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October 8, 2003 -- My grandmother is well into her 70s, but you wouldn't know it from her busy social calendar. I suspect she has more frequent-flier miles than I do, and I'm a travel writer.

Recently, when helping her to arrange a trip (she could do it herself, but what are travel-writer grandsons for?) I stumbled upon United's Silver Wings Plus program (www.silverwingsplus.com), a discount plan that can save you serious bucks on flights ... if you're going to the right places.

What's best, you don't even need to be a senior to use Silver Wings Plus. You only have to be 55 years old. Last I checked, that fell smack into the "middle-aged" category.

Up Front Costs, Down-The-Line Savings

Silver Wings Plus tries to lock you into flying United by asking for a $75 membership fee for a two-year membership or a $225 fee for a lifetime membership. The lifetime membership is a better deal if you're 60 and have a good 20 years of traveling left in you. Only one member of a couple or family needs to sign up.

With a two-year membership, you get three $25 discount certificates on United and a $100 Lufthansa discount certificate. The lifetime membership comes with three United discount coupons worth up to $75 each, two United 15%-off coupons, and two $100 Lufthansa certificates. Both kinds of memberships come with a slew of cruise discount coupons as well.

Silver Wings flights (on United or Lufthansa) are flat fares, posted on the Silver Wings Web site. To fly on them, you buy a book of four SW coupons for $25 and then book the flight using one of those coupons, which locks in the special SW fare. The flight you're asking to book on must have seats available in 'Q' class, a common coach class which usually has plenty of seats allocated to it.

As you can tell, this is a plan for frequent leisure travelers. If you only fly once or twice a year, Silver Wings may not be worth the savings.

Gleaming Fares With Silver Wings

Silver Wings' fares are always charted out on their Web site, so you can check them against other fares that are out there. This is important because while some Silver Wings fares are great, others are often beaten by discount airlines -- or by United's own sales.

Silver Wings is best if you often fly to Asia. Fares of $550 from New York or the West Coast, and $600 from the mountain states to a variety of Chinese or Japanese destinations are up there with the best sales available, and you can book these fares any time. Similarly, $850 from the West Coast and $1,050 from the East Coast to Australia matches many of the best sales we've seen, with fewer restrictions. Flights cost a bit more over the weekends and during Christmas, but this is still a great way to save to Asia.

Fares to Europe are more ambivalent, but SW can still be useful if you fly from a high-fare airport or don't want to stress about sales. Summer fares of $550 from the East Coast and $625 from the middle of the country to Europe are good, but crazy fare wars sometimes go lower. Winter fares of $375 from the East Coast are terrific if you're flying from Birmingham, Charleston, Huntington or Portland to Europe, but you can do better from New York.

For domestic flights, SW is only useful if you're traveling to or from particularly high-fare airports or during holidays (as SW has no blackout dates.) Flights within your own region of the country (the Northeast, say, or the Pacific Northwest) are a flat $149 roundtrip, which is decent, especially if you're flying between small airports not served by the likes of AirTran or Southwest. But a flight from Chicago to Texas will run you $239, which can usually be beat by ATA. And the cross-country fares of $309-349 before taxes are lousy in this era of $199 cross-country fare sales. But SW may give you a wider range of flight choices than some sale fares.

Finally, we can't get too excited about SW's fares to Latin America. $380 from most of the country to Mexico City is pretty good, especially with Silver Wings' lack of restrictions. But we can beat $750 to Brazil and Argentina with ethnic consolidators, and we bet you can, too.

So depending on your home airport and preferred destinations, Silver Wings might be for you. In these days when senior coupon books are mostly a thing of the past, this is the one of the best airfare discounts still around for the over-55 set.

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