By Kelli B. Grant
As airfares keep flying higher, consumers may need to reassess what constitutes a bargain.
A Federal Aviation Administration report released Thursday predicts that a combination of crowded planes and shrinking capacity will continue to lift fares this year — and experts say higher fuel prices are further exacerbating prices. Airfares increased 17% last year, according to Farecompare.com, and prices are already up 4% this year.
Consumers will need to adjust their expectations when it comes to fare sales and when a deal is good enough to buy, says George Hobica, founder of fare-tracking site Airfarewatchdog.com. Where $200 was a great deal for travel to Europe a few years ago, he says, today the best-available fares are in the $700 to $800 range. “If $200 is your benchmark, you can wait until you’re dead and never go to Europe,” he says.
But it’s not all doom-and-gloom for fliers. “Even though airfares are rising as a whole, you can still find great deals,” says travel expert Johnny Jet, host of Travel Channel’s “Hot Spots 2012.” Delta, for example, recently offered round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Singapore for as little as $655, including all taxes. (Other fares for the same time period cost at least $900, and more typically $1,400, including taxes and fees.)
With this new normal for airfares in mind, travelers can employ a handful of tactics to make sure they’re getting the best price:
Set fare alerts
“These days, there aren’t any secret deals,” says Ed Perkins, a contributing editor for advice site SmarterTravel.com. But many are fast-ending, lasting just a few hours as seats fill up. To snap up good deals, travelers can sign up for general bulletins and alerts on specific routes from Airfarewatchdog, Bing Travel, and other sites. Alerts can also help after buying, if the airline or booking site offers a best-price guarantee.
As we’ve previously reported, studies show that the cheapest time to book airfare is on a Tuesday afternoon, when the maximum number of sale seats is available. Experts say prices tend to rise seven and 14 days prior to departure, so book at least three weeks out – and ideally, more like three months out.
Buy a package
Hotel-airfare combos are often cheaper than buying each component separately, Jet says. Prices can be lower than just buying a flight, too, which makes them worth perusing even if you don’t need a hotel. He recently took advantage of a $490 package of a flight and three-night hotel stay in Denver, which was $100 less than the cost for the flight alone.
Consider alternate airports
Fare sales often make one local airport significantly cheaper than another — price gaps that may be big enough to justify a longer drive to the airport or extra time in the air, Hobica says. For travel abroad, fliers may be able to save by finding a fare sale to any major city and then hopping on a low-cost carrier to their intended destination. “Get your a– over the pond and then work the rest out,” he says. “Berlin might be $600 a trip, and everywhere else is $2,000.”
Be flexible on dates
Traveling on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday usually results in a cheaper fare than on other days of the week, says Jet. Use a flexible-date engine like Kayak, Google Flights or FareCompare to find the cheapest combination. But don’t check just one site, he says — many don’t include low-cost carriers like Southwest and JetBlue.