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More and more people are flying. U.S. airlines carried an all-time high estimated 77.9 million (domestic and international) in July 2019, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ (BTS) estimate.
And, with so many people hitting the skies, overall, the prices have gotten better. The 2018 average domestic itinerary airfare of $350 was the lowest (adjusted for inflation) annual fare since such records were kept in 1995, down 1.8% from the previous low of $356 in 2017. This has made getting around the country relatively affordable for the average American.
As for international travel, it has never been cheaper to fly from the U.S. to Europe or Asia as it is today, says Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “We are living in the golden age of cheap flights,” he says.
But given the unpredictable nature of the airline industry, it’s not guaranteed you’ll always be able to find an inexpensive flight to where you want to go from any airport. Here are a few trends to consider:
- Average airfare costs were down in 81 of the 100 largest airports, but there were some exceptions. Chicago-Midway airport saw the largest uptick in average airfare, increasing by nearly 7% from 2017 to 2018, while Chicago’s O’Hare jumped 4%.
- Long Island MacArthur Airport in Long Island, Syracuse Hancock International and Portland International Airports had the largest decreases in average airfare costs. In each of those airports average airfare costs fell by over 10%.
- In general, flying out of the largest airports including Dallas/Fort Worth, Ronald Reagan Washington National, LaGuardia and Phoenix Sky Harbor International was more costly in 2018 compared to 2017.
What’s behind the rises and falls?
“Airfares are based on seasonality, load factors, competition and various airlines’ market share,” says Peter Vlitas, senior vice president of airline relations for Travel Leaders Group. In other words, if an airline has strong competition with other carriers or sales are slow, that’s when you might see a drop in pricing. Or, sometimes a disruptive major event might cause price changes. “For example, fares to Hong Kong have dropped given the ongoing strikes,” says Vlitas.
That’s why looking at average airfare stats might not tell the whole story, says Keyes. In a simplified illustration, Keyes says to imagine you have two flights out of Philadelphia to your desired destination for $400 and $600, and then the same two destinations out of JFK for $300 and $900 – the average price is higher at JFK ($600 versus Philly’s $500), but that’s also where you’ll find the cheaper flight, he explains.
In fact, despite what the data above suggests, Keyes says his company has found that the biggest airports actually have the most number of deals. “We ran the numbers and the top airports for cheap flights turned out to be some for the biggest ones – JFK, LAX, Boston, San Francisco,” he says. However, he points out, even though larger airports have more volume, the quality of airfare deals tend to be better at smaller airports.
Furthermore, Vlitas adds that focusing on data that reports average prices by airport doesn’t take into consideration which ones have low cost airline options. “If an airport has a low cost airline option such as Spirit, then yes, it will be cheaper, but that is because of the airline and not due to any geographic constraint,” he says.
That said, Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo, encourages flyers to cast a wide net in their flight research. “In Los Angeles, for example, LAX will have the most available routes, but since low-cost carriers often dominate smaller nearby airports like BUR (Burbank), LGB (Long Beach), SNA (Orange County) and even SAN (San Diego) and SBA (Santa Barbara), a wide range of pricing (and schedules) are possible, depending on where you’re going.”
One more trend to watch: the impact of the grounded Boeing Max 737 jets, which is pinching Southwest, says Sagile. “The low-cost champion among the four largest US airlines was forced to keep aircraft grounded and to cut flights and delay new routes (to Hawaii, mainly),” he says. “So it’s likely easing the pressure on the other big three (AA, United and Delta), which in some markets, could be leading to less competitive fares.”
Feeling confused? That’s to be expected when it comes to airfare, says Keyes. “I don’t blame people for feeling flustered or overwhelmed. Airfare is unlike anything else we buy; the price is completely irrational and unpredictable,” he says.
Luckily, to counter that uncertainty, there are some strategies that consumers can use to save money on flights regardless of what the average pricing trends seem to indicate.
How travel credit cards can help offset the cost of travel
Even if you are able to find a ticket price that you are pleased with, these days, there are ancillary fees that can drive up your travel costs (that used to be included in ticket prices), like checked bags, seat selection and in-flight meals. And then there are related travel expenses, such as getting to and from the airport, or if you take your own vehicle, parking fees.
To save on flight prices and minimize these extra costs, many consumers are finding success with travel rewards credit cards. Some of the cardholder perks that you can enjoy depending on the card you choose include:
- Free checked bags
- Discounted food and beverages in-flight
- Ride-share (Uber, Lyft) credits
- Travel credits
- Companion passes
- Airport lounge access
In addition, the bigger draw of travel cards is that you can earn a lot of points or miles upfront through sign-up bonuses, and then from your regular spending. These points can then be used to book or get a statement credit toward free or deeply-discounted flights. Keep in mind, a good number of travel rewards cards and co-branded airline credit cards do have an annual fee, so you’ll have to figure out which one(s) can provide you with the best value based on your travel and spending styles.
To give you an idea, here’s a quick snapshot of some travel perks offered by a few popular travel credit cards that can ease the cost of flying (terms may apply):
|Card||Annual fee||Rewards Potential||Cool Benefit|
|Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card||$0 intro for first year; $95 after that||One-time bonus of 50,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $500 in travel.
Earn 2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
|Receive up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card||$95 annual fee||Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
Earn 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases worldwide
|1:1 points transfer to other travel programs, so you can use your points toward a variety of flight and hotel options|
|The Platinum Card® from American Express||$550 annual fee||60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.
Earn 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel and 5X Membership Rewards® points on prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com.
|A yearly $200 airline fee credit for the airline of your choice to cover incidental fees; $100 hotel credit; $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck; up to $200 in Uber credits; complimentary Centurion Lounge access. Terms apply.|
|Discover it® Miles||$0 annual fee||Earn unlimited 1.5x miles for every dollar spent on all purchases - with no annual fee||Discover will match ALL the Miles you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically. For example, if you earn 35,000 Miles, you get 70,000 Miles. That’s $700 towards travel!|
|United℠ Explorer Card||$0 intro for first year, then $95||40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus earn an additional 25,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 total on purchases in the first 6 months your account is open..
Earn 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants, on hotel stays and on purchases from United. 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases.
|Two free checked bags (one each for cardholder and one companion)|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card||$149 annual fee||Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
Earn 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases and Rapid Rewards® Hotel and Car Rental Partner purchases. 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.
|$75 Southwest® annual travel credit each year, and 20% back on in-flight purchases|
Other things that can be done to keep costs down
Beyond travel credit card benefits (and getting lucky by stumbling upon a great airfare), there are some strategies our experts say can help you score better airfare deals and keep related costs lower.
Plan ahead. “You definitely should not wait until the last minute as airfares tend to skyrocket in the last couple of weeks,” says Keyes. For domestic flights, he recommends you aim to book one to three months ahead; for international, four to eight months. “That’s when cheap flights tend to pop up,” he says. Also, see if you can arrange for a friend or family member to drive you to the airport.
Be flexible with airports and dates. Being flexible about where and when you fly could equate to big savings. “Most travelers want to depart on a Thursday and return on a Sunday or Monday, so the cheaper fares on those flights will sell out faster,” says Vlitas. So, it could benefit you to look at midweek flights. And if you’re not dead set on a particular destination, you are better able to snatch excellent deals on international flights when they pop up, too, adds Keyes.
Embrace the one or two-stop flight. “When I used to fly out of SBA a lot , sometimes I’d find SBA-LAX-NYC flights cheaper than if I’d driven to LAX and hopped on that same connecting flight,” says Saglie.
Travel light to avoid baggage fees and other costs. If you’re not getting a free bag benefit through a credit card, try limiting the number of bags you check. Also, pack snacks for the flight.
Track flight prices and act quickly when you spot a deal. “Rule of thumb: the better the price, the shorter it’s going to last,” says Keyes. You can keep an eye on flights for free using Google Flights tracker, or you can use a paid service that does it for you. But when you see a price that’s too good to be true, don’t hesitate.
If you put in a little effort into finding the best airfare deals, and are willing to be flexible, you can likely find a less expensive airfare. On top of that, by using credit card rewards wisely, you can further offset the cost by redeeming your points and miles, while also eliminating some of those pesky additional fees.
In order to find the places where the cost of flying is rising the most, we looked at average airfare data from the Department of Transportation. Specifically we compared average airfare for departing flights from the largest 100 airports measured by 2019 passengers. We compared 2018 average airfare to 2017 average airfare. All airfare costs are indexed to 2019 to control for inflation.