Please, don't shoot the messenger: I come bearing not-so-great news. The fact is, summer airfares are expensive this year. How expensive? Well, some industry insiders are predicting that airfare costs will return to 2008 levels, about 20 percent pricier than last summer.
"Almost everything is more expensive, domestic and international," says George Hobica, founder of SmarterTravel's sister site, Airfarewatchdog. "The airlines have cut so much capacity and the Northwest/Delta merger hasn't helped."
It doesn't have to be all doom and gloom, however. With a few basic strategies (and by reading this, you're already ahead of the game, you advance planner), you'll be able to put together an affordable and enjoyable summer vacation, despite any airfare sticker shock.
This is the crystal ball question that everyone wants to know—when is the best time to book airfares, particularly when the prices are creeping up for summer travel?
It's always a good strategy to start researching prices in advance, giving yourself six to eight weeks of lead time before your trip. Having this advance research and comparison time gives you the best sense of what the ballpark price range is for your chosen route. Once you've tracked the fares for a few days, you'll have a good sense of what to expect regarding average prices. Then, when you're ready to book, you'll be an old pro, armed with knowledge of what's a fair deal and what looks too high.
"Travelers should sign up for airfare alerts and pounce when fares are at reasonable levels," says Hobica. Airfare alerts are a great tool, as you'll be notified as soon as the price drops, giving you additional context for your research, as well as buying power, by being able to snap up those cheap seats as soon as they're made available.
Specific Destination in Mind? Avoid Waiting Until the Last Minute
Because of capacity cuts, fewer flights are available this summer, and seats on those already limited flights are at a premium. As such, waiting for a last-minute airfare may not be the best strategy this year, particularly if you have a specific destination in mind for your trip. If you're planning to visit a popular summer destination, know that competition is fierce for those limited seats, resulting in high prices, limited availability, and virtually no last-minute deals.
"Prices are expected to continue to rise," says Adam Anderson, director, public relations, for Expedia.com. Anderson notes that leisure travelers have been buying in advance this year, as opposed to waiting until their vacation dates get closer. If you wait it out, you may miss the best deals.
Travelers headed to Europe may want to buy extra early. "European fares on most routes are definitely much higher," says Hobica. "We saw lots of $500 round-trip with tax summer fares to Europe by this time last year; this year, not so much. $1,000 is the norm for July [and] August travel."
Anderson concurs, saying that Expedia.com data shows airfare to Europe is significantly up this summer when compared to 2009. For example, flights to Dublin cost 51 percent more than last summer; London flights have increased by 35 percent; and Athens airfares by 33 percent. With European airfares continuing to trend upward, it's a good idea to buy as soon as you see a good fit for your price range.
Don't Care Where You're Going? Let Last-Minute Deals Be Your Guide
If you just want to take a vacation this summer and don't have a particular destination picked out yet, you can let the deals (last-minute or otherwise) determine where you go. Just keep in mind that fewer flights also means fewer discounts, so once you do see a good price, don't rest on your laurels—snap it up before it's gone.
Save Big With Bundled Vacation Packages
If you've never booked an airfare-and-hotel vacation package, or an airfare-and-cruise bundle, this may be the year to do so. "Simply booking a hotel and flight at the same time can yield tremendous savings," says Anderson. "[It's] one of the best money-savers available to travelers, and a very simple step to take."
I did an apples-to-apples comparison of vacation packages against airfare and hotel booked separately on Expedia.com. In every case, I checked the same hotel as the one included in the bundled vacation package. I tested three four-night July vacations: Dallas to Orlando, Seattle to San Diego, and Philadelphia to Hilton Head Island. In all test scenarios I found the vacation package was a better deal, with savings of up to $112.
In sum, if you're not finding good airfare deals, consider bundling your airfare with accommodations. You may find a much better price than booking your trip components individually.
Flexibility—Good for Mind, Body, and Travel
If you're not locked into specific dates for your summer vacation, consider being an early bird, or wait until the summer vacation rush is over and kids are back in school.
"If possible, travel after mid-August or even after Labor Day," says Hobica. "Fares will go down for travel during those times—or take off before June 3." In other words, avoiding the mad summer rush can reward you with big savings on your flight.
Additionally, remember that summer technically goes until September 22 this year. By pushing your trip back until the end of the season, you can still enjoy nice weather and pleasant temperatures well into September, while also avoiding crowds and inflated prices.
Case in point: I tested several flights to see price differences, comparing airfares for both the week before and after Labor Day. I checked flights from Chicago to Orlando, New York to London, and Los Angeles to Paris. On every route, flights were cheaper the week after Labor Day, and in one case (New York to London) the savings were significant—price differences came in at more than $160 when looking at the two travel periods side-by-side.
In short, if you have some wiggle room with your travel dates, be flexible and let the lowest-price flight days dictate when you depart and return. You could save quite a bit.
What types of bargains are you seeing for summer airfares? Do you have any foolproof strategies for getting great summer flight deals? Share your expertise by leaving a comment below!
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)