The flight home over the holidays will cost you this year

People who still want to book trips home to visit family or vacation over the holidays need to act fast and prepare for sticker shock.

Airline executives say they expect strong demand for flights over Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s due to bookings. Travel experts say the best deals on flights and hotels are already gone.

On social media, many travelers feel they are being outdone. It’s understandable sentiment when government data shows that airfares rose 43% year over year in October and US airlines reported total profits of more than $2.4 billion in the third quarter.

Part of the reason for the high airfares is that airlines are still operating fewer flights than in 2019, even though passenger numbers are almost back to pre-pandemic levels.

“Fewer flights and more people wanting to travel home or go on vacation means two things: prices will be higher, and we’ll see flights sell out for both holidays,” says Holly Berg, chief economist at travel data provider Hopper .

Yulia Parr knows exactly what Berg is talking about. The Annandale, Virginia woman struggled to find a cheap flight home for her young son, who is spending Thanksgiving with his grandmother in Texas while Parr visits her husband, who is on active military service in California. She finally found a $250 one-way ticket in the Southwest, but not until the Tuesday after the holiday.

Parr thinks she waited too long to book a flight.

“My husband’s children are flying home for Christmas,” she said. “These tickets were bought a long time ago, so they’re not that bad.”

Air travel and accommodation prices usually go up during the holidays, and that’s what happened earlier this year. According to Axel Hefer, CEO of Germany-based hotel search company Trivago, this is prompting some travelers in Europe to book shorter trips.

“Hotel prices have gone up absolutely everywhere,” he said. “If you’re on the same budget or even on a lower budget due to inflation and still want to travel, just cut off a day.”

Hotels are struggling with labor shortages, another reason for higher prices. Glenn Fogel, CEO of Booking Holdings, which owns travel search sites like Priceline and Kayak, says a hotelier told him he couldn’t fill all his rooms because he didn’t have enough staff.

Rental car rates aren’t as crazy as they were for much of 2021, when some popular locations ran out of vehicles. Still, vehicle availability is tight as the cost of new cars has prevented rental companies from fully rebuilding fleets they scrapped at the start of the pandemic.

US consumers are facing the highest inflation in 40 years and fears of a possible recession are growing. However, this is not reflected in the travel figures.

The number of travelers passing through airport security has recovered to nearly 95% of 2019 traffic, according to figures from the Transportation Security Administration for October. Travel industry officials say vacation travel could surpass pre-pandemic levels.

Airlines have not always done a good job of handling the large crowds, although they have hired workers to replace those who left after the COVID-19 outbreak. The rate of canceled and delayed flights rose above pre-pandemic levels this summer, prompting airlines to slow plans for additional flights.

According to travel data company Cirium, US airlines operated just 84% as many US flights as in October 2019 and are planning about the same percentage in December. On average, airlines are using larger planes with more seats this year, partially offsetting the reduction in flights.

“We’re definitely seeing a lot of power going into the holidays,” United Airlines chief commercial officer Andrew Nocella said on the company’s October conference call. “We are approaching the Thanksgiving time frame and our bookings are incredibly strong.”

Airline executives and Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg blamed each other for widespread flight problems over the summer. Airlines CEOs say they are prepared for the holiday mob after hiring more pilots and other workers.

Travel experts offer tips on how to save money and not be stranded by a canceled flight, although the advice hasn’t changed much from previous years.

Be flexible about dates and even destinations, although this isn’t possible when visiting Grandma. In a recent search, the cheapest flights from Los Angeles to New York around Christmas were back on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.

Check out low-cost airlines and alternative airports, but be aware that smaller airlines have fewer opportunities to rebook passengers after a flight has been cancelled.

Fly early in the day to reduce the risk of delay or cancellation. “When something goes wrong, it progresses throughout the day — there’s a domino effect,” says Chuck Thackston, general manager of Airlines Reporting Corp., an intermediary between airlines and travel agencies.

There are many theories about the best day of the week to book travel. Thackston says it’s Sunday because airlines know there are many budget-conscious consumers shopping that day, and airlines tailor offers for them.

For the most part, airlines have dodged accusations of price-gouging that have swirled around oil companies — which President Joe Biden rebuked again this week — and other industries.

Accountable US, a business-critical advocacy group, has linked airline delays and cancellations this summer to job cuts during the pandemic and mistreatment of workers. “But in general, we’d say the airline industry isn’t currently at the same level as the big food, oil or retail companies in terms of gross profit,” says Jeremy Funk, a spokesman for the group.

Brett Snyder, who runs a travel agency and writes the Cranky Flier blog about air travel, says prices are high simply because flights have been falling since 2019 while demand is booming.

“How’s it caving?” asks Snyder. “They don’t want to drive away with empty seats, but they don’t want to sell everything for a dollar either. It’s basic economics.”

Travelers make sacrifices to keep the cost of their trips down.

Sheena Hale and her daughter Krysta Pyle woke up at 3 a.m. and left their home in northwestern Indiana an hour later for a 6:25 a.m. flight in Chicago last week.

“We’re exhausted,” Hale said after the plane landed in Dallas, where Krysta was participating in a cheering contest. “We started early because the early flights were much cheaper. Flights are way too expensive.”

They’re not going anywhere for Christmas.

“We don’t have to travel. We’re staying home with the family,” Hale said. The flight home over the holidays will cost you this year

Grace Reader

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