Megan Murray has been relentlessly shopping for airline tickets since February, hoping to snag a deal to New Jersey for her brother’s Fourth of July party.
But the 31-year-old graphic designer has come up empty. The lowest round-trip fare to Newark she found last week: $421, up from $380 last summer and nearly double the bargain fare she grabbed for a getaway to Boston earlier this year.
“I’m probably not going to go,” Murray said.
As the calendar creeps toward May and its signature summer-is-around-the-corner events — the end of school and Memorial Day — more travelers will be striking out as they search for bargain vacation airfares.
The cheap fares travelers enjoyed just a few summers ago are gone, killed off by a combination of an improving economy, rising fuel prices and fewer airline flights.
Out of Phoenix, round-trip flights to popular Hawaiian islands including Maui and the Big Island start at $900 for a July trip, more than double the lowest rate available in 2009. Phoenix to Chicago, an urban getaway for tourists and vacationers visiting family, is $450 round-trip in mid-June. Hoping to soak in the pre-Olympics excitement in London? British Airways’ non-stop flight to London from Phoenix is nearly $1,400 round trip in mid-June.
Overall, average summer airfares this year are up 3 to 10 percent from a year ago, according to travel experts. Online agency Travelocity is seeing domestic fares up 3 percent; international fares, 5 percent. CheapOAir.com estimates domestic and international fares will be up between 7 and 10 percent.
Those increases aren’t as hefty as last summer’s price hikes, but that’s only because fares started at a higher level following seven fare increases in early 2011 due to high fuel costs. With fuel costs still high, airlines have raised fares three times this year. One Wall Street analyst estimates carriers have to raise domestic round-trip fares $6 to recoup every $5-per-barrel increase in oil.
“A lot of people think that the airfares are going to go down, and sadly they’re not going down,” said Wally Jones, travel consultant with Travel Leaders in Phoenix.
Airlines have been able to boost fares for two key reasons: Travel demand is strong thanks to the improving economy, and there are fewer seats to sell. Most airlines have been shedding unprofitable flights the past few years to survive high fuel costs and the recession. That’s why travelers see fewer, if any, non-stop flights on their favorite routes.
The upshot: Airlines are able to fill their planes without giving seats away.
“It’s unlikely that there will be aggressive fare sales this year,” US Airways President Scott Kirby said last month.
Most travelers haven’t booked their summer trips. Tempe-based US Airways estimates that just one-quarter of its summer bookings are in. Jones said only one in five of his clients has made reservations. That’s not unusual. Even though travel agents like Jones urge clients to start shopping early, especially when fares are on the rise, most travelers wait until after spring break and Easter to start planning summer travel.
Jones expects a booking rush beginning this week.
“I’ll probably start getting inundated with e-mails and phone calls with people that have been putting it off,” he said.
He is ready with his answer to those who ask, “Do you think it’s going to go down?” when he quotes prices: “No.”
“Actually, I’ve seen prices go up,” he said.
Courtney Scott, Travelocity’s senior editor, said her best advice for summer-travel shoppers is to act quickly when they find a palatable price.
“Now is not the time to wait and anticipate, ‘Maybe it might go down next week,”’ she said. “When you see the deal, you have to book it.”
Murray, who lives in Phoenix, is more than ready to pounce but isn’t hopeful she’ll find a deal for the Fourth of July. So, she’s making alternative plans. The backups: Stay in Phoenix or head to San Diego — by car.
Travel tips for finding the best prices:
Watch for fare sales. The deals may not blow you away like airfare sales of the past, but there usually are some savings. Pay particular attention to the websites and Facebook pages of airlines, online travel agencies and travel-deal sites on Tuesdays, when many sales are launched. Last week, Southwest, JetBlue and Alaska had Tuesday sales. Southwest recently started Tick Tock Tuesday, with fares on sale to a particular city or state. Last week, flights to Florida were on sale, although summer travel was not included. Alaska had a one-day sale offering 10 percent off all flights.
Set up airfare alerts. Most online travel agencies and several other sites, including FareCompare, Travelocity, Kayak, Airfarewatchdog and TripAdvisor, offer free e-mail alerts. Enter the information on the trip you are watching and you’ll get an e-mail if the price changes.
Be flexible. Non-stop flights are convenient, but you will pay a premium over flights with a connection or two. Also consider off-peak flight times and days, even if it means an extra day off or less sleep. Southwest Airlines’ cheapest fares to Las Vegas for Memorial Day weekend are already gone if you want to depart after work on Friday and come back on Monday afternoon. The lowest round-trip fare at those times: $383. Leave ultra-early Friday morning and return late Sunday, instead, and the lowest fare is $120 round trip as of late last week.
Consider alternative destinations. This isn’t the year to make London the centerpiece of your European vacation if you haven’t booked yet. Check out Greece, which has had a slew of economic problems, for bargains, Jones said. Is Hawaii too much for the budget? Beach lovers will find great deals in resort destinations in Mexico, including Cancun, he said. Cancun is the sixth-most-popular summer travel destination this year among Travelocity customers, Scott said. The top five: Orlando, Las Vegas, New York City, South Florida and Los Angeles. Jones said he has seen an uptick in requests about the Caribbean.
Check out vacation packages. Many tour companies have contracts with airlines and offer discounted air as part of a hotel-and-air package. “We’ve been doing this for a while because it’salways been the better deal,” Jones said.
Look beyond major airports. In Phoenix, that would be Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. Allegiant Air serves more than 30 (mostly smaller) cities from east Mesa, most recently adding Las Vegas, and Spirit Airlines just began service, with flights to Las Vegas and Dallas. When comparing fares, be sure to compare fees, too. Allegiant and Spirit are known for ultra-low fares and a variety of fees, some of which other airlines don’t charge.
Shop on your smartphone or other mobile device. Trying to offset higher airfare costs? If you don’t mind winging it, save money on hotels with last-minute deals on apps from Hotel Tonight, Priceline and others. Travelocity offers Mobile Exclusive deals. Popular websites for deep hotel discounts include Hotwire.com and Priceline.com.
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