Favorable fares may be coming to a close

In past years, Memorial Day signaled the end of sweetheart flight prices. This year, a sinking economy stretched the deals a bit longer, but experts say the good times may be coming to a close. Remember the problems last summer, with higher prices blamed on jet fuel? Well, we could see the cost of oil work the same dismal magic this summer.

Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, cites recent fare increases of $10 to $20 per roundtrip as an indicator that we are the brink of an upswing. But, these are counterbalanced by new lows elsewhere. A recent survey by Travelocity shows ticket prices down 17 percent for trips between Memorial Day and Labor Day. So, buyers and sellers are locked in a silent struggle to determine how much your next vacation will cost.

With an eye out for possible deals, customers are waiting, booking their flights 86 days ahead instead of the usual 90. While this doesn’t seem like much, it takes a lot of last minute purchases to bring the average down.

Even if airline fares are coming back, you can still take advantage of the lows now. If you’re thinking about taking a vacation, stop … and take action instead.

Australian “free” fares must be free from now on

It’s a seductive little move: offer free flights, and then slap the passenger with taxes and additional fees. Tiger Airways just did it this month. It attracts potential customers, generates buzz … all the good stuff that an airline needs in this market. A new law, however, is going to bring all this to a close. Air carriers will have to disclose all the “extra” costs up fronts, and free, for once, will mean free.

And, it’s not just the airlines. This overhaul of consumer protection laws covers any company that sells travel – including hotels and town car companies. It could even rope in dive tour providers.

We can debate who loses with this development forever, but the winners are immediately apparent: anyone who voted for this law looks like a consumer rights champion. Beat up on the airlines, if you’re an Aussie elected official, and you’re really asking the voters to let you keep your job.

Boston reaps the rewards of airline competition

It’s funny. Airlines blame last year’s industry implosions on consumers’ non-stop demands for low fares. Ask any analyst and they’ll say “Transcontinental fares are as low this year as they are were in 1986! Where’s the inflation! The Humanity! The Humanity!”

We can’t be completely to blame though. Three out of four times, a consumer like myself needs to buy a ticket, logs on to Kayak, finds the cheapest fare and buys a ticket. If the bar is twenty dollars higher all around? The cheapest fare still gets purchased and I buy one less fitted oxford at Hollister.

Instead, I think much of the blame lies in aggressive competition. With their fun oil hedge, Southwest often sets the market price by opening service to a city, offering outrageous deals and forcing the competition to match or undercut those fares. Often times, the competition launches their own promotions to keep loyal passengers flying on their product.

Boston is the picture perfect example. Last month, Virgin America started service to Beantown, saturating the transcontinental market and directly competing with American Airlines. Soon thereafter, Southwest announced that they would be setting up camp in the Autumn. To compete with Virgin America? Perhaps.

In kind, American Airlines has now launched its own campaign, offering transcontinental passengers triple the miles on any flight. This means that after only two round trips, passengers can earn free domestic award travel on the airline. That’s a pretty outstanding deal and direct competition to both carriers.

Will this sway the fickle traveler back to American Airlines when Virgin America offers mood lighting and hipsterdome while Southwest provides zaniness and a robust route network? Maybe for the business traveler, but my guess is that the casual traveler will still go with the younger, cooler airlines.

Get in on the airfare wars Down Under

You gotta love a little healthy competition.

Airlines to Australia have been caught in a price war, and we’re reaping the rewards. It all started with V Australia whose new flights to the US begin February 27th. Their sales have ended, but Qantas’ sales are still around. But book quickly–their sale ends Monday, January 26th.

Get a Qantas ticket for $880 round-trip to Australia or New Zealand from LA or San Francisco–a fare that’s easily $200 cheaper than normal. Fly to Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane anytime from February 1-September 21. Or fly to Auckland from February 24-September 21. That’s largely their fall and winter, but you can catch good weather at the fringe in Sydney and Melbourne, and even longer up north in Brisbane. And it’s perfect timing for a last-minute trip to Sydney’s Mardi Gras, which is February 14-March 7.

And watch out for more sales from a new competitor in town: Delta. They’ll be starting up non-stop LA-Sydney flights on July 1st. No sales are posted yet, but they’ll probably pop up closer to the start date.

Fare wars to Germany

Usually around this time of the year trans oceanic ticket prices start to fall. And winter and spring is a great time to travel if you’re a northerner (see pictured: my car yesterday), so if you can take advantage of some of the good fares it’s often pretty easy to bang out a quick vacation at minimal cost.

The first slew of good prices this year seem to be to destinations in Germany. Searching from a variety of departure points, I’m finding prices around the 400$ range to anywhere from Munich to Dusseldorf to Hamburg to Frankfurt, leaving over various times in the next few months.

Sure, it’s not the warmest part of the year in Germany, but if you’ve got friends, family or an adventurous streak you can always slip out for a few days and enjoy some authentic German food and beer. Or, if you’re willing to make a couple of connections you can always leave immediately from Frankfurt or Dusseldorf on a low-cost-carrier and be in the Mediterranean in a heartbeat.

Happy travels!