U.S. airlines have been raising fares with alarming frequency in recent weeks — and that can take a big bite out of the pocketbooks of travelers who don't know how to find a good deal.
Last year's super-cheap fares are gone. But for travelers who can be patient, flexible and very persistent, there are still deals to be had.
"Consumers should brace themselves for higher fares," said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchDog.com. Since December, the nation's largest carriers have upped fares six times. "There are still some bargains out there but we're not seeing the crazy sales we did in the past. Sales pop up and you just have to keep looking."
Last month, for example, if you were lucky enough to stumble into it, you could have snagged a Delta fire sale: $250-$300 roundtrip from almost any major city in the U.S. to almost any major city in Europe.
With the exception of flights to London and almost anywhere in Ireland, European travel this summer is going to be costly and prices are set only to rise if the cost of crude oil futures stays high or increases.
Most major carriers already have slapped an unprecedented $400 fuel surcharge for each leg of a European trip. That represents a nearly 170% hike from the $150 the airlines charged when they first introduced fuel surcharges in fall 2007, according to BestFares.com. And there weren't baggage or priority-seating fees then.
"They call them fuel surcharges, but they're charging these high fees because they can," said Tom Parsons, founder of BestFares.com.
"As long a people will pay it, the airlines will continue to go for the jugular vein as much as they can," he added. "They justify it by saying it's all related to fuel when in reality it's all about making more money,"
Maybe, but it's still financially smart to consider the season before you book the flight. Look at these seasonal price differences: A Delta flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Paris in March is priced at a $296 base fare, plus the $400 fuel surcharge; in July, that jumps to a base fare of $1,100, plus the $400 fuel surcharge; and falls to $655 in September, plus the $400 fuel surcharge. And don't forget there are taxes and other fees added to the prices.
For consumers, that's bad and good. Anyone who's been on a flight, either domestic or international, in recent months knows those seats are jam-packed. Higher fees and fares could stop many consumers from flying at all, which would reduce demand that in turn causes the airlines to take some flights out of the air.
If capacity is cut, that means even fewer flights at even higher prices.
But changing routes and cutting more flights could take a few months. If demand does fall in the short-term, airlines will be slashing costs to fill planes, no matter where they're going.
"Airlines need to fill those planes up to pay for the fuel," Seaney said, noting they want those flights at least 90% full. "The way airlines work is simple: They will see how many bookings they have this year compared with last year and if it's lower, they'll throw some cheap seats in to fill the plane."
They'll also match prices when a competitor posts a sale or promotes new routes with cheap fares.
Here are tips to finding the best deals available:
• Be flexible. Seaney said he shaved $600 off a spring-break trip by shifting his family's usual travel days of Saturday to Friday to Tuesday to Saturday. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the cheapest days to travel. The most expensive are Fridays and Sundays. Think too about red-eye flights vs. prime-time morning or late afternoon. "Definitely there are some flights that have lower fares, but they're not the ones most people want to take," Hobica said.
• Use alternative airports. That doesn't just mean flying out of Midway Airport in Chicago rather than O'Hare or even going an hour plus out of the city to Milwaukee, Wisc., rather than O'Hare but looking even further out. Consider this: Virgin Airlines is offering a round-trip sale from Chicago Midway to Los Angeles for $198 until June 15. But you want to go to San Diego and a round-trip flight from Chicago will set you back some $500. For a family of four, renting a car from L.A. and driving the roughly 120 miles to San Diego could save upwards of $1,000.
• Don't book too early. If you're thinking about a summer trip to Europe, wait until April to start planning in earnest, Seaney said. If you're intent on taking a trip this fall, wait until July, even August to book flights and then plan on going in September of October, one of the slowest travel periods of the year. If flights aren't booked some 80% to 90% ahead of the season, airlines will be forced to cut the fares. "Demand is a fickle thing," Seaney said. "Are there three people behind you willing to pay what you're not willing to pay? That's the question and no one knows the answer except the airlines in real time."
• Sign up for frequent-flyer and travel alerts at a number of airline and travel sites. You'll get e-mail notices when flights are put on sale.
• Use social media and group-buying discounts. Twitter, for example, is gaining status as a go-to for last-minute sale fares because some airlines think e-mail is too slow. Last month Virgin offered $77 travel certificates for a mere $7 on round-trip flights between Chicago and San Francisco or Chicago and Los Angeles. On March 2, it sold nearly 2,950 $100 certificates for $25 for round-trip travel between Dallas and San Francisco and Dallas and Los Angeles.
• Shop around. You will need to look at a number of travel sites to compare prices, including the airlines' own sites. Southwest's prices aren't on popular large-scale sites like Expedia, Travelocity or Orbitz, American Airlines has pulled its flight from some of those sites while Delta has taken its flight out of some smaller sites.
• When you see a good price, jump on it. Some sales — say, for new routes — will extend for a couple months; other sales will last only a few hours. Determine what your sweet spot is for fares, plus fees, taxes and surcharges, and be prepared to purchase if it comes up.
• Be on the lookout for peak travel-day surcharges, a fee the airlines have added to holiday and summer travel, even Super Bowl travel. The fees range from $10 to $30, depending on the day, on ticket prices that already have been marked higher.