Air fares are up to 67 per cent more expensive this year than before the pandemic, largely driven by energy inflation, according to business travel management company TravelPerk.
Flight prices to European destinations have substantially increased, according to Flight Centre. The independent travel agency’s UK Head of Aviation, Justin Penny explains a non-inflationary reason for the increase: “During the pandemic, many airlines opted to assign credits to customers that had bookings cancelled. Many of these credits remain unclaimed – 2023 is the final year that many of these schemes are set to close. This has caused a mass increase in demand for European flights, in turn causing prices to shoot up.”
Greece is Flight Centre’s most-booked European destination this year. Flights to popular beach destinations such as Heraklion in Crete are exceeding £500 return in August. This spring, it has not been unusual to see flights to short-haul cities such as Lisbon and Berlin costing in excess of £250. Meanwhile, luggage allowances continue to shrink, adding up to £75 to a flight, before you’ve factored in food and drink or getting to and from the airport.
Beyond Europe, Flight Centre forecasts that eastbound flight prices will remain high this year, potentially increasing a little since last year, despite many airlines that serve the region now operating close to pre-pandemic capacity.
It’s a similar story in the opposite direction, with flight capacity between the UK and US at 96 per cent of 2019 levels this summer; some US carriers are now operating above that level.
Penny says: “Increased competition among transatlantic airlines will likely result in a stabilising of ticket prices in 2023, but much of this depends on how much pent-up demand remains. Should travel appetite to the US wane, prices to this bucket list destination could even drop slightly lower than 2022.”
So the question is – are the odds stacked against you for finding affordable flights, or are there cheap fares available? While demand and capacity will put the highest pressure on prices, there are ways to seek out the lowest fares. Here’s how to do it.
How fares work
Dynamic pricing means that prices tend to go up as demand intensifies, but there can be some volatility in that equation – fares sometimes fall as the departure date approaches if demand wanes.
Searching well in advance of your intended travel date can be beneficial, but this depends on the route. For example, airlines will already know that key dates and routes – such as the start and end of school holidays, or for popular events – will be in high demand. However, for long-haul, it’s almost always advisable to book early. Justin Penny says, “cheap long-haul last-minute tickets just don’t happen anymore”.
The key is flexibility – if you’re able to adjust your dates then you can often secure cheaper fares. Setting up a price alert with a comparison site or airline can help. When fares fall, or rise, you’ll be notified so you know exactly when to make your move. Some airlines, such as British Airways also highlight their cheapest fares by destination, allowing you to see when fares are lowest throughout the year.
Airlines pay airports more for early landing slots, and a premium at busy hubs such as Heathrow, both of which can push up fares. For example, compare flights to Nice later this month: British Airways flies from Heathrow from £503 one way on on the morning of 15 June, with equivalent flights from Gatwick costing £205 and £164 from London City. Apply the same logic to airports around the country, looking at satellite airports, and you’ll often find prices are cheaper. High competition in cities and towns with multiple airports and frequent flights also tends to result in lower fares overall. For example New York is served by two international airports and multiple flights on numerous airlines daily. Return fares can be in the £300s, while Washington DC typically sees fares currently in the £500s.
Shop around, including on third-party and price comparison sites, to understand what is available. But when it comes to booking, it’s almost always best to do so directly with the airline. However, a travel agent can often unlock fares that aren’t visible to consumers, as well offering invaluable expertise and advice.
Increasingly, seats are advertised at a base rate, meaning you’ll often end up paying more by the time you check out. EasyJet and Finnair, for example, list fares that only include a small bag that can fit under the seat in front, while British Airways will allow a 23kg cabin bag as part of its economy fares. So while some flights might initially look cheaper on a price comparison site, spend time comparing if the more expensive fare actually works out cheaper once you’ve taken into account any extras you might need.
Price comparison site Skyscanner looked at last year’s data and found that travellers who bought their tickets on a Wednesday paid on average four per cent more than those who booked on a Sunday. While it’s not a huge saving, the difference can add up for a family or group booking.
More significant was departure day, with the cheapest day typically a Friday. Skyscanner found that flying out on a Friday instead of a Sunday (the most expensive departure day) saw an average saving of 21 per cent.
Finally – what won’t help
“Hacks” such as browsing on a VPN or in incognito mode, and clearing your search history cache and cookies (data files placed on your device by web server to “personalise” future browsing sessions) will only waste your time. These have no effect on the price of a flight.