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Airfares: As costs rise, flexibility is key

Even as inflation shows signs of slowing, airfares remain high, up nearly 10 percent in April compared to the same period in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Coming out of the pandemic, fewer flights, a shortage of airline workers and higher fuel costs have helped push prices up. And consumers, eager to travel, haven’t revolted enough to persuade carriers to tear them down.

But the picture can be confusing and changeable.

According to travel booking app Hopper, current domestic airfare prices are well below last year right now, but are expected to rise until June, when summer airfares typically peak. Hopper predicts that the peak for a round-trip domestic reserve will hit $328, better than last June’s $400 but still 4 percent higher than the same period in 2019.

International fares, where available flights lag behind demand, are a bleaker story: Hopper expects overseas tickets this summer to hit a five-year high, up 32 percent for Europe compared with last summer (or $1,188 on average). Flights to Asia increased 17 percent ($1,890 average) compared to last summer; that’s 67 percent more than in 2019.

What should a traveler do to avoid being fleeced? Keep an open mind.

“It’s about being flexible on one of the booking parameters,” said Laura Lindsay, global travel trends expert at sky scanner, an airfare search site. “If you’re flexible about when or where you want to go and even how you want to go, maybe flying out of one airport and coming back to a different one or on a different airline, there’s a deal. If you are rigid, you will be limited to a more expensive rate.

When flying it may be easier to adjust. Skyscanner allows users to see prices for a route a month from now, allowing them to find the lowest fares. Google Flights sends out price alerts for good fares on any date on a specific route, and Kayak allows you to search with flexible dates.

When it comes to where to go, consider 2023 a summer of spontaneity.

“Let the deal dictate fate if you can,” said Ted Rossman, a senior industry analyst at bank fee, a personal finance website. “Too often, people put their hearts in one place and that limits their options. If you don’t care which beach, shop around.”

If you haven’t booked summer flights, do so now. Hopper generally recommends monitoring domestic fares three to four months in advance of travel (many search engines will crawl specific routes) and shopping a month or two in advance. In the summer, he says, the best deals are usually available three to four months in advance.

Another potential money saver, a practice called skiplagging, allows travelers to book a ticket with an intermediate stop at their intended destination and then skip the final leg of their journey, which can sometimes be cheaper than flying direct. The website stir fry gather the offers available based on your preferred airport. For example, you recently booked a flight from San Francisco to Jacksonville, Fla., with a layover in Miami for $134. A direct flight between San Francisco and Miami was $158. The method, which airlines hate, requires travelers to book round-trip tickets separately and forego checked baggage.

Alternatively, look for airfare and hotel packages assembled for less than the sum of their parts. The online travel agency price line he said his packages save an average of $240 per booking. JetBlue Vacations, a branch of the airline, said its hotel and airfare deals are better than booking separately 90 percent of the time. Shoppers can use the “Best Vacation Finder” tool to compare deals in a variety of beach destinations, mountain getaways and cities.

Finally, don’t overlook earning points for flying or spending on credit cards as a form of payment.

“It’s even more important now,” Rossman said, noting that many consumers built up point reserves during the pandemic, caches at risk of devaluation by airlines, which can change requirements at will, charging 60,000 points for a flight that it was 50,000 yesterday. “Vendors are recovering from the pandemic and want paying customers, not gifts.”

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