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Where the Cost of Flying is Rising the Most
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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):
|Travel perks offered by a few popular travel credit cards|
|Card||Annual fee||Rewards potential||Cool benefit|
|Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card||$95 annual fee||Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel.
Earn 2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day; 5 Miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel.
|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. That's $750 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
Earn 5x on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x on dining and 2x on all other travel purchases.
|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*||$695 annual fee||Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on the Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership.
Earn 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year and 5X Membership Rewards® points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel. Terms apply.
|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, enrollment required.|
|Discover it® Miles||$0 annual fee||Automatically earn unlimited 1.5x Miles on every dollar of every purchase - with no annual fee.||Only Discover gives you an unlimited match of all the Miles you’ve earned at the end of your first year. For example, if you earn 35,000 Miles, you get 70,000 Miles. There’s no signing up, no minimum spending or maximum rewards. Just a Miles-for-Miles match.|
|United℠ Explorer Card||$0 intro for the first year, then $95 annual fee||Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
Earn 2 miles per $1 spent on dining, hotel stays and United® purchases. 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 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
Receive 7,500 anniversary points and a $75 Southwest® travel credit each year. Enjoy benefits including 3X points on Southwest purchases, 2X points on local transit and commuting, including rideshare, 2X points on internet, cable, and phone services; select streaming, 10,000 Companion Pass qualifying points boost each year, and more.
|4 upgraded boardings per year when available, $75 Southwest® annual travel credit each year, 25% back on in-flight purchases, and 1,500 tier qualifying points toward A-List status (which comes with additional benefits) per $10,000 spent.|
To see rates & fees for The Platinum Card® from American Express please click here.
- Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on the Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership.
- Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year and earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.
- $200 Hotel Credit: Get $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection bookings with American Express Travel when you pay with your Platinum Card®.
- $240 Digital Entertainment Credit: Get up to $20 in statement credits each month when you pay for eligible purchases with the Platinum Card® at your choice of one or more of the following providers: Peacock, Audible, SiriusXM, The New York Times, and other participating providers. Enrollment required.
- $155 Walmart+ Credit: Cover the cost of a $12.95 monthly Walmart+ membership with a statement credit after you pay for Walmart+ each month with your Platinum Card. Cost includes $12.95 plus applicable local sales tax.
- American Express has expanded The Centurion® Network to include 40+ Centurion Lounge and Studio locations worldwide. Now there are even more places your Platinum Card® can get you complimentary entry and exclusive perks.
- $200 Airline Fee Credit: Select one qualifying airline and then receive up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year when incidental fees are charged by the airline to your Card.
- $200 Uber Cash: Enjoy Uber VIP status and up to $200 in Uber savings on rides or eats orders in the US annually. Uber Cash and Uber VIP status is available to Basic Card Member only.
- $300 Equinox Credit: Get up to $300 back each year on an Equinox+ subscription, or any Equinox club memberships when you pay with your Platinum Card. Enrollment required. Learn more.
- $189 CLEAR® Credit: Breeze through security with CLEAR® Plus at 45+ airports nationwide and get up to $189 back per year on your membership (subject to auto-renewal) when you use your Card.
- $695 annual fee.
- Terms Apply.
- Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
- Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day
- Miles won't expire for the life of the account and there's no limit to how many you can earn
- Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
- Enjoy two complimentary visits per year to Capital One Lounges or to 100+ Plaza Premium Lounges through the Partner Lounge Network
- Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options
- Use your miles to get reimbursed for any travel purchase—or redeem by booking a trip through Capital One Travel
- Transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
- For Capital One products listed on this page, some of the benefits are provided by Visa® or Mastercard® and may vary by product. See the respective Guide to Benefits for details, as terms and exclusions apply
- Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
- Enjoy benefits such as a $50 annual Ultimate Rewards Hotel Credit, 5x on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x on dining and 2x on all other travel purchases, plus more.
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel.
- Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more.
- Get complimentary access to DashPass which unlocks $0 delivery fees and lower service fees for a minimum of one year when you activate by December 31, 2024.
- UNLIMITED BONUS: Only Discover gives you an unlimited match of all the Miles you’ve earned at the end of your first year. For example, if you earn 35,000 Miles, you get 70,000 Miles. There’s no signing up, no minimum spending or maximum rewards. Just a Miles-for-Miles match.
- Automatically earn unlimited 1.5x Miles on every dollar of every purchase - with no annual fee.
- Redeem Miles to pay any part of your monthly bill, including your minimum payment.
- Turn Miles into cash in any amount, any time. Or redeem as a statement credit for travel purchases like airfare, hotels, rideshares, gas stations, restaurants and more with no blackout dates. However you redeem, Miles keep the same value. And Miles never expire.
- 0% intro APR for 15 months on purchases. Then 16.49% to 27.49% Standard Variable Purchase APR will apply.
- Discover could help you reduce exposure of your personal information online by helping you remove it from select people-search sites that could sell your data. It’s free, activate with the mobile app.
- Discover is accepted nationwide by 99% of the places that take credit cards.
- Freeze your account in seconds with an on/off switch either on the mobile app or website to prevent new purchases, cash advances, and balance transfers.
- Get an alert if we find your Social Security number on any of thousands of Dark Web sites. Activate for free.
- Click through to Discover’s website to see terms and conditions.
- Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
- 7,500 anniversary points each year.
- Earn 3X points on Southwest® purchases.
- Earn 2X points on local transit and commuting, including rideshare.
- Earn 2X points on internet, cable, and phone services; select streaming.
- $75 Southwest® travel credit each year.
- No foreign transaction fees.
- Member FDIC
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.
To see rates & fees for The Platinum Card® from American Express please click here.
For Capital One products listed on this page, some of the above benefits are provided by Visa® or Mastercard® and may vary by product. See the respective Guide to Benefits for details, as terms and exclusions apply