Buying air tickets for overseas travel is always a crapshoot. Should you buy early to lock in a price, even though the price looks high? Or should you wait for a future "sale" on fares? Nobody really has the definitive answers to those questions—not even here at SmarterTravel. At best, we can lay out what we do know, and let you decide your own best strategy.
Airfares Are Up
Make no mistake. Transatlantic airfares (and most others) are up sharply this year. You see reports in the business press about the big airlines racking up big profits, and one of the reasons they've been able to avoid the most severe price competition is that several of them have merged. Certainly, despite all the flak about "consumer benefits," those big mergers have made it much easier for airlines to hike prices.
Certainly, much of the airlines' newfound prosperity is because of a rebound in expensive business class travel rather than a huge increase in tourism. But tourists, too, paid a lot more.
Everybody I know in the business believes that next summer's fares will not be any lower than this year's. But nobody expects another 30 to 40 percent jump, either. At best, we can expect prices next summer to be roughly on a par with 2010.
Spring "Sale" Prices Are Great
If you want to travel within the next few months, you can find some good deals. Several big airlines are currently offering "sale" prices for spring-season travel to Europe. Typically, the purchase windows are short—some may have closed in the time it took to write and publish this column—but some good ones will remain open at least through November 16. Some samples:
- Air France's current promotion is for departures through March 31 (except for the holidays); buy tickets through November 16. Sample fare: Houston-Paris $581.
- American Airlines' current promotion also covers departures through March 31; buy tickets by November 16. Sample fare: Boston-Zurich, $540.
- British Airways' sale covers some dates through June 30; buy tickets through November 9. Sample fare: New York-London, $412.
- Aer Lingus, Delta, and Icelandair just closed similar sale windows.
What's the Outlook for Summer?
So far, nobody is dealing for travel into the peak season. For a quick look at what to expect, I compared current sale prices, currently quoted prices for travel next July, and Hotwire's data on fares last July. Here's what I found on two of the routes I tested for sales:
- Houston-Paris: $581 this spring, $1,320 next summer, about $1,250-$1,400 last summer.
- New York-London: $412 this spring, $944 next summer, about $900-$1,000 last summer.
I found similar results on other routes: Current advance prices for next summer are about the same as prices last summer. Because final prices seldom increase over advance prices, I anticipate that, without a sale, final prices will remain about the same as current advance prices. Sale prices, if any, will be lower.
The key question then becomes simple: Will any big airlines kick off a peak-season sale? In years past, they've often announced summer sales between January and May. Of course, we have no way of knowing if they will do that again. That probably depends on how many of you buy summer tickets at their current and very high prices.
Normally, I wouldn't even be thinking about 2012 prices. But one price indicator is already available. According to trade sources, hotels in London are already quoting rates for the 2012 Olympics that are basically double regular rates. I haven't seen anything from any airlines yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some combination of higher fares and cutbacks in the number of seats allocated to the lowest fares. Clearly, unless you plan to attend some Olympic events, 2012 will be a very bad summer to visit London.
In some previous blockbuster events —Olympic Games, World's Fairs, and such —the overreaching hotels have had their gouges backfire. Although the events were well attended, most of the business came from locals, and by the time the games started, the hotels were scratching for guests. I'm not predicting that will happen in London. But history does tell me that it's already too late to "lock in" any good prices. Instead, if you want to attend, wait to see if the gouge collapses.
Airfare Strategies for 2011
For now, 2011 is the main concern. And, as I said, the outcome is a crapshoot. If I were planning to visit Europe next summer, I would conclude that list price airfares won't get any higher; that the chances for an increase are much lower than the chances for some price cuts. So I'd wait into spring for a future sale rather than buy at today's stiff prices. But I'd probably buy the first time I saw a reasonable price cut, rather than gamble on further cuts later. The perfect is the enemy of the good enough. However, that's a personal gamble, and one you might not want to take.
As a disclaimer, this position is my personal one, not SmarterTravel's "official" pronouncement. My good colleagues here may well disagree.
But, whichever way we think fares are going, we'd all agree that anyone planning to head for Europe next summer—or anywhere else, for that matter —should sign up for our relevant newsletters. Sign up for others, too, if you want. But with the short purchase windows you see for so many airfare sales, keeping up on a day-to-day basis is the only way to make sure you won't miss a great opportunity.
Do you have overseas travel plans for 2011? Tell us how you'll shop for a fare by adding a comment below!