boston route at first, later adding seasonal service to Nantucket and the Hamptons.
You can get unlimited flights for a membership fee of $2,000 per month, plus $1,200 for each additional family member, and you can reserve up to four flights in advance.
Another new entrant to the field, Clipper Jet plans to focus on cross-country service between LA and NYC. Soon after, they want to roll out routes like LA to Las Vegas, NYC to Atlanta, NYC to South Florida, LA to Chicago, and perhaps even NYC to London.
Membership, which costs $9,700 a month, includes four one-way trips and some unique perks: If a flight has an open seat within 24 hours of departure, you can claim it for free, without it counting as one of your trips; unused flight legs roll over for the next six months; and if flights are full seven days in advance, Clipper Jet will buy a first-class ticket for you to fly commercially.
Just like it sounds, this is an air taxi service for up to six people. To become a member, you need to put a hefty $25,000 into your account, which is applicable to the cost of your flights and is fully refundable.
After that, the cost to charter a plane is $3,200 the first hour and $2,200 for each hour following. This only makes sense if you have a big group: some sample rates from their website include South Florida to the Bahamas for $583 per person, or Block Island to Worcester for $541 per person.
This private air services specializes in smaller airports in the Northeast. They have fixed fares for hiring the entire plane, which carries up to three people.
One popular route is the aforementioned White Plains to Bedford, which costs $1,700 for three people on a same day round-trip, plus additional fees for waiting time. If you wanted them to wait for four hours while you and your colleagues were in a meeting, for example, it would cost an extra $150.
Though this company does offer hourly flights and memberships, they are pricey. Us regular folk will probably be most enticed by their “SuiteDeals,” next-day departures offered at steep discounts. On their site, you can register to receive email or text alerts for departures within 25, 50 or 100 miles of your home.
Some recent deals include: four seats from North Bend, OR to Seattle, or San Diego to Las Vegas, for $536 ($134 per person). Two things worth noting: you’ll have to fill the plane to take advantage of these deals, and they’re one-way, so you’ll need to find an alternative way home.
Unlike the other airlines, all of Jumpjet’s prices are round-trip. They also have a unique pricing model: they charge you by the number of time zones you fly through. Note that they charge a fee if you want to pay by credit card.
Their $21 Club costs $21 a year to join, and allows you access to rates like NYC to Miami for $450-750, Seattle to Houston for $750, NYC to LA for $1,100, and Dallas to San Francisco for $550-850. Their Upperclub Premiere membership costs $550 to activate and $2,350 a month thereafter; it includes 10 round-trip flights within one time zone, as well as complimentary access to empty seats.
Like Jetsuite, this company acts as a broker for private flights. Most appealing are its “empty legs,” which are planes returning from a charter that are available at a reduced rate. Unlike JetSuite, though, they list their fares much farther in advance -- often as far out as several months.
Recent fares include: nine seats from Denver to Saratoga Springs, NY for $2,100 ($233 per person) and seven seats from Atlantic City to Milwaukee for $6,900 ($985 per person).
This company offers service between a handful of West Coast cities: Scottsdale, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and Cabo San Lucas, as well as one cross-country service between LA and NYC. Membership requires a one-time fee of $99.95 (for a security check) and is $99.95 a month thereafter.
Though membership is cheap, flights are not free: They cost approximately $400-500 one-way (including taxes and fees) for travel between the domestic West Coast cities, and approximately $800-1,000 for flights to and from Cabo San Lucas. If you want to use their cross-country service, you have to purchase an Elite Membership, which costs $999.95 a month; once you’re a member, flights cost approximately $3,300-4,000 one-way.
This rapidly expanding airline offers service in 11 cities in California. To become a member, you need to pay a $1,000 initiation fee, plus a monthly membership fee of $1,750. (If you’ve ever spent time in LA traffic, you can understand how that might sound like a bargain!) With your membership, you receive unlimited flights between two locations.
Ciarán Byrne decided to sign up for the service when he moved to LA but wanted to maintain contract work in San Francisco. He’s now flown with Surf Air 30-40 times and “would absolutely recommend” it to anyone who travels between two California cities regularly. “It makes air-travel a joyous experience and I cannot emphasize how convenient it is,” he says. “It can help save huge amounts of time and you also get to meet some interesting people.”
Based in Europe, this airline brokerage service prides itself on offering “full transparency,” because they disclose all their transaction fees, as well as aircraft and operator details. Like JetSuite and PrivateFly, their “Empty Legs” offer the best deals.
Some recent rates include eight seats from London to Isle of Man for $5,309 ($663 per person); Avignon, France to Norwich, UK for $2,815 ($352 per person); and Venice to London for $4,424 ($553 per person).
How to Fly Private
As you can see, flying private ain’t exactly cheap -- but it’s also no longer only accessible to millionaires.
“Roughly 50% of our new customers are new to the private air travel business,” says Hopscotch Air’s Dupin, whose company is “experiencing significant retention.” (We understand why: It’d be hard to go back to flying commercially once you’ve had the chance to fly private!)
If you’re interested in flying private and want to score a killer deal, it’s essential to have flexible dates. Sign up for alerts from the deal brokerage sites listed above, and keep a list of friends on speed dial whom you could convince to accompany you.
If you’d prefer to plan ahead, “Call the company and ask about the cost differences between, say, a Saturday and a Tuesday and see if you can fly into a nearby airport,” Justin Sullivan, co-founder of FLITE Air Taxi, told The New York Post. “Fridays and Sundays tend to be the most expensive times to travel.”
Want to learn more about getting great deals on unique travel experiences? Join the Travel Hacking Cartel, a community of expert travel hackers.
Your Turn: Do you want to fly private? What do you think of these services?
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Susan Shain (@Susan_Shain) is a freelance writer and travel blogger who is always seeking adventure on a budget.