Did you see that scary-looking headline about how airfares have risen 12 percent over the past few years? There is a lot of truth in that story, but relax; it hasn't risen anywhere near that much for everyone. On the other hand, some will pay more; some because they choose to, some because they have no choice.
And yes, airfare deals still exist. I'll tell you how to find them.
First, let's look at some numbers, then see who's paying what, and why.
The Numbers Game
As always, numbers alone don't tell the whole story. Many of the figures cited in recent news coverage are airfare averages from sources that include government statistics. Those stats come from airfares and airports all over the U.S.; some of these places are expensive while others are cheaper. And yes, the numbers can be confusing.
For instance, the small airport in Atlantic City has long topped the government's list of cheapest airports, but you're forgiven if you're not familiar with it because not many are. Atlantic City does offer some cheap fares thanks to ultra-discounter Spirit, but that's the only airline that flies out of there! Plus, Spirit serves just a handful of cities, and not every day. So while it may be technically true that it's the "cheapest airport," it's also misleading, sort of like predicting the winner of a presidential election after polling two people.
Jersey shore flyers who need more ticket options (and well-priced options) have to go to Philly or head north to Newark or wait until April when United begins non-stops from Atlantic City to Chicago and Houston. Spirit can get you there, too, but only via connections or seasonal service.
Who Pays More
So who pays more? Some who want to, some who don't.
Premium travelers: These are not necessarily first- or business-class passengers, these are folks who want more convenience and are willing to pay for it. Convenience comes in many forms including non-stops over connecting flights or waiting until the last minute to buy a ticket (when fares typically zoom upward). What this means is that carriers are selling fewer of their cheaper base-price seats because of those travelers willing to pay a premium, so average fares go up.
Smaller city travelers: In general, these are the folks who have been taking it on the chin as airlines consolidate seats and routes. It's the new business model called No More Empty Middle Seats, and it's not going to be replaced anytime soon.
A good example of the fallout is the Colorado Springs airport. You probably know that competition is one of the biggest factors in keeping ticket prices down. So when Frontier pulled out of the Rocky Mountain airport last April because they weren't filling enough seats, traffic plummeted while prices did the opposite. According to Bureau of Transportation statistics, the average airfare out of Colorado Springs rose from the third quarter of 2012 to the third quarter of 2013 by 20 percent.
Who Pays Less
Larger, competitive city travelers: If you live in greater Los Angeles and like to gamble, you probably know all about those $39 one-way flights from Long Beach to Las Vegas we've been seeing all winter (and these JetBlue deals are popular). One way of looking at it is the rich get richer, assuming the rich live in big hubs because that's where the deals are. Let's take it a step further: The best deals year-round are hub-to-hub flights with flying times of 90 minutes or so (Dallas to Houston, New York to Boston, Miami to Tampa and more). What's especially nice about these routes is they tend to be largely unaffected by traditional holiday price hikes.
Some smaller, non-hub city flyers: Deals are still out there, depending on the city and whether an airline is trying to build up a route. Recently, we've seen good deals between New York and the smaller coastal city of Charleston, S.C., while Seattle is coming on very strong as a cheap destination for 2014. Old stand-bys like Boston and Denver continue to offer good value for airfare throughout the year thanks to plenty of airlines vying for your business.
How to Find Deals
There are actually two key strategies to find the best deals whenever you shop.
1. Book flights on Tuesdays: Airlines typically launch sales late Monday or early Tuesday and by that afternoon the competition has fallen in line. I mean, who wants to end up on page 20 of a search site where no one will see you? Airlines that want to sell tickets match prices.
2. Fly the cheapest days: With minor exceptions, you'll generally find the cheapest prices when no one wants to fly, which means traveling on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Yes, it’s a pain but, yes, it can save you a pile of money.
There are other ways to shave money off fares such as the inconvenience factor: Add a stop (or two) to your trip instead of flying non-stop, or drive an hour or two out of your way to a bigger airport. Flight deals are out there, but so are higher prices and if you're going to fly smart, you have to learn to shop smart first.