Aspen Evans, a photographer based in Atlanta, has spent more money than she anticipated on the four flights she’s booked for the upcoming year. She’s noticed a big increase in the cost of airline tickets for flights around the U.S. when compared to her experience of booking travel in previous years.
“It’s ridiculous. Right now I can fly to different countries for less money than flying domestically,” the 28-year-old says. “It feels like these airlines are trying to get their money back in blood from the past years of the pandemic.”
Evans’ frustration echoes the feeling of millions of airline passengers across the U.S. Air travel is on track to return to pre-pandemic levels, but U.S. domestic flight fares were up more than 25% in January over a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But there are still a few ways to save money. Experts recommend booking tickets one to two months in advance, and using a travel site to help monitor the cost of flights across airlines.
Why prices are going up
A rapid increase in demand for air travel in the wake of the pandemic is a major cause of the price hikes, according to Steve Carvell, a finance professor and academic director at Cornell’s Center for Real Estate and Finance.
More people are taking flights than in the last three years of the pandemic. By this summer global air traffic is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels, according to aircraft leasing company Avalon.
But the short supply of airline staff exacerbates this, helping to drive up prices. “The supply of workers in aviation doesn’t get added that rapidly,” says Carvell, “while flight demand is pretty high.” Consulting firm Oliver Wyman estimates that North American airlines will face a shortage of nearly 30,000 pilots by 2032.
A surge in private jet usage by celebrities and business executives, has raised concern about climate impacts, but Carvell says the trend is also fueling higher airfare by exacerbating airlines’ staffing shortage. “The Kardashians need pilots,” he says. “That takes away from the pipeline.”
Fuel for the planes isn’t cheap either. Jet fuel hit its highest price of all-time last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
How to find the best deals
When it comes to travel, Jessica Nabongo knows the ropes: She’s the first Black woman documented to have visited every country in the world. Yet as well-versed as she is when booking travel, she too has been impacted by flight price increases. She splits her time between Detroit and Los Angeles and has noticed her usual roundtrip ticket has more than tripled in price this year.
In the midst of the price hikes Nabongo is still adamant about finding the best deals and recommends if you travel frequently, you should try booking with the same airline as much as possible.
“Loyalty is key,” she says. “I am super loyal to airlines and when you’re loyal to them you end up getting perks like upgrades and luggage for free.” Nabongo says she saved over $4,000 in luggage fees last year when sticking to Delta—which has hubs in both Detroit and Los Angeles.
Hayley Berg, lead economist at travel site Hopper, advises that for domestic trips you monitor prices three to four months in advance, and book one to two months before the trip, which tends to be the lowest price. Hopper’s data shows most domestic travelers are making their first search for a trip 20 days before the departure date, which means they can be missing the window of the best deals. “You won’t necessarily book as early as you start planning, but you want to start planning your trip early enough so that when that low price sweet spot hits, you can book and take advantage of the low prices,” says Berg.
Other flight hacks include booking mid-week travel dates instead of weekends and booking for the off-peak months outside of the usual June through August summer peak.
Berg says booking with third party sites, also known as online travel agencies (OTAs), like Hopper makes finding the cheapest deal easier because their platform does the heavy work of monitoring air routes that could be cheaper than what any individual airline would offer.
If your priority is to travel and you’re flexible with where to go, Nabango says “you should chase the deal and not the destination.” By letting the flight price deals dictate where she would fly to next, Nabongo was able to see over 195 countries of the world by the age of 35. For example, Travelocity shows low-cost fares from Newark to Miami for as little as $32.
Nabongo recommends you check out websites like FlightDeal.com, AirfareSpot.com, and SecretFlying.com for flight deals. If traveling via plane is still too expensive, Nabongo says road tripping can be a satisfying alternative.
Despite the price hikes, Nabongo is confident that figuring out a way to travel is always the better bet. “Travel helps you expand your mind and is always going to be more of a benefit in the end.”
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