Fewer seats and more travelers returning to the skies means you can forget landing a cheap airfare deal this summer.
A survey of the average round-trip purchase price of an airline ticket on Travelocity.com found prices are 13.4% higher than last summer, and slightly higher than 2008. The average fare for all domestic and international flights purchased on the travel site jumped from $415 last summer to $471 this year.
Travelocity.com's survey of 10 top summer destinations served by the major airlines found average ticket prices ranging from $259 to Orlando to $365 to Seattle.
The only destination on the list that saw a ticket price decline from last summer was Cancun, Mexico, at $414 a ticket, down less than 1%. Average ticket prices to Las Vegas were $333, the biggest increase, at 12.6%. Tickets to Europe saw even greater increases.
Prices High Through August
Travelocity.com's survey is a solid indicator of prices, since it is based on actual tickets purchased, not on advertised prices. Prices are likely to decline in September.
Three factors are driving airfare price increases for summer, said Travelocity.com Senior Editor Genevieve Shaw Brown. The capacity cuts that have taken place over the last year mean fewer available seats and more competition, which ultimately leads to higher prices.
The second is pent-up leisure travel demand. Many people put vacations on hold in 2009 and are now ready to take advantage of the deals available. The third is lower hotel prices. Airlines benefit from lower hotel rates, which make the total cost of a trip lower, even if fares are higher. Overall, hotel rates are down 12% from 2008, Brown said.
George Hobica, founder of New York-based Airfarewatchdog.com, is seeing the same trend. Unlike last summer, there are fewer round-trip tickets under the $250 price-point, he says. He attributes this to the return of business travelers driving the price increases.
See a Cheap Ticket? Take It
"If you see a domestic fare for $250 round-trip, no matter where it goes, you should take it," Hobica says. "For Europe, the same goes for tickets under $600."
These heated up prices run Memorial Day through Labor Day as airlines finally get a chance to charge prices that can turn a profit. A review of airline stocks, most of which are up for the year, confirm the uptick in business, and analysts see consistent long-term growth for the larger airlines.
The merger between Delta Air Lines (DAL) and Northwest, creating the largest airline in the U.S., is putting pressure on other airlines. Southwest Airlines (LUV), which carried more passengers than any other U.S. carrier last year, cut its number of airline seats by nearly 10%. Those cuts, a first for the airline, led to a higher load-factor.
Industry Is Optimistic
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) last month offered a more optimistic look for the airline industry based on increased demand. The industry trade group predicts a 5.6% increase in passenger demand this year, compared to a 2.9% decline last year.
Both Brown and Hobica say you can still find some deals, but you have to act quickly and have some flexibility on your days of travel.
"The summer airfare sales we've seen so far this year have been two to three days in duration, and the lowest prices are for Tuesday and Wednesdays," Brown says. "Even in the absence of sales, that's a good tip -- Tuesdays and Wednesdays are often the least-traveled days of the week and often offer the lowest fares." (The most expensive travel days are Friday and Sunday).
To help get the best deal, keep checking airline reservation sites for unannounced one- and two-day, sales and be flexible on your travel dates. Travelers may also be able to find cheaper fares on partner airlines sites. For instance, George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, said he finds cheaper United Airlines flights on partner Web sites, such as USAirways.com, rather than the United.com site.
Good sites to make "favorites" include airfarewatchdog.com, kayak.com, bookingbuddy.com, Vayama.com and Cfares.com. Some of these sites allow you to sign up for "fare alerts" via email.
Top Summer Destinations Airfare Data
(Destination, Summer 2010 Average Ticket Price, One-Year Fare Change)
Orlando Area, $259.05, 0.1%
Las Vegas, $333.20, 12.6%
Seattle Area, $365.04, 9.3%
New York City Area, $354.12, 0.4%
South Florida, $303.33, 1.2%
Los Angeles Area, $349.12, 4.9%
Cancun, Mexico, $414.85, -0.8%
San Francisco Bay Area, $351.75, 8.0%
Denver Area, $289.40, 5.5%
Washington DC Area, $301.11, 11.6%
This story was updated on April 6, 2010 to include additional savings tips for travelers.
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