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With oil prices pushing jet fuel costs way down and travel demand plummeting along with the overall economy, you’d think now would be a pretty good time to land a cheap deal on an airline seat. After all, virtually every major U.S. airlines has rolled out a fare sale this winter.

Just how much of a bargain you can get on a plane ticket these days depends on what time period you’re comparing it against. Yes, you can probably do better than you did last year when oil prices skyrocketed and airlines responded with higher fares, fewer flights and a slew of new fees on everything from baggage to booking. A fare analysis that FareCompare.com did for USA Today last week found that on some routes, travelers would pay half as much this winter compared to last year.

But because airlines cut way back on the number of seats they fly last fall, you are not seeing the kind of “let’s fly now” deals you did in the past, especially when you figure in the all the new fees for baggage and taxes. For example, it wasn’t that long ago that you could fly to Europe in the summer for $300 or $400 roundtrip. Fares ballooned up to $1200 to $1400 for coach seats to Europe last summer. Today, a good deal to the Continent is in the $600 to $800 range. So, if you want to go to Europe, it looks like you can do a lot better than last summer but the days of getting there for less than $500 roundtrip don’t look like they’re coming back any time soon.

Airline executives are already warning that the discounts being rolled out now won’t last long. Delta President Ed Bastian told Travel Weekly that the fare sales aren’t really stimulating demand. Apparently, travelers are still waiting to the last minute to book tickets and missing the advance-booking deadlines that the current sales impose. Bastian says: “I don’t think you’ll see fare structures that are significantly lower than last year’s level."

Bottom line: If you’re planning a trip, shop around at sites like Kayak.com and AirFareWatchdog.com. When you see what you think is a fair price on a ticket, buy it before it disappears.

-- Donna Rosato