“We definitely saw a deeper delta [variant] hit than can just be explained by seasonality,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights and author of “Take More Vacations.” Travel numbers “really dipped for a while until about a week or two ago, and then they started to rebound.”
The last time travel started a significant rebound, airfare prices responded accordingly. Ticket prices shot up this spring when people started traveling en mass following the vaccination boom. With the latest rebound, and with the United States ending its international travel ban in November, what will happen to the cost of travel? Here’s what experts have to say.
For the best deals, study destinations abroad
As more people begin to travel again once delta fears lessen and more international visitors add to the demand, prices may rise. According to data from TripActions, a corporate travel management company, an increase in global travel bookings this week came with climbing flight prices: from a $381 median base price per booking to $404.
Prices aren’t awful, though: Airlines Reporting Corp. findings show that while airfare rose from January to July, the average ticket price is lower than the levels seen in 2019. Ultimately, the kind of fare you’re going to get in the next few months will depend on where you’re going.
Mel Dohmen, senior manager of brand marketing at Orbitz and Cheaptickets, said there is a lot of affordability out there, such as to bigger hub cities where airlines are adding more flights (e.g., Las Vegas, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Orlando.) This winter you’ll have more competition, and potentially higher ticket prices, if you’re heading to warm-weather or snow-sport destinations.
The best deals, Keyes said, are for trans-Atlantic travel. “Just in the past two weeks, we’ve seen flights from all over the U.S. to all over Europe for 250 to 300 bucks round-trip,” he noted.
The worst deals? Last-minute bookings (“They’re almost always significantly inflated in price because last-minute buyers tend to be very motivated and lack much leverage,” Keyes said) and too-early ones. “For domestic flights,” Keyes said, “the ‘Goldilocks Window’ for when cheap flights are most likely to pop up is one to three months in advance of travel.”
Expect 2019-like fares for the holidays
If you’re looking for cheap holiday airfare, 2021 probably won’t bring any Christmas miracles. Savanthi Syth, airline analyst for the financial services firm Raymond James, said ticket prices in the weeks around Thanksgiving and Christmas should look a lot like they did in 2019.
“Don’t expect big bargains during those periods,” Syth said. “But if you have a flexible schedule and can travel in October, the first half of November, the first half of December, you’re going to find really good deals for both hotels and airfare.”
Keyes thinks holiday airfare could be slightly cheaper than it was pre-pandemic, but “not as cheap as it was last year when so few people are traveling,” he said.
The one big exception is if you travel internationally for Thanksgiving. Because most of the millions of Americans flying to see family at that time stay stateside, airlines can jack up domestic ticket prices and significantly drop international ones.
“Thanksgiving is my best week for international travel,” Keyes said. “The fares tend to be hideously expensive domestically, but downright cheap in many, many ways internationally.”
Don’t wait to book your holiday airfare
A wait-and-see attitude can really cost you when it comes to holiday travel. As we mentioned in August, the end of summer should be your Bat Signal to buy your holiday tickets if you want the best rates.
“I always recommend booking early for holiday travel, and I would recommend that even more so right now,” said Molly Fergus, a travel expert and general manager for the travel site TripSavvy.
The prospect of younger children getting the vaccine later this fall is part of her calculus. “If that goes through, I could imagine many families changing their minds and opting to travel,” Fergus said, “which is great news for families who want to be able to travel with their kids. But it will also definitely impact demand.”
Flying should be less painful than it was this summer
Multiple airlines dealt with mass flight delays and cancellations this summer because of labor shortages and extreme weather. But industry insiders say travelers shouldn’t expect the same this fall and winter.
Skyscanner travel expert Mark Crossey said airlines have been scaling up operations to avoid capacity issues during the holidays. The situation “should be a lot better, if not completely resolved,” Syth said.
Because travel went from 0 to 60 this summer, airlines had to scramble to accommodate the demand with fewer employees, after tens of thousands were furloughed last year. Since then, Syth noted, airlines have not only rehired people but also increased wages and added incentives for employees to work beyond their minimum hours.
Still, since weather and the pandemic could continue to wreak havoc, you will want to plan any trips with flexibility in mind. TripSavvy’s Fergus advised anyone flying to schedule their arrival for a day or two before any important events, in case of delays or cancellations; do their homework on their destination’s latest coronavirus restrictions; and expect a busy travel season ahead.
“Nothing is really certain right now, and it’s hard to feel safe planning far out at this point,” Fergus said. “But I think we’re going to see as we get into holiday travel — in particular domestically — people really wanting to get back home for the holidays, wherever that is. People are going to make that attempt this year.”