Summer Travel Deals Fly Fast

The airfares for certain summer travel destinations are nearing bottom.ABC News Photo Illustration
The airfares for certain summer travel destinations are nearing bottom.

Being the almost 21st century guy that I am, I'm on Twitter -- and the most common "tweets" I get these days are questions like this: "When should I buy my airline ticket for summer vacation if I'm traveling from XXX to YYY?"

Since I know I only have 140 characters or less to answer with, I keep it short and sweet: When it comes to U.S. domestic travel, I have recently changed my tune and am saying, "Buy now!" -- if we're talking international travel, I say, "It depends!"

Are you kicking yourself because you haven't made plans yet? Despite what I just said, you can still find deals -- even out-and-out steals -- if you know how to look. And that's what I'm here for.

But first, a bit of background.

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We've been spoiled -- and if you've flown in the past seven months, and packed lightly, you know it. Airlines have been discounting their tickets so fast and furiously during this time period that it actually got hard to figure out what a true "airfare sale" was -- since sale prices were the new "norm." But airlines didn't have much choice.

Imagine you're running a business that depends on passenger traffic -- and one day, many don't show up. Not just for that day, but for days on end: Once the tsunami-like recession hit full-force, people simply quit traveling.

Well, a lot of them did, especially those travelers so dear to the wallets of the airlines -- the business brigade -- who pay so much more than the low-rolling leisure travelers for the same seat.

Suddenly, revenue was out the window, down between 10 percent and 20 percent from the year before. Yes, indeed, that was one hard landing. The only bright spot was that oil prices dropped from last summer's per barrel high of $145 down to a relatively civilized $35 this past February.

Some Airfares Rising Again

OK, so demand goes down, and prices go down. And down. Crazed execs are starting to wonder if they're starring in some new reality show called, "I'm an Airline -- Get Me Out of Here!" They wanted out of the bottomless drop.

Well, it looks like that's happened at last. At least, domestically.

The signs:

By mid-May, the pace of airfare sales slowed dramatically (and remember, we had nearly three times as many publicized sales this year as we did in the same time period for 2008). Plus, that "civilized" oil price is creeping up again: Don't look now, but it's twice as high as the recent low, hovering around $70 a barrel.

At the same time, airline revenue declines have finally slowed as we hit the historically busy summer season and carriers, just to make sure there isn't a glut of seats, have announced they'll be cutting capacity in the next few months. Any time you hear "seat cuts," think "higher prices" -- they always go hand-in-hand.

And then there were those airfare hikes: two widely successful domestic airfare hikes over the past three weeks raised prices $30 to $40 roundtrip. The hikes were successful because people were willing to pay and they were willing to pay because they wanted to fly again.

Don't believe it?

Just ask the American Automobile Association. The AAA, which tracks more than road trips, says that while car travel will be down this Fourth of July weekend, air travel is expected to jump by nearly 5 percent.

Bottom line: the end is near for rock bottom airfare prices, at least domestically.

It's a different story for international flights, so if you were thinking of a European vacation this summer, pay attention.

In the past several years, more carriers have been pushing into the international market. After all, along with business travel, that's where the money is. Or where it was.

The global recession spared no one. So tickets prices have come down: If you went to Europe last summer, you probably paid about $1,100 roundtrip including taxes and fees.

This summer, you may pay half that, or less.

Europe on the Cheap

The four cheapest European destinations right now? Ireland, Spain, Germany and Switzerland. And by the way, prices for Australia, Asia and even the ridiculously high South American markets have all come way down, too.

So my advice is (again): If you're traveling domestically this summer, buy now. If you'd like to take an international flight, you might be able to wait a bit for late fall/winter trips. Just don't wait too long, OK?

One last thing: airlines still pull sales out of nowhere at the drop of the hat and they still make the occasional mega-mistake (like $230 roundtrip to Rome a few weeks ago).

You must cover yourself by signing up for real-time email alerts – or do like I do, and follow price drops in real-time from your city on Twitter. People can and do score super cheap deals that way.

I hope this helps any of you who are still on the fence about traveling this summer. Maybe you'll be inspired to travel thanks to all this new-fangled social media. Why not? As a card-carrying member of the Twitterati, I know all about how fast great deals come and go. Maybe it's time for you to join us.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.