Spring Break deals: Fares up overall, best deals can be found to Florida, Europe

The folks over at Bing Travel have been studying up on 2011 Spring Break airfare, and we hate to break it to you, but they’ve found that the average airfare cost is up more than 10 percent over last year, to $489. But the airfare increase doesn’t have to stop the beach party. If you choose wisely, there are still plenty of Spring Break deals to be had.

Bing’s Spring Break Travel Forecast says that lower fares on flights to Florida (particularly Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando and Tampa) can still be found. The average fare for Boston to Jacksonville is $233, and you can fly from San Francisco to Tampa for $300.

And while many overseas airfares have risen since last year, average airfares from several U.S. cities to Paris, Amsterdam and Rome have dropped as much as 13 percent over Spring Break season fares in 2010.

If you are just settling into spring break planning mode, here are some tips from Bing on finding the best spring break deals:

  • Be Flexible. Now we would never suggest skipping a day of classes, but, ahem, you will do better on airfare if you’re not trying to travel on weekend days like your Spring Break brethren. Monday to Monday or Tuesday to Tuesday fares will almost always be better. And if a school schedule isn’t determining when you vacation this spring, you will likely save money by going at the beginning of March or April rather than the middle of either month.
  • Use Online Tools. You can monitor your airfares and get notices when they drop on a certain route from a number of different online services. Bing’s Price Predictor shows you whether airfares on your chosen route and dates are rising or falling, to help you decide when to buy.
  • Be Aware of Hidden Fees. Be sure you know what you will be charged for checked baggage, overweight luggage, aisle or exit row seats before you hit the airport.

Bing is giving away five $100 travel stipends for 2011 spring break travel on Twitter. To enter, tweet @fareologist with where you’d like to go for spring break. Check out the contest’s official rules before entering.

[Image credit: Flickr user Dawn Huczek]

Cheap tickets still exist, despite airfare inflation

cheap tickets, airfare inflationIs it really getting more expensive to fly? Earlier this week, the Department of Transportation revealed that ticket prices were up 13.1 percent year over year for the second quarter of 2010, a stunning increase – though tempered by the fact that fares actually fell 13 percent year over year from the second quarter of 2008 to the second quarter of 2009. If nothing else, this does raise concerns about whether we won’t have access to cheap tickets for a while.

With some strength coming back to the travel market, it’s easy to speculate that rates will continue to rise, especially if business travelers come back into airports in force. And when you look at the history of airfares over the past decade and a half, it’s easy to see why. Despite grumblings in the industry that flying is getting cheaper, average fares have climbed 14.8 percent cumulatively from 1995 to 2010, with 2010’s average domestic fare of $341 approaching the 2008 peak for this period of $346.


But, there’s a silver lining. There’s still enough market inefficiency to make deals possible, and the rising strength of intermediaries (i.e., online travel agencies) means that you should be able to score some great fares next year. As the battle for brand recognition as a way to access consumer wallets heats up, look for competition to put some pressure on the economic drivers that push fares higher.

I’ve heard from Bill Miller, Sr. VP of Strategic Partnerships at CheapOair that average ticket price (base fare only) fell 0.3 percent year over year for domestic flights and climbed 0.2 percent year over year for international flights. Effectively, this translates to no change while the underlying carriers are pushing fares higher.

Miller tells me, “At CheapoAir we work hard to keep airfare prices low for our customers. Year-over-year, airline ticket prices that customers buy from us have actually decreased very slightly. And, our international airfare prices have gone up very slightly. We will continue to focus on finding low airfares for our customers as that is what is important to them.”

So, while fares are still at close to their highest levels since 1995, it doesn’t mean there’s reason to give up hope. Combine the fact that you can still find bargains with the increase in purchasing power that accompanies an economic recovery, and you’re in better shape than you think.

Time to get out on the road!

[photo by AMagill via Flickr]

The death of cheap tickets? Four factors to watch!

Will cheap tickets continue to be around?Are the days of bargain pricing over? There’s a lot of pessimism around this issue. After getting smacked around in 2008 and 2009, this year has been a good one for air carriers, and USA Today reports: “Airfares are on the rise again and unlikely to fall again anytime soon.” Yet, a travel industry recovery comes with advantages, as more people want to fly, and they tend to be willing to stomach higher prices. So, what’s the deal? Are we going to pay more (happily), or will 2011 means continued a continued prowl for cheap tickets, particularly online?

There’s no doubt that the airlines are getting more of our wallets. The U.S. Department of Transportation says that the average domestic ticket surged 13 percent – from $301 to $341 – from the second quarter of 2009 to the second quarter of 2010. That’s the fourth quarter in a row domestic fares rose.

Now, airlines are price-takers, not price-setters. What does this mean? They respond to what consumers are willing to pay … they don’t set the tone for the market (e.g., the way a luxury goods manufacturer would). So, if fares are shooting up year over year, a consumer willingness to pay is certainly implied.

Individual airline fare increases are pretty interesting, with United Airlines up 25 percent on average for is period and discounter Southwest adding 15 percent, on average, to every ticket.

According to USA Today, airfares are climbing for three reasons:1. Tension between capacity and demand: during the recession, airlines cut capacity in an effort to lower operating expenses and keep their margins from getting throttled. Available seat miles plunged more than 12 percent from the fourth quarter of 2007 through the end of 2009, according to the Air Transport Association. But, travelers are coming back. Demand is up, and there isn’t as much supply on hand. That pushes prices higher, even as airlines scramble to add capacity. Yet, available seat miles are up only 1.5 percent over the past year.

Why?

Airlines have been burned by market forces before when adding capacity too quickly. USA Today explains:

Having learned a bitter lesson by adding back too much capacity, airlines are exercising greater caution and restraint this time around. Additionally, bankruptcies and consolidations during the past few years helped contain capacity. Brands like Aloha, EOS, MAXjet, Midwest, Northwest, Skybus and ATA Airlines have disappeared as a result of consolidation or financial calamity and AirTran and Continental Airlines will soon follow suit.

2. Oil won’t go down: oil has been on the rise for a decade, moving from below $20 a barrel to above $90 a barrel, some of which came from the 2008 market shock. Someone has to pay for this of course … and it isn’t necessarily you. That’s the problem with being a price-taker: you can’t pass along all your expected or unexpected price increases to consumers. Now that market pressures are being eased, airlines can start to recapture some of these expenses.

3. The business is changing: according to USA Today, “so called ‘low-cost’ airlines look more like network airlines every day” – as a result of carrier merger activity. And, the increase in maturity comes with higher expenses. For example, these airlines are “rapidly expanding into larger hub airports or building their own”: that cost cash. It has to come from somewhere. It can also come with long-term costs that aren’t always easy to forecast:

Hub airports are often plagued with congestion, resulting in increased flight delays which can wreak havoc on aircraft turnaround times and utilization schedules, further raising operating costs. In recent years, Southwest has expanded into some of the most congested airports in the country, like Boston Logan, New York LaGuardia and Washington Reagan National.

4. There’s more to spend: the fact that there are expense pressures on airlines doesn’t mean that you’re going to have to foot the bill. The oil price factor, for example, has been around for a while, and it wasn’t enough to protect carriers from price declines. The fact that you probably have more discretionary income – or at least less perceived employment risk – means that you aren’t going to wince when you see a higher price. You’ll book with less lead time. It’s easier for you to spend.

What will be interesting to see is the extent to which consumers will be more willing to open their wallets. Even though having more cash comes with a bit of comfort in using it, memories may not be as short following this recession as they were in previous economic downturns. The recession kicked off by the global financial crisis in 2008 hurt. A lot. Unemployment was severe – and continues to be. People may not be as willing to pay big fares as they were in the past. Does this leave more market opportunities for online discounts – such as those offered by online travel agencies? That remains to be seen.

What do you think? Leave a comment to let us know! There’s no crystal ball on this one, and I’d love to get your thoughts.

[photo by atomic taco via Flickr]

Review – ITA Software OnTheFly for Android

If you have ever booked an airline ticket online, then you have a very good chance you made use of fare information from a company called ITA Software. ITA is so important to the online world that Google purchased them earlier this year. ITA’s technology is what powers many of the major booking engines, including some from the airlines themselves.

So can you imagine how powerful an app could be if it had live access to the ITA fare data? Well, imagine no longer, because owners of an Android phone or an iPhone can download OnTheFly – ITA’s mobile application for airfare searches.

Unlike many other airline ticket applications, OnTheFly is designed with a specific kind of traveler in mind – the kind of traveler that doesn’t get scared when they see booking codes or fare constructions. If you understand how airline tickets work – an application like OnTheFly could be your best tool for fighting overpriced tickets – as long as you know where to look.

The application itself is very well made – the version I tested was for Android, and given the ITA – Google – Android links, it comes as no surprise that this is one well designed application.

The smart design starts when you enter an airport – in addition to the airport name or code you entered, it’ll also show other airports to consider.

In the case of Minneapolis, the closest alternative airport is 61 miles away, but when you enter one of the New York airports, you obviously get some better alternatives. Searches can be done by date, flexible dates, fare class, number of stops and a variety of other options.

The results matrix shows airfare by airline, along with the number of stops – making it very simple to pinpoint the best fare.
Results can expanded with other airports or alternative dates.

Once you’ve picked a fare, you can pick your times. Depending on the departure time, fares may go up, so this simple chart shows then the best time to fly will be.

And once you pick an actual flight, you can display its fare information, mileage and even its emissions data – which is great if you participate in a CO2 offset program.

Now – to be perfectly clear – OnTheFly is NOT a ticket booking application – it merely shows the best fares, from ITA’s database. Once you’ve found the perfect flights, you will need to call the airline and give them the information they need to actually book your ticket. Of course, you can also call your travel agent if you still happen to use one.

Thankfully, OnTheFly tells you EXACTLY what the airline will need to know in order to book the exact ticket you want. Since some of these tickets use specific booking codes, you’ll need this data to snag the fare you found.

Bottom line is that OnTheFly is the best mobile airfare search app I’ve ever tested – but it is most certainly not for everyone. If you just want to go online and book whatever looks cheap-ish, then you’ll probably want to stay away from it. But if you make a sport out of finding the absolute cheapest airfare, maximizing your miles and taking advantage of specific booking classes, you’ll get a real kick out of the power of ITA on your mobile device.

To learn more about ITA Software OnTheFly, and to find download links, head on over to their product page.

Kayak Explore: cheap airline tickets based on your budget

A neat new online tool from travel firm Kayak tells you where you can fly, based upon your available budget. Simply pop your departure airport into Kayak Explore, tell it how much you can spend, and when you want to fly – and the service will deliver a map of the world with little pins showing how much it’ll cost to fly there.

The site gathers its data from the millions of airfare combinations Kayak monitors, and allows you to find real bargains. Of course, with a tool like this, you can also find ways to maximize your mileage account, finding the furthest destination with the lowest price. Search filters even allow you to pick activities, spoken languages, and the average daily temperature.

The one thing the tool won’t do is tell you exactly when that fare can be found – the fare displayed is merely the lowest within a general time frame. Once you’ve found a cheap destination, you can enter your dates and head to the main Kayak search pages. You’ll find Kayak Explore at kayak.com/explore. Happy fare hunting!