By Marnie Hunter | CNN
Spring break and a busy summer are fast approaching for post-holiday break travelers.
And if you’ve been looking at flights lately, you’ve probably had a shock. Or a big shock if you’re hoping to fly to the Asia Pacific region.
Here’s what to expect from airline tickets as the busy travel season heats up and some tips on how to get a better deal when demand is skyrocketing.
Airfare right now and what is expected for late spring and summer
According to Hayley Berg, an economist at travel site Hopper, domestic rates in the US are currently about 20% higher than they were in February last year, when demand was still low.
Economy fares from the UK are 36% higher than the same time last year, according to data from Flight Center UK, which includes domestic and international flights.
The sticker shock is real.
But in the US, domestic airfares are actually pretty close to pre-pandemic prices — only about 4% higher than in 2019, according to Hopper data. But current prices are still shocking to consumers for two reasons, Berg says.
First, it’s been a while since we’ve seen those prices for 2019. And second, to rebuild their networks with fewer planes and staff, airlines have changed schedules and reduced service. They have also cut regional capacity in a way that hits certain routes and airports harder.
“So while the national average looks pretty normal to us compared to pre-pandemic prices, for many travelers a route they may have been taking for years and years is to a smaller, more regional airport – that can be two or three times more expensive than what they paid before the pandemic,” Berg said.
US domestic rates are expected to be higher than pre-pandemic prices as spring and summer travel warms, but are expected to be lower than last year at their peak.
“We expect that in May, when summer prices typically peak, (domestic) airfares will be about $350 per round trip, which would be about 10% higher than in 2019, but lower than in 2022,” Berg said.
That’s the good news.
International air travel will certainly cost you
No luck when it comes to international tickets.
“International is generally more expensive than pre-pandemic and more expensive than last year,” Berg said.
Some regions see much stronger increases than others.
The region that really goes bankrupt? Asia Pacific.
“Prices are absolutely exploding and will continue to explode until capacity there really picks up again,” Berg said.
The latter region is in high demand to lift Covid restrictions on a massive scale and open its doors to international visitors. Compared to 2019, rates in Asia are about 50% higher, sometimes more, Berg said, while Europe is about 15% higher.
Pent-up demand for Asian destinations means a flood of bookings now that they are fully open. Bookings from the UK via Flight Center UK to Malaysia and Vietnam are up more than 2,200% from the beginning of last year, when both countries were still closed to international tourists.
Flight Center UK data shows a 25% increase in economy fares to Vietnam year on year. It’s the cheapest of the company’s most popular destinations in Asia. Tariffs to Thailand have increased by 50%.
The highest annual fare increase, according to Flight Center UK? Tariffs to New Zealand, which also closed around this time last year, are up 81%.
Looking for savings this spring and summer
In the good news section, “There are definitely more deals this year,” said Scott Keyes, founder of travel website Going, formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights.
Europe (especially Portugal and Ireland), Hawaii and Florida have been “outliers in low cost flights” in recent years, he said.
When it comes to international rates, he suggests what he calls the “Greek Island Trick.”
If your heart is set on Santorini, consider booking your international flight to Athens, where deals to US cities can drop below $500, and find a more affordable regional flight or ferry to the island.
“By splitting the trip from a single itinerary into two itineraries, you can save $1,000 or more on a major international trip, whether you’re traveling to the Greek islands or elsewhere,” he said.
For international travel, Berg says Friday and Saturday departures are the most expensive. If you fly to Europe on Monday for spring break, you can save an average of $140 per ticket — or about 20%, she says. If you fly domestically during the week, you can save up to about 33%.
Even if some variables are fixed — your spring break dates, for example — “there’s still a lot you can do, like not wait to book until the last minute, keep your destination flexible, and tinker with exact travel dates,” Keyes said.
Coming back a day early can save you significant savings, or if you’re really looking for a bargain, you can turn your search around to see where flights are cheap and then choose your destination.
If you’re going on a trip for spring break, “you really need to book that now,” Berg said
The ‘Goldilocks Window’
For summer vacations in May, June, and July, Berg advises travelers to start tracking those rates now. Planning ahead is key, even if you don’t book right away.
Waiting until the last minute often means missing out on the lowest rates, says Berg.
It is also possible to book too early, says Keyes. There is a “Goldilocks window” for flight, he says.
That’s 1 to 3 months before travel for domestic US flights and 2 to 8 months for international flights. For peak season deals, it is more like 3 to 7 months for domestic and 4 to 10 months for international.
Keyes said he was looking at flights to Vegas for a childhood friend’s wedding in late March. For months, tickets were $400.
But I was patient, and a few weeks ago — right in the middle of the Goldilocks window — the rate dropped to $76. I booked as fast as I could. Today the rate has risen again to $350.
Waiting is often the best strategy, says Keyes. Just be sure to take advantage when there is a big price drop.
“Airline tickets are the most volatile thing people buy on a regular basis. Today’s expensive flight is tomorrow’s cheap flight, and vice versa,” he said. Keyes recently saw the same flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam go from $800 to $300 to $1,300 for three consecutive days.
So are the more eye-catching fares keeping potential travelers at home?
No, says Berg.
“So far, there still seems to be a huge demand for travel.”
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