According to a new Associated Press analysis, the average price of a round-trip flight within the U.S. for the first half of 2014 was $509.15. That's around $14 higher than the same period a year ago. What's more, soaring flight prices have outpaced inflation: Average domestic airfare has risen 10.7% over the past five years, after adjusting for inflation.
The true costs incurred by many airline passengers have been hiked even further than that. As travelers know all too well, fares have been rising at a time when fees for baggage and other basic services have likewise been added and/or increased left and right. In almost all cases, that $500-plus average round-trip flight does not cover the cost of checking a bag, or food, or perhaps even a reserved seat. For any of those services, passengers must often pay extra or utilize other strategies, such as signing up for an airline-affiliated credit card.
No wonder airline stocks have been among the best in the stock market recently, even as oil prices remain high, and the economy and consumer spending have yet to kick into a higher gear.
Unfortunately for travelers, the trajectory of airfare prices isn't expected to change direction anytime soon. “Airlines have reduced the number of seats while more people want to fly because of the economic recovery. All this leads to higher airfares,” Chuck Thackston, managing director of data and analytics at the Airlines Reporting Corp., told the AP. “This trend in airfares is likely to continue for the near future, as the economy continues to grow.”
While the bargain airfares of the late-'90s are likely gone for good, there are still tactics well worth trying to keep flight costs down. Here are a few.
Shop beyond the usual "low-cost" carriers. In the past, the formula to find a cheap flight was often as simple as doing a quick search at Southwest Airlines' website. If the low-fare pioneer had service on the route, it probably had a decent fare, if not the absolute lowest available. But as Southwest grew into "America's largest domestic airline," prices crept higher, to the point that its identity is not about cheap flights anymore. Studies have shown that Southwest often doesn't have the best prices on flights. JetBlue doesn't necessarily have the lowest fares either.
In fact, the title of "low-fare airline" is often misleading. Yet while Southwest and JetBlue may not have the lowest prices on a given route, they generally have more perks included in the base price of a ticket, most notably at least one complimentary checked piece of luggage. If any airline merits the "low-fare" moniker today, it's Spirit Airlines—which indeed tends to have cheap prices for flights, but which also piles on the fees for almost anything beyond basic transportation.
All of this must be factored into your search for the cheapest fares: You can't rely on any single airline to have the best price, and you can't even assume that the least expensive flight will cost you less in the long run. You must shop around extensively for flight prices and add in how much extra you'll have to pay with the help of an airline fee roundup from Kayak, Expedia, or FareCompare before figuring out the best deal.
Search smartly. Different flight search engines tend to retrieve the exact same prices and options, so stick with the ones you find most intuitive and easiest to use. The editors at Travel & Leisure are fans of Adioso.com for its exceptionally flexible low-price flight search tools and RouteHappy.com for its "Happiness" rating system, which ranks the ease of a given route (number of connections, likelihood of delay, etc.) rather than focusing strictly on price. Hopper.com has also drawn accolades for its combination of flexible searches and data available about pricing history. Somewhere in there, you'll hopefully find a happy medium with the route and price that works for you.
Be flexible with dates (and maybe even destinations). This piece of advice is a classic because it works year in, year out. Matt Kepnes, author of the Nomadic Matt blog and several money-saving travel books, explained in a TIME post:
Track flight prices. Airfares can and often do change daily, or even multiple times daily. Instead of conducting searches just as frequently, let a flight-tracking service such as Yapta do the work for you. Plug in your dates, route, and a price threshold, and you'll be alerted once a fare meets your criteria. You can also keep tracking fares after a flight is booked, to see if and when prices drop so low that you're entitled to a partial refund.
View airfare-booking guidelines as just that—guidelines. It seems like a new study comes out every few months or so with a rule about when flights should be booked in order to get the best price. You might be instructed to book on a Tuesday, or to book exactly 49 days or 54 days before departure, or to book as far in advance as possible. Could one of these strategies yield the best price on the flight you want? Well, yes, it could.
Then again, it probably won't. Flight prices change far too often, far too quickly, for far too many reasons for any single rule to hold true across the board. These and other guidelines are nice, but they're riddled with too many exceptions for them to be truly useful. You're better off taking such steps as tracking fare prices (see above) and consulting fare predictors like the one offered at Kayak for insight as to when the lowest fare is within your grasp.