Top 4 Reasons for Nightmare Airfares, and How to Find the Cheaper Deals

I think anyone who’s been flying, even a few times in the past year, has noticed that airfare prices have gone up.

In some cases, prices are up dramatically.

Four Reasons for Nightmare Airfares

Oddstock's photostream on Flickr

There are some ominous signs, no doubt about it. But let me save you some anxiety; the news isn’t all bad, and you can still find deals.

But there are some worrisome developments:

  1. Prices – Going Up: The prices for the cheapest roundtrip domestic flights right now are up about 16% from last year. And if you live in a smaller city, it’s even worse: these prices are up as much as 20% for travel to and from these smaller towns.
  2. New Airfare Hikes: Southwest instituted an airfare hike in August, for all of its routes (a hike quickly matched by other carriers); true, it was a small hike – between $6 and $10 roundtrip – but it was a price jump nevertheless, in a year where we’ve seen very few of those.
  3. Rising Fees: AirTran recently raised its first checked-bag fee by $5 each-way.
  4. Business Travel Comeback: Corporate travel is trending up after more a year of being in the basement.

None of this sounds very good (except of course for the airlines) – but take heart! There is a flip side to this – so let’s delve a little deeper and find it.

Manage Your Bag Fees

As for the bag fee, well AirTran clearly thinks people will be willing to pay the price and I’m sure many will. It’s only an extra $5 each-way. And we may see more of this. Remember, it was Delta that got this ball rolling back in January when it raised bag fees, and Continental and United quickly followed.

Bottom Line: I never pay an airline bag fee, and I never lose a bag, either – because I always use a carryon bag.

Why the Airlines Won’t Raise Prices Too Much

Yes, airfare prices are going up, but the airlines have had a couple of rough years because of the economy, the price of oil, and there was that little matter of an erupting volcano. But prices now are actually getting back to normal. And I don’t expect them to go much higher.

That’s because the airlines are still worried about the economy and the possible prospect of a double-dip recession.

Bottom Line: I don’t expect we’ll see insane price jumps, and I don’t think we’ll see insane bargains either. But good deals are out there; for example, as I write this in early September, some of the airlines are still running Labor Day airfare sales.

Travel the Airlines’ Slow Period

As for those new price hikes, remember that fall is still the airlines “slow period” and it’s a relatively good time to fly. Check out airline deals and sales blogs, and definitely . And always fly the cheapest days and cheapest times of day.

Bottom Line: If you plan carefully and are flexible on the days you can travel, you could find coast-to-coast domestic flights for right around $200 or so.

Note: International travel is different this year; we’re seeing fares 30% higher than last year (to be honest, it’s looking a lot more like 2005 than 2009, and I expect those airfares to Europe and elsewhere will stay firm).

Holidays Could be Nightmarish

No question, the “slow period” ends with the holidays; the airlines know a lot of us didn’t fly last year (thanks to the economy) so they will be making it pricey, knowing we’ll pay.

About all you can hope for this year is to get what I call “the best of a bad deal”.

Bottom Line: Don’t procrastinate – and follow these tips.

More from Rick Seaney:

Are Nightmare Airfare Hikes Coming?

Photo of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” from oddsock’s photostream on Flickr

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Published: September 1, 2010