Worst Airfare Prices in Years: How to Fight Back

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Over the weekend, a colleague of mine paid $3.70 for a gallon of regular gas in Los Angeles.

"It could have been worse," she noted. "A station in West Covina was charging $4.60."

"Despicable," she added. I suppose I should be grateful that she didn't drop a Melissa-Leo-Oscar-acceptance-speech F-bomb on me.

Speaking of a "could have been worse" scenario, imagine your vehicle is an aircraft. Say it's the massive Airbus A380, which can seat more than 800 passengers and has a gas tank that holds 80,000 gallons.

Lesser planes devour plenty of fuel too. Southwest, for example, figures its fleet of 737s consumed about 1.4 billion gallons in 2010.

So now that the price of oil has cracked and keeps flirting with the groan-inducing barrier of $100 per barrel, what does it mean for us travelers?

If you've bought an airline ticket lately, you already know -- we've just seen the fifth broad-based airfare hike of the year. If you're keeping score, check this out: In all of 2010, there were just four airfare hikes; in 2009, just three; but back in 2008 there were 15, and there were 17 airfare hikes in 2007.

Notice a pattern here? The pace of recent domestic airfare hikes mirrors the pace of 2007 and early 2008, when oil prices leapt above $90 per barrel. There is one difference today, though: airlines also have bag fees and widespread "peak travel day" surcharges that add to passenger ticket totals.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at farecompare.com

When it comes to the rising cost of airfare, the most recent Facebook comments on my website are littered with words like "outrageous" and "absurd," and of course the perennially popular "OMG!"

With all of this to consider, the question is whether we must return to the bad-old-days of the so-called "staycations?" No. And I also don't suggest travelers become oil price day-traders.

However, sloppy shopping habits will cost you, so instead, be a crafty consumer.

Five Airfare Hikes This Year

Here are some hard figures on average cheapest roundtrip airfare prices (including taxes and fees) between top U.S. cities (from FareCompare.com's historical data): August 2007, $262; July 2008, $319; February 2011, $318.

If you think it's bad on flights in the U.S., take a look at trans-Atlantic travel. Some long-haul flights are as expensive as they've been in a decade. For example, we have fuel surcharges to Europe right now averaging $360 roundtrip, not to mention the taxes on those flights that average another $120. Bottom line: you'll pay $480 for a trip to Europe before adding in in any of the actual airfare!

What's going to happen? The airlines will keep testing you, to see how much you are willing to pay, and that means more airfare hikes are on the way. If the planes stay full, the hikes will continue until enough of us say, "You know, puttering around the backyard this year sounds like the perfect vacation." That'll drop prices in a hurry.

And what's that mean for you? Be smart.

Here are some do's and don'ts for airfare shopping:

Don't be tempted to buy too early. In 2008, when airfare prices seemed to rise on a daily basis, people bought airline tickets for Thanksgiving in the summer to lock in prices, then watched in horror as oil crashed and last minute holiday shoppers got incredible bargains. So shop early, but not too early: I expect airfare base price-points for June travel to drop by mid-March.

Do be flexible. I know, that's not always possible. That colleague I mentioned earlier was looking for flights to a graduation, but Purdue University declined to move its commencement ceremony for her convenience.

When flexibility is not an option, follow this trick and save: shop Tuesday afternoons to find the cheapest flights. My colleague originally looked at airfare on a weekend when flights from the West Coast to Indianapolis were $480 roundtrip. On Tuesday, those same flights were a hundred bucks cheaper. She promptly dinged her credit card.

Red-Eyes, Last Minute Trips Might Be Cheaper

If you can be flexible, even in little ways, you can save more. Ask yourself these questions:

Can you fly to Europe before school lets out in May or early June? Are you willing to fly domestic red-eyes and sacrifice sleep? Can you vacation in late August, early September or even after Labor Day? Are you OK with connecting flights? Can you travel for two weeks with just a carryon bag? Finally, can you pack up and go at a moment's notice?

If the answer to any or all of these questions is yes, set some airfare alerts and jump on any deals as they come your way, Just remember: don't wait for the same airfare prices you paid last year; this summer you will pay more. Simply look for the best of the "not-so-good deals".

Final bit of advice: don't kick yourself for missing out on a getaway vacation this year. Life really is too short.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

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