People who still want to book trips home to visit family or take vacations over the holidays need to act fast and prepare for sticker shock.
Airline executives say that based on bookings, they expect high demand for flights over Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Travel experts say the best deals on airfare and hotels are already gone.
On social media, many travelers think they are lost. It’s an understandable sentiment when government data shows that air fares in October rose 43% from a year earlier and US airlines posted a combined profit of more than $2.4 billion in the third quarter.
Part of the reason for the high fares is that airlines are still flying fewer flights than in 2019 despite passenger numbers almost returning to pre-pandemic levels.
“Fewer flights and more people wanting to go home or take vacations over the holidays means two things: Prices will be higher and we’ll see sold-out flights for both holidays,” said 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 cheap flights home for her young son, who is spending Thanksgiving with his grandmother in Texas while Parr visits her husband, who is on active duty in California. She finally found a $250 one-way on Southwest, but it wasn’t 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 bad.”
Air travel and accommodation prices usually increase during the holidays, and this happened earlier this year. That is leading some travelers in Europe to book shorter trips, according to Axel Hefer, CEO of German hotel search company Trivago.
“Hotel rates have gone up everywhere,” he said. “If you have the same budget or even a lower budget due to inflation, and you still want to travel, you just cut a day short.”
Hotels are struggling with labor shortages, another cause of higher prices. Glenn Fogel, CEO of Booking Holdings, which owns travel search sites including Priceline and Kayak, says one hotelier told him he can’t fill all his rooms because he doesn’t have enough staff.
Car rental prices aren’t as crazy as they were for much of 2021, when some popular locations ran out of vehicles. Still, the supply of vehicles is tight because the cost of new cars has prevented rental companies from fully rebuilding the fleets they let go early in the pandemic.
US consumers are facing the highest inflation in 40 years and there are growing concerns about a possible recession. However, it does not appear in travel statistics.
The number of travelers passing through airport checkpoints has recovered to nearly 95% of 2019 traffic, according to Transportation Security Administration figures for October. Travel industry officials say holiday travel could top the charts for a pandemic.
Airlines haven’t always been good at handling the large crowds, even as they’ve been hiring to replace those who left after COVID-19 hit. The rate of canceled and delayed flights rose above pre-pandemic levels this summer, causing airlines to slow plans to add more flights.
U.S. airlines operated just 84% as many flights in the U.S. as they did in October 2019, and forecast about the same percentage in December, according to travel data firm Cirium. Airlines are using, on average, larger planes with more seats this year, which partially offsets the decline in flights.
“We’re definitely seeing a lot of strength for the holidays,” United Airlines Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella said on the company’s October earnings call. “We’re getting close to the Thanksgiving season and our bookings are incredibly strong.
Airline executives and Transportation 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 prepared for the holiday crowds.
Travel experts offer tips to save money and avoid being stranded by canceled flights, although the advice hasn’t changed much from previous years.
Be flexible about dates and even destinations, although this is not possible when visiting grandma’s house. In a recent search, the cheapest flights from Los Angeles to New York around Christmas were Christmas Eve and return on New Year’s Eve.
Look into discount airlines and alternate airports, but be aware that smaller airlines have fewer options to rebook passengers after a flight is canceled.
Fly early in the day to reduce the risk of delay or cancellation. “If something goes wrong, it tends to play out throughout the day — there’s a domino effect,” says Chuck Thackston, chief executive of Airlines Reporting Corp., an intermediary between airlines and travel agencies.
There are plenty of theories on the best day of the week to book travel. Thackston says it’s Sunday because airlines know that’s when many price-conscious consumers shop, and airlines tailor deals for them.
For the most part, airlines have avoided accusations of price gouging that have swirled around oil companies — which drew another rebuke this week from President Joe Biden — and other industries.
Responsible USA, an advocacy group that criticizes companies, linked airline delays and cancellations this summer to job cuts during the pandemic and poor treatment of workers. “But in general, we would say that the airline industry is not currently at the same level as big food, oil or retail in terms of gross margins,” says Jeremy Funk, a spokesman 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 have been down since 2019 while demand is high.
“How’s it tearing?” asks Snyder. “They don’t want to go (take off) with empty seats, but they also don’t want to sell everything for a dollar.” It’s basic economics.”
Travelers are making sacrifices to keep the cost of their trips down.
Sheena Hale and her daughter, Krysta Pyle, woke up at
“We’re exhausted,” Hale said after the plane landed in Dallas, where Krysta was participating in a cheerleading competition. “We started early because the first flights were much cheaper. Flights are way too expensive.”
They don’t go anywhere for Christmas.
“We don’t have to travel. We’re at home with family,” Hale said.