Flying home for the holidays will cost you more this year

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People who are still looking to book trips home to visit family or take vacations during the holidays should act fast and be prepared for sticker shock.

Airline executives say based on bookings, they expect huge demand for flights over Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Travel experts say the best airfare deals and hotels have already disappeared.

On social networks, many travelers think they are being scammed. It’s an understandable sentiment when government data shows October airfares were up 43% from a year earlier, and US airlines reported a combined profit of more than $2.4 billion. in the third trimester.

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

“Fewer flights and more people looking to get home or take a vacation mean two things: prices will be higher and we’ll see flights sell out for both vacations,” says Holly Berg, chief economist for the provider. of Hopper travel data.

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

Parr thinks she waited too long to book a flight.

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

Prices for air travel and accommodation typically rise as the holidays approach, and that happened earlier this year. This is leading some travelers to Europe to book shorter trips, according to Axel Hefer, CEO of German hotel research firm Trivago.

“Hotel prices are up absolutely everywhere,” he said. “If you have the same budget or even a lower budget because of inflation, and you still want to travel, you just cut a day.”

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

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

US consumers are facing the highest inflation in 40 years, and there are growing worries about a possible recession. However, this does not show up in the travel figures.

The number of travelers passing through airport checkpoints is down to nearly 95% of 2019 traffic, according to October figures from the Transportation Security Administration. Travel industry officials say holiday travel could surpass pre-pandemic levels.

Airlines have not always done a good job of handling large crowds, even as they have hired workers to replace those who left after COVID-19 hit. Rates of canceled and delayed flights topped pre-pandemic levels this summer, forcing airlines to slow down plans to add flights.

US airlines operated just 84% more US flights than in October 2019 and expect roughly the same percentage in December, according to travel data firm Cirium. On average, airlines are using larger planes with more seats this year, which partly compensates for the reduction in flights.

“We certainly see a lot of strength for the holidays,” United Airlines Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella said during the company’s October earnings call. “We are approaching the Thanksgiving period and our reservations are incredibly strong.”

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

Travel experts are offering advice on how to save money and avoid getting stranded by a canceled flight, although the advice hasn’t changed much from previous years.

Be flexible on dates and even destinations, although that’s not possible when visiting Grandma’s House. In recent research, the cheapest flights from Los Angeles to New York around Christmas were on Christmas Eve and returning on New Years Eve.

Ask about discount airlines and alternative airports, but be aware that smaller airlines have fewer options to rebook passengers after a flight is cancelled.

Fly early in the day to reduce the risk of delays or cancellations. “If something goes wrong, it tends to progress throughout the day – it becomes a domino effect,” says Chuck Thackston, managing director of Airlines Reporting Corp., an intermediary between airlines and agents. trips.

There are many theories about the best day of the week to book a trip. Thackston says it’s Sunday because airlines know that’s when many price-conscious consumers shop, and carriers tailor their offers for them.

For the most part, airlines have dodged accusations of price gouging that have been circulating around oil companies — which prompted another rebuke this week from President Joe Biden — and other industries.

Accountable US, a critical business advocacy group, has linked airline delays and cancellations this summer to job cuts during the pandemic and poor treatment of workers. “But generally speaking, we would say that the airline industry is not currently on par with the big food, oil or retail companies in terms of gross profits,” says Jeremy Funk, a spokesperson for the group. .

Brett Snyder, who runs a travel agency and writes the “Cranky Flier” air travel blog, says prices are high simply because flights are down from 2019 amid booming demand.

“How does it gouge?” Snyder asks. “They don’t want to leave (take off) with empty seats, but they also don’t want to sell everything for a dollar. It’s basic economics.”

Travelers sacrifice themselves to limit the cost of their trips.

Sheena Hale and her daughter, Krysta Pyle, woke up at 3 a.m. and left their northwest Indiana home an hour later for a 6:25 a.m. flight to 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 first flights were much cheaper. The flights are way too expensive.”

They’re not going anywhere for Christmas.

“We don’t have to travel. We stay home with our family,” Hale said.

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David Koenig can be contacted at www.twitter.com/airlinewriter

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