By Katia Hetter, Special to CNN
(CNN) — Douglas Quinby was shocked at the price. Traveling from Atlanta to New Orleans in two weeks for work, the travel industry analyst found an airline ticket for $130 a week ago and grabbed it.
“To get that fare, you have to book it in advance, or you have to be a lot more wily as a traveler to find those lowest fares,” said Quinby, PhoCusWright’s senior director of research.
Those cheap fares are harder and harder to come by. The summer vacation months, especially Memorial Day, July Fourth and Labor Day, are always incredibly popular travel times. And as travelers head into the summer vacation season, they’re facing a perfect storm leading to higher travel prices.
The airline industry continues to consolidate, with the possibility of an American Airlines and US Airways marriage only the latest potential merger. Oil prices are up, which means every plane put into the air costs more to fly. And airlines are smarter about managing their inventory, cutting prices on empty seats as part of package deals to avoid the appearance of sales.
There have been three successful airfare increases this year, and “I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least a couple more airfare hike attempts before the summer season gets under way,” said Rick Seaney, co-founder of FareCompare.com.
Airline ticket prices are up an average of 10% this year over last year, says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, but tickets could be double what they were last year in specific markets. Travelers can still find deals, but they have to be flexible about where and when they travel.
Sign up for the travel site e-mails and tweets. Many travel discount sites pounce on cheap fares brought on by fights between two airlines over a particular route. Hobica found tickets on Monday for a Denver to Tokyo flight for $700, about half the price of the normal fare. The airlines don’t broadcast the fare, but it’s available if you can find it or sign up for a travel site’s regular updates on the deals they spot.
“There are unadvertised sales on sporadic routes, and they can happen anytime,” Hobica said. “Clearly, the airlines are not making money on these routes. They want to (anger) the other airline (with which they’re competing). You just have trip across them.”
The airlines are still discounting (sometimes). Although the airline discounts aren’t as deep as they used to be, it’s still worth it to look up sales on their websites, follow favorite airlines’ Twitter accounts and sign up for their weekly last-minute deals. Some airlines still post midweek sales for flights (that usually depart midweek).
A Southwest spokeswoman says the discount airline typically offers fare sales each week from Tuesday through Thursday, but the fares can sell out before Thursday.
“Every once in a while, we will surprise our customers with an offer on an ‘off’ day, such as our St. Patrick’s Day weekend 25% off fare saver that ran Saturday through Sunday,” spokeswoman Michelle Agnew said.
Virgin America, which is expanding in the United States, launched a fare sale Tuesday morning.
Look for package deals. Airlines often include deeply discounted airline fares as part of a package deal, so neither the airline nor the hotel has to share with you how much they cut prices, says Quinby. You decide if the total price is worth it for you.
The online travel sites often package airfare, hotel and car rentals together.
JetBlue has Google offers available for JetBlue Getaways Vacation packages through Wednesday.
See what your money can buy. Do you need to sunbathe in Newport Beach, or will the Florida Panhandle satisfy your need for sun and sand? Consider more affordable options in the same genre. Some travel sites help by allowing travelers to indicate their home airports and what they’re wiling to spend. The site then offers some travel options. Some “daily deal” sites like Groupon and Living Social are now offering travel packages, allowing customers to try travel options at a discount.
Be flexible about location, travel days and times. “Many sale prices are good for flights on Tuesdays and Wednesdays only,” FareCompare’s Seaney said. “Other days will usually cost more, while the most expensive days to fly domestically are typically Friday and Sunday. Also, foregoing a nonstop flight can save money. So can flying at less popular times of day, including dawn, midday and late evening.”
Travelers hoping for relief from the summer’s high prices aren’t likely to find any.
“It’s really too bad, because the travel industry is finally finding its footing after a bad 2009 and a soft 2010,” Quinby said. “Travelers are ready to spend, but the impact of oil prices has been a real negative and has put airlines in a bind. They’re very careful about adding planes into the market.”