Consumers looking to save a few bucks on fall travel have until Thursday night and a choice of fare sales among most of the major U.S. airlines.
On Tuesday Southwest Airlines Co. and its AirTran subsidiary kicked off a sale with prices from $98 to $278 per round trip, depending on distance. It covers travel from Aug. 13 through Nov. 14. By Tuesday night, the sale was matched by United, Delta, American, US Airways, JetBlue, Alaska Airlines and Virgin America.
Airlines have been boosting fares for more than a year to keep up with rising jet fuel costs. The average fare per mile for the first four months of 2012 was 6.4 percent higher than a year earlier, according to industry trade group Airlines for America. The average roundtrip domestic ticket this summer will cost $431, up 2.6 percent from summer 2011, according to Kayak.com.
Travel drops off after the busy summer vacation season, and even though airlines typically reduce flights in the fall, the round of sales shows how eager the airlines are to fill seats.
Travel experts said the sales offer good deals, even if they come after kids are back in school and during a traditionally slower period for the airlines.
"Yes, I'd jump on these," said George Hobica, founder of travel website airfarewatchdog.com. "Looks like (airlines) need the money and travelers are balking at the higher fares they've been seeing."
Southwest often introduces fall travel sales in June or July, often with prices a few bucks higher than the year before.
J.P. Morgan analyst Jamie Baker said the Southwest sale prices appeared to be 16 percent to 24 percent higher than a similar sale that the carrier ran at this time last year. However, new federal rules require airlines to include certain taxes in advertised fares that previously weren't usually included in ads.
Stripping out the effects of the new advertising rule, Southwest sale fares appear to be 4 percent lower than last year for short trips and 7 to 10 percent higher for trips longer than 500 miles, Baker said.
The fare sales could reverberate beyond the airport terminal. Tom Parsons, CEO of travel website Bestfares.com, said they will lead to cheaper package deals that include hotel rooms and rental cars.
The sales ending Thursday night have limitations. The main ones: Sale prices don't cover Friday and Sunday flights, and the airlines will make only a limited and secret number of seats available at the best prices.
Shares of the major airlines were higher in afternoon trading. US Airways was up about 7.5 percent. Delta and United were more than 3 percent higher, and Southwest rose nearly 3 percent.