Domestic air travel won't be cheap this summer — prices for tickets jumped 18.6 percent in April alone, due to everything from higher fuel costs to demand for seats. On top of that, schedules are being reduced as carriers work to address their staff shortages. Here's everything you need to know:
What's causing these high ticket prices?
Just like it's expensive to fill up a car with gas right now, the same goes for airplanes. The price of fuel has risen 150 percent in the last year, the International Air Transport Association says, and "that is a huge factor in airlines determining the price of the flights they sell because it accounts for 30 percent of their operation expenses," Hayley Berg, a writer with the travel site Hopper, told ABC7 Bay Area.
Demand for seats is also high, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic — people who want to visit family across the country or take a long-awaited vacation are booking flights, and so are people who rescheduled trips postponed in 2020 or 2021. At the same time, carriers have reduced their schedules for the summer as they deal with staffing shortages.
Why are the airlines so short-staffed?
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when air travel plummeted, most carriers offered pilots, flight attendants, and ground crew buyouts. Industry employment ended up dropping by 50,000, The Washington Post reports, and once air travel rebounded with the advent of COVID-19 vaccines, companies scrambled to start hiring staffers. American Airlines said that since last summer, it has added 12,000 employees to its ranks, but even when carriers go on hiring sprees, it takes time to train these new staffers.
Unions representing flight attendants and pilots say their workers are overworked and stressed, making it difficult to safely do their jobs. "Our pilots are tired and fatigued," Delta Air Lines Captain Evan Baach told The Guardian. "Our pilots were working record amounts of overtime, we're working longer days, we have shorter nights in between our duty periods. We want the company to match their words with action and make changes to the pilot schedules."
Are there any tips on how to save money on plane tickets?
First, be flexible. If you can work around a range of dates, you can book a flight for the cheapest day. Typically, it's more expensive to fly on a Friday or right before a holiday, and Tuesdays and Wednesdays are "generally cheaper because they're less common days to start a trip," Christie Hudson, senior public relations manager at Expedia, told Condé Nast Traveler.
It's easier than ever to book a plane ticket on a computer or smartphone, but it might be time to go back to relying on travel agents, Henry Hareveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, told CNBC Select. Not only can they help people navigate traveling during the time of COVID-19 and various restrictions, but Hareveldt said he's also seen agents book vacation packages that are up to 10 percent off retail price, as "not all fares are publicly available."
With domestic flights being so pricey, this summer might be the perfect time for a European escape, Scott Keyes of Scott's Cheap Flights told CNBC Select. One reason why so many people are booking flights for inside the U.S. is because they are concerned about testing positive for COVID-19 while in a foreign country and not being able to return home. International travel is down by at least 20 percent compared to pre-pandemic, Keyes said, and Europe is the best bet for Americans looking for a less expensive flight and a favorable dollar-to-Euro exchange rate.
Finally, redeem those miles you've been holding onto. As CNET notes, "Not all points structures are the same, and the longer the flight, generally the more points it costs," but using points will lower the cost of travel and is helpful when money is tight. Also, look for ways around extra charges the airlines like to tack on — for example, if it costs money to check in a bag, and you're only going to be gone for a few days, pack just a carry-on bag. Or, if you're flying with your family, try to fit everyone's clothes into one large suitcase.
When might domestic airfare prices finally drop?
Experts believe that in September and October, once kids are back at school and the summer travel season is over, prices will start to go down. For those looking forward to the holiday season, Keyes recommends booking one to three months ahead of time for the best domestic prices, and two to eight months ahead for international travel.