Travelers looking for flights for a trip this spring, summer, and beyond are confronting the same problem: Flights can be really expensive right now – in some cases, we’re seeing some of the highest airfare in years. But that’s not the full story…
It’s been a rude awakening for travelers after two-plus years of unbelievable pandemic bargains: Think sub-$50 domestic flights on major carriers, $200 roundtrip flights to Europe, and even a $63 flight to Chile and back. But what’s gone around has come back around as travelers face skyrocketing fares for many domestic flights and international trips, too.
Those eye-popping prices bring up a slew of questions. Why are flights so expensive right now? Can travelers expect flight prices to rise more this year? When will flight prices go down? Or will they at all?
Struggling to find a better deal on flights? Check out our quick tips on how to score a bargain right now!
Let’s dig into what’s happening with sky-high flight prices and see if we can find that light at the end of the tunnel, too.
Are Flight Prices Going Up?
Yes. That’s undeniable. You’ve no doubt seen some eye-popping prices on flights lately.
It’s not just you. Data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index shows a 17.7%% increase in airfare from March 2022 to this March. That means right now, on average, Americans are paying almost 20% more for flights than they did a year ago. That year-over-year number has been even higher in previous months.
But hold up: That doesn’t mean every single flight is more expensive. “Average airfare” is made up of millions of individual fares. Some are no doubt higher … but there are still many great deals out there for cheap flights. The trick is knowing how, when, and where to find them.
That’s what we specialize in here at Thrifty Traveler. Our team of flight deal experts spends all day, every day searching for the lowest airfares and ticket prices around the world and sends them straight to the inbox of our Thrifty Traveler Premium subscribers.
We’ve got ironclad proof that cheap flight deals are still out there – and they aren’t going anywhere. It may just be a bit harder to find them than in years past.
Why Are Flights So Expensive Right Now?
So why are flight prices so high right now? It’s a concept you’re already familiar with: Supply and demand.
After it nearly evaporated in 2020, demand for travel is fully back in 2023 and isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it might be higher than ever. That’s good and bad news.
When demand disappeared at the start of the pandemic a few years ago, it forced airlines to cut the supply of flights until it returned. Airlines downsized their staff, dropped routes, and reduced flight frequencies, running just 20% of their normal operations or less.
With next to no appetite for travel, they slashed airline tickets to unthinkable lows to generate whatever sales they could, like this: A flight from Atlanta (ATL) to Santiago (SCL) that normally costs $900 or more … for just $63 roundtrip.
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However, things have changed, Travel demand has steadily climbed back to levels we haven’t seen since before the pandemic, outpacing airlines’ ability to carry all those passengers.
Planes are regularly going out completely full now, especially within the U.S. After putting planes in the desert, retiring jets, and downsizing staff to survive the downturn, airlines have been unable to grow back to 100% fast enough to cope with this surge in demand.
Also contributing to this is a labor shortage. As you can see, airline staffing dipped to near-historic lows in 2020 and 2021. In the last year or two, airlines have gone on an unprecedented hiring tear over the last year to try to meet that rising demand. But with all the training required and a younger, more inexperienced workforce, a higher headcount isn’t enough for them to do so.
Combined with ongoing pilot shortages and difficulty replacing the planes they retired, that staffing mismatch has been a major factor in rising airfare. The supply of flights has been unable to keep up with the demand to fly.
Finally, there’s one critical number that will help you understand why flight prices seem to be so high right now: The cost of jet fuel remains pretty high.
After labor, fuel is airlines’ second-biggest cost. And that’s not a great trend line for airlines. Over and over again, we’ve heard major airline CEOs promising to pass along the cost of jet fuel to the consumer. Translation? Fares have to go up.
“Higher jet fuel prices lead to higher ticket prices,” United CEO Scott Kirby told CNBC’s Squawk on the Street a few years ago. “Ultimately, we’ll pass that through.”
At the end of the day, supply and demand ultimately win out in these situations. But the high ticket prices you’re seeing might also have something to do with how expensive it is for airlines to fuel planes right now.
When Will Flight Prices Go Down?
If prices are up nearly 18% compared to last year, are they going to come back down to earth? Or will flight prices just keep rising by a quarter every year until we invent teleportation and stop flying altogether?
Although it’s hard to accurately predict if prices will drop, some recent data trends actually show that we’re heading in the right direction. According to data from the lobbying group Airlines for America, when compared to pre-pandemic fares in 2019, it appears flight prices peaked in spring 2022.
So was May 2022 the worst of it? Or are we heading back into even higher airfare as 2023 marches on? Things are (mostly) heading in the right direction lately, dropping most months from that peak a year ago. Still, the next few months will be telling.
But there’s one reason we’re optimistic about flight prices going down in 2023: Competition. If supply and demand is the principle behind airfare, competition between airlines is the game changer.
The airline industry is cutthroat. Every year, we see new players enter and exit the game and all of those airlines – old and new – are constantly targeting their competitors, offering dirt-cheap prices to undercut each other in hopes of winning more customers.
And undercut they do. Take a look at this example from late last year.
The connection between competition and price here is undeniable. This unthinkably cheap fare to Greece from Delta was targeting American Airlines’ territory in Miami (MIA), offering its competitors’ customers a bonkers fare in exchange for making a connection in New York City (JFK).
It’s a classic example of “fare wars” and how they always mean savings for you, the traveler.
But more importantly, the major carriers like Delta, American, and United aren’t just fighting with each other anymore. With business travel not back to 100% and leisure travel roaring, even the biggest airlines have to compete with low-cost budget airlines like Spirit, Frontier, Sun Country, and new entrants like Avelo and Breeze. That’s a recipe for some lower fares for the foreseeable future.
Overseas, budget airlines like PLAY Airlines and Norse Atlantic have helped spur some amazingly cheap flights to Europe – as low as $300 round-trip (or even less.)
For instance, when Norse Atlantic launched, it was offering crazy low fares flying to Oslo (OSL). So what did Delta and its partner airlines, Air France and KLM, do? They matched it.
Sure, you can snag a cheap flight on one of these budget airlines. But they also routinely force major airlines like Delta, American, United, and their international partners to compete on price, too. And that’s a win for consumers.
Read our reviews of what it’s like flying PLAY and Norse Atlantic Airlines!
For now, we’re still finding some dirt-cheap fares to Europe, though there’s no question it’s gotten a bit harder. The future of cheap flights hinges on that competition staying strong.
The bottom line: Average flight prices are going down, albeit slightly, and unbelievably cheap flights are still out there. You might be seeing some far-more expensive fares on the specific flights you’re searching for, but healthy competition means we’re heading in the right direction overall.
What About Domestic Flight Prices?
Struggling to find a cheap domestic flight? Seeing sky-high fares no matter where you look?
There’s no question domestic flights have gotten more expensive lately, too. But we’ve been noticing a trend that we think you’re going to like: As spring and even summer trips have drawn closer, airlines have repeatedly cut prices on routes all across the U.S.
That even includes lower domestic flight prices during the peak summer months of June, July, and August – some of the most popular months to travel. That’s right: Your summer trip might be more affordable than you could have imagined just a few months ago.
This deal we sent to Thrifty Traveler Premium members for flights to Cape Cod (HYA), Martha’s Vineyard (MVY), and Nantucket (ACK) is the perfect example.
Flight deals to Cape Cod and the Islands are already rare, and inexpensive June fares are sometimes nearly impossible to find.
But JetBlue ran a “Spring Sale” that sneakily included some crazy cheap fares that extended well into June, and other airlines had to match them to stay competitive.
We saw the exact same thing with this flight deal to Destin, Florida (VPS). Destin is on the Florida Panhandle, where white sand beaches greet visitors every year. But what normally doesn’t greet visitors, however, are sub-$200 flights in June and August.
Those are just two quick examples, but it’s part of a broader trend that has played out repeatedly lately for domestic flight prices. We’re hoping this trend continues, opening up more U.S. destinations with summer 2023 availability over the days and weeks ahead, too.
Where Can You Find Cheap Flights Right Now?
Seeing sky-high airfare almost everywhere you look? You’re not alone. But trust us: Cheap flight deals are still out there.
Finding cheap flights is what we do here at Thrifty Traveler. We scour the globe for the lowest prices, weeding out the exorbitant fares and sending our Thrifty Traveler Premium (and Thrifty Traveler Premium+) members the best of the best deals. Here’s a small sample.
While a quick domestic hop might cost you $500 or more, we’ve seen fares out to Hawaii from across the nation drop as low as $309 roundtrip – or under $200 from the West Coast!
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Seeing flights to Europe for $1,200 or more seems like the norm … but it’s not. If you time it right, you can get to Copenhagen for $475 roundtrip, Portugal this fall for less than $500, or even out to Croatia for as low as $553 total.
Even somewhere dreamy like Fiji is within reach in 2023. And with fares as low as $626 roundtrip – flying major carriers, not budget airlines – scratching it off your bucket list won’t cost much.
Still not sold that you can find cheap flights? Follow these tips:
Trying to predict when airfare prices will go up or down is more art than science. It can be unpredictable, given the puzzling sales we see from airlines day after day, year after year. Cash grabs, mistake fares, flash sales, and fare wars can spring up at any moment.
There are still bargains to be had now for future travel. You might be seeing sky-high flight prices right now, but with airlines increasing operations and competition heating up, we’re feeling optimistic about the future of cheap flights as we all take to the skies in 2023 and into 2024.
Frequently Asked Questions About Expensive Flights
What does the weather have to do with airfare prices?
It’s less about the weather and more about the seasons – and where travelers want to go to enjoy them. The more travelers are looking to go to a specific destination or region, the more it can drive airfare prices up and up.
Think about it this way: Does your idea of escaping the cold of winter include a trip to Canada or Alaska in January? Probably not. There’s lower demand to colder destinations across the board in winter, which often leads to lower prices.
Of course, the opposite is true for warm destinations: High demand leads to higher prices. Airlines often increase flights to popular warm-weather locales in the winter and spring … but sometimes, they can’t keep up. That’s why, for example, we’ve seen a major surge in airfare prices to destinations like Miami (MIA) and Fort Lauderdale (FLL) in recent months.
Will flight prices go down for Christmas & other holidays?
Don’t count on it.
Travel demand simply doesn’t get higher than over Christmas and the winter holidays. Airlines know that Americans are anxious to get somewhere for the holidays … and willing to pay for it. That’s a recipe for high airfare, and 2023 is no different.
That said, that doesn’t mean you should book your flights for December or January right now. The folks behind Google Flights have crunched the numbers and found that domestic flights over Christmas typically drop to their lowest prices around 88 days ahead of time … and disappear 20 days in advance. That means and you’ll want to book long before early December.
Even if you’re not ready to book just yet, go set a Google Flights Price Alert for your Christmastime travel plans so you get an alert when prices drop or increase. That could give you a critical heads up on when it’s time to book flights.
Will the surge in flight prices make up for losses during COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes and no.
Airlines lost billions upon billions of dollars during the worst of the pandemic. For the last few years, most of them have been back to reliably churning out decent profits. For example, Delta Air Lines turned a $1.3 billion profit in 2022.
But it’s not as simple as airlines trying to make up for the money they lost over the last few years by charging more for flights these days. It’s a complicated mix of travel demand surging to record highs and surpassing airlines’ ability to carry all of us – an imbalance in the classic “supply and demand” curve that plays the single biggest role in setting prices. All the while, fuel and labor costs are growing, too.
So while airlines are charging more and back to making profits, that’s no different than how things were back in 2019 and before.
What is fuel duty and is it going up?
Airlines hate paying more for fuel. But when their fuel costs rise, they’re not footing the bill. You are.
Call it the fuel duty or fuel surcharges, but it’s an important part of what you’re paying for any time you book a flight or even redeem your frequent flyer miles. Many airlines levy additional surcharges in addition to the actual airfare and a bevy of government taxes, building them into the final price you see at checkout. As gas prices rise, so do these charges.
Unless you plug your route into a tool like ITA Matrix, you may never even see these “carrier-imposed surcharges” – typically labeled as YQ or YR charges. Here’s a look at a roundtrip economy ticket from New York City (JFK) to London-Heathrow (LHR) on Virgin Atlantic, for example.
When you’re buying a flight with cash, these fuel costs are just lumped in with your final price. But many airlines pass on these additional fees even when you’re redeeming miles for a (supposedly) free ticket.
That’s why we’ve seen the taxes and fees grow to nearly $1,000 when booking Emirates first class flights after several hikes.
Why are jet fuel prices increasing?
While airlines certainly aren’t filling up their jets at your local gas station, you can safely make one assumption: If you’re paying more at the pump, so are airlines to fill up their planes.
Will flight prices go down in the second half of 2023?
We don’t have a crystal ball … but we think so.
Travel demand is still building back from the depths of the pandemic, but it can’t grow forever. It’ll take time, but airlines should be able to steadily meet that demand as they hire and train more pilots and get more new planes into the sky.
We expect to see average airfare prices continue to bounce around over the next few months, so don’t be surprised to see the occasional headline that flight prices have gone up again – or down again.
If we can guarantee one thing, it’s this: Cheap flight deals aren’t going anywhere. Just how easy they are to find is the big question.