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Spring break and a busy summer are rolling up fast for travelers after the post-holiday lull.
And if you’ve looked at flights lately, you’ve probably had a bit of a jolt.
Here’s what to expect from airfare as the busy travel season heats up and some tips on how to get a better deal when demand is sky-high.
US domestic fares right now are about 20% higher than they were in February last year when demand was still depressed, according to Hayley Berg, an economist at travel site Hopper.
Economy fares originating in the UK are up 36% from the same time last year, according to data from Flight Centre UK, which includes domestic and international flights.
The sticker shock is real.
Yet in the US, domestic airfare is actually pretty close to pre-pandemic pricing – only about 4% higher than 2019, Hopper data shows. But today’s prices are still startling to consumers, for two reasons, Berg says.
For one, it’s been a good while since we’ve seen that 2019 pricing. And secondly, to rebuild their networks with fewer planes and smaller staff, airlines have changed their schedules and reduced service. They’ve also cut regional capacity in ways that hit certain routes and airports harder.
“So though the national average looks pretty normal to us in comparison to pre-pandemic prices, for a lot of travelers a route that they may have taken for years and years to a smaller, more regional airport – that might be two or three times more expensive than what they paid pre-pandemic,” Berg said.
US domestic fares are forecast to exceed pre-pandemic prices as spring and summer travel heats up, but they’re expected to be lower than they were last year at their peak.
“We’re expecting in May, which is typically when summer prices peak, [domestic] airfare to be around $350 per round-trip ticket, which would be about 10% higher than 2019, but lower than 2022,” Berg said.
That’s the good news.
No such luck when it comes to international tickets.
“International on the whole is more expensive than pre-pandemic and more expensive than last year,” Berg said.
Some regions are seeing much steeper increases than others.
The region that will really break the bank? Asia Pacific.
“Prices are absolutely exploding and will continue to explode until capacity really ramps back up there,” Berg said.
Demand is high for the last region to widely lift Covid restrictions and throw open its doors to international visitors. Compared with 2019, Asia fares are about 50% higher, sometimes more, Berg said, while Europe is about 15% higher.
Pent-up demand for Asian destinations means a flood of bookings now that they’re fully open. Bookings from the United Kingdom through Flight Centre UK to Malaysia and Vietnam are up by more than 2,200% from early last year when both countries were still closed to international tourists.
Flight Centre UK’s data show a 25% increase in economy fares to Vietnam year over year. It’s the cheapest of the company’s most popular destinations in Asia. Fares to Thailand are up 50%.
The highest fare increase year over year, according to Flight Centre UK? Fares to New Zealand, which was also closed this time last year, are up 81%.
In the good news column, “there are definitely more deals this year,” said Scott Keyes, founder of travel site Going, formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights.
Europe (especially Portugal and Ireland), Hawaii and Florida have been “cheap flight standouts” over the past few years, he said.
When it comes to international fares, he suggests what he’s calling the “Greek Island Trick.”
If you have your heart set on Santorini, consider booking your international leg to Athens, where deals from US cities can drop below $500, and find a more affordable regional flight or ferry on to the island.
“By splitting up the trip from a single itinerary into two itineraries, you can save $1,000 or more on a big international trip, whether you’re traveling to the Greek Islands or anywhere far flung,” he said.
Berg says for international trips, Friday and Saturday departures are most expensive. If you fly to Europe on a Monday for spring break, you can save an average of $140 per ticket – or about 20%, she says. Flying mid-week domestically can save you up to about 33%.
Even when some variables are fixed – your spring break dates, for example – “there’s still lots you can do, including not waiting to book until the last minute, keeping your destination flexible, and tinkering with the exact travel dates,” Keyes said.
Coming back a day earlier may yield significant savings, or if you’re really looking for a bargain, reverse your search by looking at where flights are cheap and then picking your destination.
If you’re traveling for spring break, “you should really be booking that right now,” Berg said
For summer vacations in May, June and July, Berg advises travelers to start tracking those fares now. Planning ahead is key even if you don’t book right away.
Waiting until the last minute often means missing out on the lowest fares, Berg says.
So can booking too early, says Keyes. There’s a “Goldilocks Window” for flights, he says.
That’s 1 to 3 months in advance of travel for domestic US lights and 2 to 8 months for international flights. For peak season deals, it’s more like 3 to 7 months for domestic and 4 to 10 months for international.
Keyes said he’s been watching flights to Vegas for a childhood friend’s wedding in late March. For months tickets were $400.
“But I was patient, and a few weeks ago – right in the middle of the Goldilocks Window – the fare dropped to $76. I booked as quickly as I could. Today, the fare is back up to $350.”
Waiting is often the best strategy, Keyes says. Just be sure to take advantage when there’s a big price drop.
“Airfare is the most volatile thing people regularly purchase. Today’s expensive flight is tomorrow’s cheap flight, and vice versa,” he said. Keyes recently watched the same flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam go from $800 to $300 to $1,300 over three consecutive days.
So are the more eye-popping fares keeping would-be travelers home?
Nope, says Berg.
“So far there still seems to be this tremendous demand for travel.”