To Find Cheap Flights Now, You’ll Need More Than Luck

To Find Cheap Flights Now, You'll Need More Than Luck

The tricks travelers have long relied on to save on airfares and trips may not go so far these days.

The cost for flights is surging ahead of summer: Airline fares rose 18.6% between March and April, according to the latest data from the consumer price index. Compared with a year ago, airfare prices are up 33.3% on an unadjusted basis.

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Common strategies such as waiting for prices to drop, going with another airline or spending frequent-flier miles might not be enough to take the sting out of the cost of traveling, industry analysts say. Travelers who haven’t yet bought their tickets are left with tough choices: Pay steeper prices, find other ways to save on their trips or stay closer to home.

Search request for domestic summer travel has grown 50% faster during the first four months of this year compared with the same period in 2019, says Hayley Berg, lead at economist travel app Hopper.

Since airlines started instituting more price tiers for seats in the cabins—such as basic economy seats that come with more restrictions—the least expensive seats are typically the first to be scooped up, one travel expert says.


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“It’s not just seasonality—there’s also pent-up demand coming off of the Omicron and Delta waves that is putting additional upward pressure on prices,” Ms. Berg says.

Analysts say staffing shortages that cause airlines to operate fewer flights and the higher cost of jet fuel also are contributing to rising prices.

A large number of travelers still hold unused flight credits or vouchers they received after canceling trips earlier in the pandemic. The vouchers often won’t take travelers as far at a time when flights are more expensive.

“If you’re hoping to book the same flight at the same price as your voucher, you’re probably going to find yourself paying a little bit extra on top of that,” says Caroline Teel, managing editor at travel website SmarterTravel.

The travel hacks people previously relied on to save money when booking trips might not work as well as they once did. Carriers have shifted the ways points or miles can be redeemed for travel in recent years, says Scott Keyes, founder of the travel-deals website Scott’s Cheap Flights.

“The actual miles required for any given flight is much more dynamic and hews much closer to what the cash price is,” Mr. Keyes says. Deals where a traveler could spend 25,000 miles for a domestic flight that would normally cost $1,000 are becoming increasingly rare, he says.

Waiting until the last minute to book flights in the hopes of getting a bargain isn’t a strong approach these days, either. Since airlines began introducing more price tiers for seats in the cabins—such as basic economy seats that come with more restrictions—the cheapest seats are typically the first to sell out, Ms. Teel says. Those who wait longer to book often will only have higher-priced tickets to choose from.

People looking to plan summer getaways should aim to book as soon as they can, Ms. Teel says. She recommends travelers take advantage of US regulations allowing for a 24-hour window within which customers can cancel a flight and receive a full refund or change a reservation. The requirement applies to carriers operating flights to or from airports within the US and to all reservations made seven or more days before the scheduled departure. The 24-hour rule does not apply to tickets booked with online travel agencies or other third parties.

“Just book the flight and then figure everything out,” Ms. Teel says.

Travelers shouldn’t wait long to book rental cars or hotel rooms after buying their plane tickets, though.

The cost of lodging, including hotels and motels, was up 22.6% on an unadjusted basis compared with last year, while the price of car and truck rentals increased 10.4% over that time, according to the latest CPI data. With those prices also rising, travelers might find that a trip isn’t affordable even in cases where the airfare isn’t prohibitively expensive, Ms. Teel says.

Booking far in advance comes with risks at a time when airlines are often readjusting their schedules to account for crew shortages. In March, Kathryn Davies, 31 years old, and her fiancé booked round-trip direct flights between Austin, Texas, and Newark, NJ, for a niece’s birthday in July. A little over two weeks after they booked the flights, their flights were canceled, she says. Their airline rebooked them with flights that included a layover in Boston.

Ms. Davies, a real-estate-advertising company employee, says she has a phobia of flying and tends to book trips carefully so that she can alleviate her nerves.

“It almost seems like within the last six to eight months looking at a flight far in advance is actually a little risky because that gives the airlines so much time to change it,” she says.

Write to jacob.passy@wsj.com

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