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Summer airfare deals are taking a vacation

March 20, 2008|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

Searching for summer bargains on airfares? Forget about it.

Bad news is piling up for families looking to fly overseas or even cross-country for vacations. Airlines are cutting flights, adding fees and fuel charges, trimming frequent-flier benefits and reducing customer service personnel, particularly at airport counters.

It's not just the airlines. The declining dollar is making overseas travel a no-go for many Americans, even those who are used to shopping excursions and Mediterranean cruises.

Delta Air Lines this week underlined the issue facing travelers and the industry. It announced plans to ground more than 40 planes and slash domestic flights by 10%. On Wednesday it raised domestic airfares by $10.

It's happening all over the airport. United Airlines and Northwest Airlines said they too would cut domestic flights, and analysts said other big carriers were likely to follow. Shortly after Delta's latest fare hike, American Airlines and Northwest raised fuel surcharges on international round-trip flights by $20. Fuel fees, which airlines charge on top of the base fare, now average about $200 for longer international round trips, or about double last year's average, according to Bestfares.com.

With fewer flights this summer, travelers can expect higher fares and planes even more packed than today, prompting some families to forgo flying altogether.

"I'm probably going to drive somewhere this year," said Bryce Berg, a Long Beach resident and father of two boys ages 6 and 9. Berg typically takes his children to visit family in either Chicago or Idaho for the summer, but "with the economy as it is, I'm not going to take a big trip."

Of course, there will always be opportunities for those who dig deep enough, and there is no stopping travelers who think a summer vacation in the Azores is a must.

But airfare deals to popular destinations are likely to be harder to find. Want to redeem those frequent-flier miles for a free ticket? Wait in line.

Already, a plane ticket for a trip overseas during the peak summer travel months is up an average of 10%, according to the Summer Travel Forecast report that online travel service Farecast.com is unveiling today.

Dana and Roy Dolin of Westchester are taking their three sons and the children's grandmother to Italy in July despite airfares that were about $800 more per person than they had expected to pay. The Dolins, who booked the trip last month, said they thought they "could get by" for about $1,000 per person based on fares they'd seen last year.

"It's going to be quite costly, but the kids are getting older and it's getting more difficult to do these kinds of trips together," Dana Dolin said. "This may be the last hurrah for us."

With fewer seats and more travelers resigned to high prices at the gas pump and elsewhere, airlines for the first time in years have been able to raise fares, a trend that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

"Fare increases have stuck, and that's a new phenomenon," said Wido Schaefer, president of TravelStore, a travel service headquartered in Brentwood. In the past, a fare hike was often withdrawn after other airlines refused to follow or consumers balked.

But "now faced with high prices of oil, they are not budging," Schaefer said, adding that the average round-trip airfare to Honolulu from Los Angeles rose to $500 recently, and is climbing to nearly $1,000 for peak summer travel.

The fares are "pushing a lot of people out of the market," he said. "It's going to be a rough and tough summer."

But Chris McGinnis, a travel consultant for Travel Skills Group, said that despite the fears of a recession and higher fares, most families are still planning vacation trips this summer. It'll just be less "expensive, exotic and luxurious."

"There is a gigantic focus on value travel," McGinnis said. "There was a focus on five-star hotels last year. Now it's about 'How can I go?' and at the very best price."

Deals are still available for savvy shoppers. Farecast.com says some of the best deals can be found by flying Tuesdays or Wednesdays and returning on those days.

And fares start to drop toward the end of August and the beginning of September. If children's school schedules allow it, there is a two-week to three-week "sweet spot" of lower fares.

Travel experts say it's probably too late to find cheap summer deals for the most popular destinations since many of them were scooped up in January and February. But there is still a chance for last-minute shoppers as airlines typically launch big end-of-summer sales in early to mid-July.

"Consumers need to be more strategic this year about their summer travel plans," said John Rauser, a Farecast analyst. "Consumers can make small adjustments, such as changing the day of week they depart or selecting alternative destinations to save money and stay on budget for their summer trips."

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