4 Ways to Save Even as Airfares Climb

Rising fuel prices and a number of other market factors could make air travel more expensive this year

A photo illustration of an airplane above rising graph Photo Illustration: Lacey Browne/Consumer Reports, Getty Images

Consumers aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch at the gas pump. Airlines are also facing higher fuel prices, and are passing some of the increased cost on to travelers. 

How much more expensive will airfares be? Travel experts say that domestic ticket prices could rise as much as $30 to $40 on a typical round-trip ticket in the coming weeks and months.

At an investors’ conference last week, Delta Air Lines president Glen Hauenstein said that ticket prices were likely to increase by “somewhere under 10 percent” from current levels. Various industry sources estimate that domestic fares average between $320 and $400 round trip, depending on factors like the date of travel or competition on a particular route.

“Increased fuel costs are going to hurt the airlines’ bottom line, force them to raise fares, or both, ” says Scott Keyes, founder and chief flight expert for the airline deal site Scott’s Cheap Flights, adding that fuel is the second largest expense for airlines after labor. Since late last year the cost of jet fuel, which is derived from crude oil, has risen more than 50 percent.

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But Keyes says the global rise in oil prices won’t have as direct an impact on airfares as it does on gasoline prices. 

For one thing, the effects of any increase can differ greatly among airlines, depending on the average age of their fleet and whether they’ve invested in the newest fuel-efficient models. Also, airline tickets are often a discretionary purchase (unlike gasoline), which means carriers have an incentive in certain markets to rein in price increases.

Many large international airlines also hedge (or prepurchase) oil at fixed prices, which may limit the sticker shock, at least temporarily. German carrier Lufthansa recently said that it has locked in about two-thirds of its fuel for the year at a price of $74 a barrel.

Other than Southwest Airlines, however, few U.S. carriers have hedged prices in recent years after some lost heavily betting on the wrong side in the past, says Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research.

Still, many international fares will be increasing. Several international airlines, including Air Asia, Emirates, and Malaysia, are already imposing or increasing fuel surcharges on tickets in response to the sharp rise in oil prices.

Carriers that serve ultra-long-distance routes, such as from Europe and the U.S. to Asia, are facing even higher costs. That’s because the Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced some carriers to reroute flights around those two countries, which can add up to 3 hours of flying time and burn far more fuel.

Consumer Advocates Voice Concern

Some consumer advocates are voicing concern over the fare increases, pointing out that previous carrier surcharges and price hikes related to temporary fuel price increases remained in place even after fuel prices had returned to normal. 

“Airlines were very quick to institute fees when fuel prices spiked in the past, but they were awfully slow to remove those fees when prices went down,” says William J. McGee, aviation adviser for Consumer Reports. 

For example, McGee says American Airlines cited a spike in fuel prices when it introduced fees for checked baggage in 2008. Those fees, which were also adopted by most other U.S. carriers, remain in place today. Oil prices have eased somewhat in the past week, but are expected to remain higher than $100 a barrel at least through the next three months, according to the latest forecast from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Ways to Save on Flights

Be flexible. While price hikes are inevitable, you can minimize the damage to your wallet by finding the lowest fares. The key is to be flexible, says Scott Wainner, CEO of Fareness, a booking app that tracks airfare trends, adding that the last-minute deals common during the pandemic are much scarcer now.

“There has never been a secret formula, but if you can look at least a couple of weeks ahead you’ll start to get the best prices,” Wainner says.

Shop around. Some carriers give you the option of locking in a fare for a few days before you buy the ticket, either free or for a small fee: You can use the extra time to make sure you’re not missing out on a better deal. 

Consider a package. If your travel plans include a hotel stay, consider booking an air and hotel package through the airline: The fare you’ll get is often lower than what you’d pay if you booked the ticket separately. 

Use price alerts. If your travel dates are flexible, set up a price alert to be notified when the fare drops on a given route. You can do this on many fare comparison and booking sites, and on apps including Hopper and Kayak. Many travel websites also have flexible date calendars that indicate the least expensive days of the month to fly a given route.

Head shot of CRO Money editor Barbara Peterson

Barbara Peterson

I write about airlines, hotels, and other topics related to travel and personal finance. My mission: to help you stretch your travel dollars and to get from point A to point B with a minimum of stress. Travel is my passion, so when I'm not writing about it, I'm probably at an airport or on an airplane somewhere. Follow me on Twitter (@Petersonb)