If you've been waiting for the lowest possible airfare for a trip this summer, it may be time to get off the fence.
Fares have dropped for months while travelers held off buying tickets because they were afraid of losing a job or worried about affording even a scaled-back vacation. But with July 4th fast approaching and jet fuel prices rising, some fares could be set to climb again.
Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, said it looks like airlines are trying to halt the fare slide, with recent hikes of $10 and $20 round-trip. Still, he wrote in an e-mail that the minor increases in the last two weeks "have by no means completely curtailed the flood of cheap airline" tickets from the first half of the year. In fact, AirTran recently put out fares that hit new market lows on hundreds of routes, he wrote.
Memorial Day usually signals the end of the best time to book travel, but this year was different. With fewer people traveling, the sales continued. A Travelocity survey shows fares down 17 percent for travel between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day.
The travel Web site also says travelers are booking 86 days before departure instead of 90 days. That might not sound like a big deal, but Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor at the online travel Web site, said it takes lots of people booking later to move the needle that much.
Tom Parsons, CEO of discount travel Web site Bestfares.com, recommends making a top-10 list and checking fares until you find a bargain. Chances are some of your favorite spots will be on sale.
Take a closer look at travel Web sites, including the airline sites, that often throw in additional discounts if you enter a specific code usually found in a section for promotional fares. Airline Web sites also offer deals that include hotel and sometimes car rental.
Gabe Saglie, senior editor at travel information Web site Travelzoo, expects promotions to continue into the summer as people remain hesitant to book vacations far in advance.
"People are definitely becoming more impulse-driven," he said.
If you still want to go somewhere before mid-August, Parsons says buy your tickets now. It's unlikely the deals will get any better. After that it's another story. Parsons says airlines haven't started serious discounting for flights after mid-August, so you might want to wait to book tickets for then.
Parsons and other travel watchers have noticed that fare hikes have eliminated ultra-cheap tickets to Europe between now and Aug. 17.
"It's across the board, it's like a disease," Parsons said.
Fares out of any particular city are driven mostly by competition to a destination. For instance, Frontier, Southwest, and United were already competing vigorously in Denver before the recession. So fares there fell just 1 percent through June 1, according to Bob Harrell of airfare-tracking firm Harrell Associates.
Regardless of where you live, it's not too late to get out for the summer:
Northeasterners looking for some sun and sand are in luck. Saglie of Travelzoo says the best deals from the Northeast are to the West Coast and Florida. Flights from New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other cities are seeing "pretty aggressive sales right now."
West Coast trips from major Eastern cities, including Washington, Boston and New York, can be nabbed for $230 to $250 round-trip, Saglie said. Several carriers offer a $119 one-way trip from major airports in the East to L.A. — down more than half from a year ago in some cases. Expect this route to stay hot for some time, as JetBlue starts flying from New York to Los Angeles International this month and competition heats up. JetBlue is also flying from Kennedy to San Diego for $139 each way.
Destinations in the Southwest like Las Vegas and Phoenix are heavily discounted for summer travel, Saglie said.
Overall, fares are down about 13 percent on average from a year ago.
AirTran has a fare sale out of Atlanta. You can fly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for under $100 each way to Cancun, Mexico; Ft. Myers and Orlando, Fla.; Minneapolis and Washington. Escape the heat with $128 fares each way to Seattle.
AirTran also has Knoxville, Tenn., to Orlando, Fla., flights for $44 and Memphis, Tenn., to Los Angeles for $119 each way. All the AirTran sale fares have to be purchased by June 30 for travel through Nov. 4.
You can fly from Atlanta to dozens of cities on Delta Air Lines, for as low as $49 one-way, if you buy your ticket by June 30.
Leisure fares from the South were 12 percent lower than at the same time last year, according to Harrell.
Bestfares showed Des Moines, Iowa, to Atlanta flights for $285 per person for air and hotel this weekend.
Fares from Midwestern cities to the Northeast were 26 percent lower than last year, according to Harrell. Fares to the South were about 15 percent lower, while prices to Western destinations were flat.
Cleveland-to-New York fares have been cut in half. Chicago-to-Boston prices were 20 percent lower than the same time last year. Cleveland-to-Newark was down 34 percent.
But there are pockets that haven't moved down. Detroit-to-Orlando fares, for example, were 9 percent higher than last year. Fares from Chicago to Las Vegas jumped 31 percent, Harrell said.
West and Southwest
The best prices for air fare and hotel bundles are from Los Angeles, Phoenix and Seattle, according to Parsons. He says a San Francisco vacation package is often cheaper from the East Coast than from Dallas, St. Louis or Chicago because those routes are more competitive.
Frontier Airlines has a fare sale for purchases through June 30 with prices like $54 each way from Kansas City, Mo., to Denver. Several Frontier flights leaving from Denver were in a similar price range, including Denver to San Francisco, Portland, Ore., or Seattle for $64.
Leisure fares from western airports were about 20 percent less than last year, Harrell said. Fares from the West to the Northeast were down 34 percent.