10 Tips for Getting a Private Jet for Less

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Skip the lines, forget taking off your shoes, and hop aboard your private jet. Now it's time to unbuckle your wallet. Regardless whether your thoughts veer towards purchasing one outright or arranging chartered service, the cost of a private jet can reach stratospheric heights. Here are several ways to fly a charter jet for less and a tip or two if you're determined to own one.

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Chartered private jet flights can cost thousands of dollars, sometimes tens of thousands, each way. The bottom line depends on several factors, not least of which are mileage and choice of aircraft. But inexpensive chartered flights do exist, costing just a few hundred dollars for the entire plane -- not per passenger. Before your hopes soar too high, know that such rock-bottom prices mean 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 downside is you don't get to pick your route, date, or time of travel. Keep an eye out for a deal that works for you.

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Another way to access discounted private jet service is with a jet card. Jet cards are offered by many companies, typically small charter brokers, such as JumpJet and BlackJet, and commercial airlines like Delta that also operate a fleet of smaller planes. 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.

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Richard Zaher of Paramount Business Jets, which offers a membership service, stresses that interested parties should pay close attention to the fine print. Some companies charge a fee to cancel a membership 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.

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If you aren't looking for a one-off deal, you'll likely work with a charter operator or a broker to arrange flights. 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 (DOT) to fly charters for clients.

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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 it's easy to enter this business, so 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. Be sure the broker or operator offers a guaranteed, itemized, and all-inclusive quote upfront.

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Relationships that brokers build with local operators mean they may be able to find special discounts and the most reliable and safest options. For example, they may be able 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).

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The CEO of ClipperJet, James Occhipinti, recommends against brokers all together, largely to avoid the middleman fees. Instead, would-be passengers can troll Charter Hub magazine (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.

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If you want to own a plane, industry sources report that an early model Cessna Citation can be had for $200,000-plus and a pre-owned Gulfstream 2 or 3 goes for $600,000-$800,000. While the price of an older-model jet is certainly less than the latest and greatest, fuel and maintenance costs are invariably higher. Warns Paul Sanchez, chief strategy officer at ClipperJet: "This can be a pay me now or pay me later exercise."

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Before buying a plane, join a local owner's club and attend a few meetings. You'll get insider tips about planes and local resources that salespeople may not know or share. Another option is to band together with other potential buyers and become a fractional owner of a plane -- a bit like a timeshare arrangement. There are also companies that own and operate dozens of planes and sell fractional owner shares. With enough planes on standby, there's always one available when you need it but be prepared to shell out a minimum of $250,000.

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Not everyone needs a private 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.