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(CNN) Spring break and a busy summer are quickly winding up for travelers after the post-holiday break.
And if you’ve been looking at air travel lately, you’ve probably gotten a bit of a shock.
Here’s what to expect from airfare as the busy travel season heats up, and some tips on how to get a better deal when demand is soaring.
Air travel right now and what to expect for late spring and summer
U.S. domestic prices right now are about 20% higher than they were last February when demand was still low, according to Hayley Berg, an economist at travel website Hopper.
Economy fares originating in the UK are up 36% from the same time last year, according to Flight Center UK data, which includes domestic and international flights.
The sticker shock is real.
Yet in the U.S., domestic flights are actually pretty close to pre-pandemic prices — only about 4% higher than in 2019, Hopper data shows. But today’s prices are still sensational for consumers, for two reasons, says Berg.
First, it’s been a while since we’ve seen that 2019 price. And secondly, to rebuild their networks with fewer planes and less staff, airlines have changed schedules and reduced service. They have also cut regional capacity in ways that hit certain routes and airports harder.
“So while the national average looks pretty normal to us compared to pre-pandemic prices, for many travelers a route that they may have taken for years to a smaller, more regional airport – it could be two or three times more expensive than what they paid pre-pandemic,” Berg said.
Domestic prices in the US are forecast to exceed pre-pandemic prices as spring and summer travel heats up, but they are expected to be lower than they were at their peak last year.
“We expect in May, which is usually when summer prices peak, (domestic) airfare to be around $350 per round-trip ticket, which will be about 10% higher than 2019 but lower than 2022,” Berg said.
That’s the good news.
International flights will definitely cost you
No such luck when it comes to international tickets.
“International, on the whole, is more expensive than pre-pandemic and more expensive than last year,” Berg said.
Some regions are seeing much steeper increases than others.
The region that will really break the bank? Asia Pacific.
“Prices are absolutely exploding and will continue to explode until capacity really picks up again,” Berg said.
Demand is high for the latest region to broadly lift Covid restrictions and open its doors to international visitors. Compared to 2019, prices in Asia are about 50% higher, sometimes more, Berg said, while Europe is about 15% higher.
Damped demand for Asian destinations means a flood of bookings now that they are fully open. Bookings from the UK through Flight Center UK to Malaysia and Vietnam have increased by more than 2,200% since early last year when both countries were still closed to international tourists.
Flight Center UK’s data shows a 25% increase in economy fares to Vietnam year on year. It is the cheapest of the company’s most popular destinations in Asia. Prices to Thailand are up 50%.
The biggest year-on-year price increase, according to Flight Center UK? Prices to New Zealand, which was also closed this time last year, are up 81%.
Find savings this spring and summer
In the good news column, “there are definitely more deals this year,” said Scott Keyes, founder of travel website Going, formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights.
Europe (especially Portugal and Ireland), Hawaii and Florida have been “cheap flights” in recent years, he said.
When it comes to international prices, he suggests what he calls “the Greek island empire”.
If you have your heart set on Santorini, consider booking your international leg to Athens, where deals from US cities can drop below $500, and find a cheaper regional flight or ferry to the island.
“By splitting your journey from a single itinerary into two itineraries, you can save $1,000 or more on a major international trip, whether you’re traveling to the Greek Islands or anywhere far away,” he said.
Berg says that for international travel, the Friday and Saturday departures are the most expensive. If you fly to Europe on a Monday for spring break, you can save an average of $140 per ticket — or about 20%, she says. Flying domestically midweek can save you up to 33%.
Even when some variables are fixed — such as the spring break dates — “there’s still a lot you can do, including not waiting until the last minute to book, keeping the destination flexible and fixing the exact travel dates,” Keyes said.
Coming back a day earlier can offer significant savings, or if you’re really looking for a bargain, reverse your search by looking at where flights are cheap and then choosing your destination.
If you’re traveling on spring break, “you really should book it right now,” Berg said
The ‘Goldilocks Window’
For summer vacations in May, June and July, Berg recommends travelers start tracking these prices now. Planning ahead is key even if you don’t order right away.
Waiting until the last minute often means missing out on the lowest prices, says Berg.
It can also be ordered too early, says Keyes. It’s a “Goldilocks window” for air travel, he says.
It is 1 to 3 months before travel for domestic US flights and 2 to 8 months for international flights. For high season deals, it’s more like 3 to 7 months for domestic and 4 to 10 months for international.
Keyes said he has been looking at flights to Vegas for a childhood friend’s wedding in late March. For months, tickets were $400.
“But I was patient and a few weeks ago – in the middle of the Goldilocks window – the price dropped to $76. I ordered as quickly as I could. Today the price is back up to $350.”
Waiting is often the best strategy, says Keyes. Just be sure to take advantage when there is a big price drop.
“Airfare is the most volatile thing people buy regularly. Today’s expensive flights are tomorrow’s cheap flights, and vice versa,” he said. Keyes recently saw the same flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam go from $800 to $300 to $1,300 over three consecutive days.
So are the more eye-catching prices keeping potential travelers at home?
No, says Berg.
“So far, there still seems to be this huge demand for travel.”