Categorized | Airlines

Summer airfare forecast: Buy now or wait?

Posted on 31 March 2010

Everyone with dreams of travel this summer is wondering whether to buy now or wait for a sale.Sadly, it’s impossible to generalize, although I’d say that if you find a domestic fare under $250 round-trip with taxes, or an international one in the $500-$600 range round-trip, you might want to strike quickly. Otherwise it all depends on where and when you’re going — and how flexible your travel dates are — so here are a few clues as to what to expect.

 

Domestic travel

 

There is one undeniable fact: Domestic airlines have cut capacity, and the merger of Delta and Northwest has reduced price competition. Airlines are determined to make a profit this year, or at least cut their losses. As a result, airfare sales aren’t what they used to be. Southwest, which is reducing capacity by about 4% this year, recently announced a “breathtaking” sale on its website. Fares from Detroit to Milwaukee were listed at $298 round-trip. For fliers who remember sub-$100 round trips on Southwest, that figure is indeed breathtaking.

Although we’ll still see those $99 one-way, loss-leader, coast-to-coast flights here and there, most likely you’ll have to travel on a Tuesday or Wednesday to avail yourself of one. Traveling on Fridays and Sundays, Memorial Day until after Labor Day, will be the most expensive times to fly. If you’re at all flexible, Southwest.com, Travelocity.com, Orbitz.com, Cheaptickets.com, and Hotwire.com have excellent flexible date search functions.

 

European travel will be more expensive

 

International airlines have also cut capacity and therefore are charging more for their seats. According to British Airways spokesperson John Lampl, his airline has slashed seats between London and New York/Newark by a staggering 23% this year compared to last. Making matters worse, the U.K. government has increased airport fees and other taxes tacked onto fares, and these are scheduled to increase further later this year.

Lampl also points out that historically there has been a 50/50 balance between passengers departing from London vs. those departing from the U.S. on BA flights, but now that has shifted to 60% leaving from Europe. That means those shopping-bag-toting Europeans are taking the seats that we were hoping to buy on the cheap.

Another ill omen is that this past winter was the first in memory that the airlines didn’t have dead-of-winter, panicky sales to Europe. Last winter, and even last summer, we saw fares as low as $250 round-trip, including taxes, to many European destinations. I’d be shocked if we saw a repeat this year. Even so, some European destinations will be cheaper than others, in part thanks to lower taxes and fees. We’ve already seen some scattered sales in the $500 range to Spain and Ireland. But most destinations for summer travel this year will cost well over $1,000 round-trip with tax.

 

Airfare alerts are key

 

Because airlines are anything but predictable, the best way to grab a cheap seat is to sign up for free airfare alerts. Needless to say, I’m partial to Airfarewatchdog.com’s alerts, but over a dozen other sites also provide them, including Fly.com, Orbitz.com, Expedia.com, Travelocity.com, TripAdvisor.com/flights, Bing.com/travel, Farecompare.com, Kayak.com, Momondo.com, and Yapta.com. Each has its strong points. Find others by doing a Bing or Google search under “airfare alerts.”

Also sign up for airline frequent flier programs and e-mail alerts, because they often send out members-only deals and promo codes.

Package tours offer another way to save. Last year, at the height of the financial panic, tour operators grabbed airplane seats and hotel rooms at favorable prices and locked in exchange rates. Depending on your travel plans, you may well find a package tour to some international destinations that costs just a bit more than airfare alone.

One other thing to keep in mind: The longer you wait to grab a fare, the less likely you’ll get the seat assignment and flight times you want.

 Source: USA Today

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