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Airfares keep rising, but you can save money by departing from the norm

By Carol Sottili
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 16, 2010; F01

Suffering from airfare sticker shock? Join the club.

Domestic fares are out of sight, especially for summer travel. The $219 round-trip fare on nonstop flights between Washington Dulles and Los Angeles, once routinely available on several airlines, now starts at $429. Remember paying $160 round trip nonstop to Seattle with a spring sale on United last year? This spring, United is charging $486.

Europe is even worse. From Dulles to London, a Virgin Atlantic flight that cost $637 round trip last year is $1,144. The $683 round-trip sale fare on Air France to Paris is nowhere to be seen: Try $1,507. Delta's $546 round-trip fare from BWI Marshall to Zurich is now $1,190.

At this time last year, airlines were pushing one another out of the way to announce fare sales, especially to Europe. So far in 2010, the few sales that have taken place have been short-lived and heavily restricted to specific travel dates and days. Summer travel sales are nearly nonexistent.

Bing Travel fareologist Joel Grus said that several factors are responsible for the run-up.

"Prices were very low last summer, which makes the increases look high," he explained. "Airlines have been cutting capacity, so there are fewer seats. And demand seems stronger. More people are vying for those seats."

Bing Travel's initial forecast for 2010 summer travel concluded that, nationwide, domestic airfares have gone up 22 percent over 2009 (23 percent from Reagan National and Washington Dulles and 26 percent from BWI), and fares to Europe have risen by 29 percent (35 percent from National and Dulles; no figures available from BWI).

Grus doesn't anticipate any softening of fares in the near future, adding that they could go even higher if oil prices rise.

If staying home is not an option and the budget can only take so much, what's a traveler to do? Some tips:

-- For domestic travel, consider flying from BWI, where discount carrier Southwest is a major presence. Even though fares have risen dramatically out of BWI, they're still cheaper overall than those offered out of Dulles or National ($306 average compared to $332, according to Bing Travel's figures). Discount carrier AirTran also operates many flights from BWI, so you may get very lucky if flying on a competitive route. For example, the round-trip fare for nonstop flights this summer from BWI to Los Angeles, a destination served by both Southwest and AirTran, is at least $100 cheaper than fares from Dulles or Reagan National.

-- Track the sales. Various travel Web sites, including Yapta.com, Kayak.com, Farecompare.com, Bing.com/travel, Airfarewatchdog.com and Priceline.com, offer fare sale notifications. But also do your own check every day or so on at least one third-party booking site, such as Orbitz.com, Expedia.com and Travelocity.com. Also, find out what airlines fly to your destination (flight guides are available for National and Dulles at http://www.mwaa.com, and for BWI at http://www.bwiairport.com), and check directly with the airline sites.

-- Look at alternative airports. For example, if you're flying to Los Angeles, look at fares to Long Beach (one of JetBlue's bases), Ontario International, John Wayne Airport in Orange County and Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. Most Web booking sites will allow you to conduct a search that includes nearby airports.

-- Don't check luggage. Most legacy airlines, including United, US Airways, Delta and American, charge $25 for the first checked bag and $35 for a second checked bag (some offer $2 or $3 discounts per bag for paying online). Southwest does not charge for checked bags; JetBlue does not charge for the first checked bag.

-- Consider a package, especially to Europe. For example, a six-night trip on Virgin Vacations to London in mid-July starts at about $3,075 per couple; the same trip, with airfare and hotel booked separately, would cost about $255 more.

-- If the vacation destination is flexible, pick one with lots of competition. Grus pointed to Boston, which is served from our region by nonstop flights on seven carriers, including three discounters, as a good value (and again, the fare out of BWI, where three discount carriers vie for market share to Boston, is typically cheapest). Internationally, consider off-season summer destinations. For example, July and August is winter in Australia and New Zealand, so fares are cheaper: A recent sale on Qantas from New York to Sydney was $1,090, cheaper than most fares to Europe. In Costa Rica, summer is the rainy season, which typically means afternoon showers, and fares are about $410 round trip from Washington.

-- When you find a reasonable fare, don't hesitate. Fares can change within minutes.

Sottili is a Going Our Way and What's the Deal? columnist for Travel.

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