Airfares are up considerably from last year, but with a bit of sleuthing good deals can still be uncovered. Here's how.
SUMMER IS HEATING UP, and so are airfares.
"Leisure travelers this summer are paying more to travel by air than they did last summer," says Terry Trippler, airline expert with Cheapseats.com. "And they're probably paying less to travel by air this summer than they're going to next summer. The overall trend in air fares is up."
Compared with last summer, the cost of fares booked through the end of May was up an average of 8%, according to travel search engine Travelocity.com. And at SideStep.com, another travel engine, flight prices were up 7.4% on bookings through the middle of May.
Many travelers -- especially those who live in cities not serviced by low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines (LUV), Independence Air (FLYI) and JetBlue Airways (JBLU) -- are feeling the sting of higher prices. The legacy airlines have hiked fares seven times since the end of February, with each hike averaging $10 to $20, according to Tom Parsons, publisher of Bestfares.com. "Today, when we look at air fares on non-competitive routes like Dallas to Albany, N.Y., we're seeing fares that were selling last summer for $328 now selling for $478 as an everyday fare," he says. "That's a humongous difference."
This is all bad news for travelers who've grown accustomed to snagging a last-minute deal. "There aren't going to be a lot of tremendous sales, and one reason is that many seats have already been sold," Trippler says.
Does this mean you'll be spending your summer vacation in your backyard? Of course not. There are always good deals lurking somewhere. Here's how to find them.
1. Check Alternative Airports
As we mentioned earlier, the price increases in markets not covered by low-cost carriers are substantial. How best to avoid them? Fly to or from an alternate airport. Right now, the cheapest airfare from Albany to Dallas, for example, is $484 round-trip on a number of airlines, including American Airlines (AMR), Continental Airlines (CAL), US Airways, United Airlines and Northwest Airlines (NWAC), according to Bestfares.com. But if you're willing -- and have the time -- to drive the 140 miles to Newark's International Liberty airport, you could fly to and from Dallas for as little as $238 on ATA. (The deal was available as of June 1, and is valid for travel until Nov. 8, 2005.) Even with the cost of long-term parking at $5 for each 12-hour period, you may come out ahead, depending on the length of your trip.
Even if you're traveling a route where the competition is tough, it pays to check nearby alternatives. Consider, for example, a Dallas to San Diego round trip flight, which costs $363 or more. At the same time, flights from Dallas to Los Angeles -- about 100 miles north of San Diego -- are $158 (with certain restrictions on travel dates), and those to Orange County -- 75 miles away -- are $188. "If you're going to rent a car in California anyway, why not fly into Orange County, where it's $150 cheaper per person, and the ride to San Diego isn't that bad, anyway," Parsons says.
Worried that the high cost of gasoline will eat into your airfare savings? Consider this: With a compact car like a Dodge Neon or Honda Civic that can travel roughly 30 miles per gallon of fuel, you will need about 3.5 gallons to reach a destination 100 miles away. Even at $2.09 per gallon of regular unleaded -- the national average on May 31, according to the American Automobile Association -- driving would set you back less than $8. Even a gas-gulping SUV like the Ford Expedition (14 mpg in the city and 18 on the highway) would cost $15 to drive 100 miles.
Many travel search engines, including SideStep, Travelocity and Bestfares, allow you to compare prices at surrounding airports.
2. Watch for Special Deals
Folks who search obsessively for bargains will be rewarded. "You'll have to be like a hawk and watch your markets every day," says Bestfares.com's Parsons.
The places to go this summer are the airlines' own web sites, he says. Southwest, for example, offers last-minute deals that can knock 30% to 50% off normal air fares, according to Parsons. You need to download and install a software program called "Ding" in order to receive alerts. Deals usually last only for a few hours after they are posted. (On June 1, the airline offered a $125 round-trip fare from Albany to Las Vegas, amazing $27 deals on shorter routes, such as Dallas to Houston or Long Island to Baltimore, and many more.)
America West's (AWA) special deals are largely available only through its own web site. AirTran (AAI) also posts fare sales online, including a Boston-to-Philadelphia deal for $39 each way (the current sales are available through June 9). These deals might not be picked up by the online travel agents like Expedia and Travelocity, but should appear on search engines that trawl the airlines' web sites, like SideStep.
Other airlines offer discount programs via their sites for specific market segments. Independence Air now offers a great deal for students. With a $249 summer travel pass, college kids can fly anywhere east of the Mississippi for free. The pass is only valid for travel on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
A word of caution: Many of those special deals don't include taxes and fees, which can add $20 or more to the price of the ticket. Make sure you know the full price (it should be provided before you purchase a ticket) before you comparison-shop. 3. Book Now or Wait It Out
In today's tight market, if you see a good deal on a flight, grab it before someone else does.
"Don't go out looking for the absolute rock-bottom fare," says CheapSeats' Trippler. "You're going to drive yourself nuts. After you've done a little bit of searching, you've got to figure out what a fair price is, then buy it and relax."
You might also find savings if you're willing to postpone your vacation plans until after Labor Day. The old supply-demand rule applies here. "We'll see cheaper airfares than we're seeing now because the demand will drop dramatically," Parsons says.
4. Consider a Package Deal
Package deals -- booking a flight together with a hotel and/or car rental -- are becoming an increasingly popular way to plan travel. Back in 2003, only 6% of online travel was booked as a package, according to PhoCusWright, a travel industry research organization in Sherman, Conn. By 2006, PhoCusWright projects that 13% of bookings will be package deals, bringing in $10.3 billion in revenue to the travel industry. That would be a whopping 368% increase since 2003.
What's the appeal? Other than saving time, packages can also save heaps of cash, especially if you're booking a last-minute deal. We recently searched Site59.com, a last-minute weekend getaway travel engine owned by Travelocity, for deals on a trip from San Francisco to Orlando, Fla., starting June 9 and coming back on June 14. We found an amazing $391.87 per person offer that included air fare and a five-night hotel stay at a three-star hotel. Booked separately, airfare alone would've cost at least $349 per person.
When we searched for late-June package deals using SideStep.com's package search and compared them with prices if booked separately, we also found admirable savings: a June 18 to June 26 trip from San Francisco to Orlando would cost $666 per person, including stay at a two-star Days Inn hotel, compared with $744.14 if flight and the same hotel were booked separately. On the higher end, the savings were even more generous. You'd pay $1,255.94 per person if staying at the five-star Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress hotel in Orlando as part of a package deal, or $1,955 if booking separately.
Keep in mind, though, that if you're booking travel for one person only, a package will probably cost more. That Hyatt Regency deal would've been $1,974.58 for one traveler only -- slightly more expensive than when booked separately.
5. Cut Corners Elsewhere
Finally, be sure to look for ways to save on other aspects of your vacation. You can cut your restaurant costs by picking a hotel room with a kitchenette, suggests Amy Ziff, editor at large of Travelocity.com.
If you're traveling to an urban destination, such as New York or Washington, D.C., you might want to reconsider how close to the city you're willing to stay, says Justin McNaull, a spokesman for AAA. He recommends finding a hotel that's further out in the city suburbs, but still close to a mass transit line so you have cheap transportation to the tourist spots.