In this series, Lonely Planet’s team of writers and editors answers your travel problems and provide tips and hacks to help you plan a hassle-free trip. We asked our friend Clint Henderson at The Points Guy (a sister company to Lonely Planet) to give us his take on where post-pandemic airfares stand.
Question: After prices for flights spiked last year when everyone started traveling again, I thought things would eventually start to drop back down. But this year, an annual flight I take to see my family in the summer seems to cost more than ever. Can we ever expect flight prices to lower to what they were before the pandemic?
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Clint Henderson: You are not alone: prices have spiked this summer for many destinations, and are likely to remain elevated for the duration of the season. While airfares have moderated some, they are only slightly lower than last year’s “sold-out summer.” Which is cold comfort, since prices seem so much higher than they were during the pandemic, when we all got used to rock-bottom deals.
While you didn’t specify your destination, I can imagine if you are flying to places like Paris, Rome or London, you are seeing exorbitant prices. (I recently priced a ticket to Rome for June and got sticker shock when it came in at $2000…for coach!)
Domestic flights remain high, too. A flight to Las Vegas or Kansas City doesn’t normally cost $700–800, but we are routinely seeing prices like that these days.
There are several factors at play here. There are far fewer seats available than before the pandemic, as airlines have struggled to return to normal capacity. There aren’t enough planes or pilots. We are also seeing increased demand. All of it adds up to higher prices.
During the pandemic, I believe many people decided they were going to travel once COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. So right now, you’ve got both people who are prioritizing travel in their lives and people who couldn’t travel during the pandemic – a combination that is dramatically increasing demand. More demand for fewer seats is the classic formula for increasing prices. Inflation of all kinds is also at play here. Higher fuel and labor costs are also incentivizing airlines to try to raise prices where they can.
Eventually, the higher prices will take a bite out of demand. In fact, we’ve been seeing more deals announced – which tells me maybe demand isn’t quite as robust as it was earlier this year.
Interestingly, the increased consumer demand for travel has made up for reduced business travel, which has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Assuming remote work, teleconferencing innovations and other professional trends hold, and business travel doesn’t return to its 2019 highs, this should eventually end up leading to lower prices.
I think once the peak summer demand is tapped out, you will see a lot of deals and opportunities for discounts in what we call “shoulder season.” This is always a cheaper time to travel – but I think this year it will become even more of a bargain. It’s my favorite time to travel anyway, as it’s usually cheaper and less crowded.
I also predict airfares will eventually return to about where they were before the pandemic. That said, we won’t see the return of bargain-basement prices we saw during COVID-19 anytime soon. We all got a bit spoiled with cheap flights.
My best advice to consumers is to use any miles or points they have been hoarding during the pandemic. Those points are subject to inflation, too. In fact, we’ve seen many airlines “devalue” their points multiple times. It’s no longer uncommon to see a one-way business class seat on an airline like Delta go for a shocking half-million points. Use those points and miles as soon as you can. You can often score great deals that way, too.
The Points Guy publishes flight deals every day including several for sub-$500 flights to Europe. So there are still ways to save. Yet if you see a deal, jump on it. They don’t last long these days.