Depressed fuel prices, the growth of low-cost carriers and tumultuous world events have combined to do one nice thing for travelers: lower airfares.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the average domestic airfare fell to $361 in the first quarter of 2016, the most recent quarter for which figures are available. That’s down 7.8 percent from the first quarter in 2015 and the lowest, adjusted for inflation, since 2010.
“Generally speaking, airfares are at their lowest levels in a long time. It starts with cheap fuel,” said Seth Kaplan, managing partner at Airline Weekly. “Consumers are getting a good deal again after a few years of rising fuel prices.”
Special events like holidays and seasonal weather patterns influence airfares, which commonly fluctuate. But two international regions, the Caribbean and Europe, offer particularly good opportunities to save on transportation this fall and winter. The airfare prediction app Hopper shows prices, compared with last year, down 9 percent in the Caribbean for preholiday travel in December, and nearly 16 percent lower for the same period to Europe.
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Fliers to the Caribbean are benefiting from a wave of low-cost carriers adding tropical routes and possible attrition because of Zika fears on the part of some travelers.
From the Northeast, JetBlue Airways has been expanding in the region for over a decade and now serves 27 destinations in the Caribbean. In August, it was the first U.S. carrier in over 50 years to begin regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba, starting at $99 one way from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara. Most recently it announced new flights to Aruba from Fort Lauderdale beginning Jan. 4, 2017, with fares starting at $99 one way.
Southwest Airlines launched flights in the region in 2014 but grew significantly last fall when it opened an international terminal at Houston’s secondary airport, William P. Hobby Airport. In the second quarter of 2017, when its $295 million renovation of an international terminal at the Fort Lauderdale airport is scheduled to be completed, the airline will be poised to offer more flights in the region. In August, it began scheduling daily flights from Fort Lauderdale to Nassau in the Bahamas, with fares recently posted as low as $58 one way.
Another new entrant, Norwegian Air, will fly to Guadeloupe from Fort Lauderdale beginning Dec. 17 and resume service, which it launched last year, to Guadeloupe and Martinique from Kennedy in New York, Boston and Baltimore beginning Nov. 10. The seasonal routes are currently starting at $79 one way.
We’re seeing a lot of competitive pressures keeping airfares down in any market served by more than one airline.
Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at Hopper
Because it is a European carrier, Norwegian Air is limited to flying between the United States and European territories, such as the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, but even its small scale of service may have an impact on larger carriers.
“It all matters, especially when you’re dealing with destinations that are somewhat substitutable,” said Kaplan, of Airline Weekly. “Some people might want badly to go to a particular place, but a lot of people just want a beach. So if one beach is a better deal than another, everything competes.”
Several airlines plan to start flights to Cuba in the next few months, a rush to the island that analysts expect will keep prices relatively low until demand and the supply of seats balances out. Silver Airways offers flights to three cities in Cuba, including Santa Clara, from Fort Lauderdale beginning at $98 one way.
The best deals involve bigger markets served by competing airlines.
“We’re seeing a lot of competitive pressures keeping airfares down in any market served by more than one airline,” said Patrick Surry, the chief data scientist at Hopper. “Cuba is a great story. It used to be you would pay $400 to $500 for a flight from Miami, which is a crazy price, when flights were restricted. Now we expect prices to drop to something more like the Bahamas.”
From terrorist violence to the Brexit vote, Europe has weathered a tough year, and many North American travelers stayed closer to home. Airlines, stuck with empty seats, are trying to reduce capacity by canceling routes.
“But that takes time, and for consumers that means good deals in the meantime,” Kaplan said.
Delta Air Lines, for example, recently advertised round-trip fares from Denver to Paris for $541 and from Kennedy to Madrid for $729.
United Airlines recently sold round-trip flights from Chicago to Paris for $624, Los Angeles to Dublin for $628, and Newark to Zurich for $864.
In what was most likely a response to terrorist events, the Europe sales began last summer, which is typically high season.
It’s an incredible time to go to Europe because of the favorable exchange rate with the euro and the British pound being pounded.
George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com
“Last summer we saw much lower fares than we’ve seen previously,” said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, citing fares to France in high season for $800, around half of what they cost the year prior. “I think it’s an incredible time to go to Europe because of the favorable exchange rate with the euro and the British pound being pounded.”
The rise of low-cost carriers flying between the United States and Europe has also affected fares. In addition to its Caribbean flights, Norwegian Air offers rock-bottom trans-Atlantic routes. For example, one-way flights from New York to Copenhagen recently started at $172.70, to London at $244.90, to Paris at $220.60 and Stockholm at $153.
Keep in mind that the cheapest fares with this low-cost carrier, as with many others, means lots of additional fees. For example, on an international flight checked bags cost $65 each, reserved seats are $45 and pre-ordered meals are $32.
Another low-cost newcomer, Iceland-based WOW Air, recently had one-way tickets from Newark to London at $145.99 and to Amsterdam for $179.99. All of its flights from North America, including departures from Boston, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami, connect through Reykjavik.
For no additional charge, the airline offers the WOW Stopover that allows travelers to spend time in Iceland when connecting through Reykjavik on any round-trip flight between North America and Europe.
When should you book these deals? Airfares are always in flux, and certainly the December holiday period is highest. Hopper recommends December bookings be made before the end of October, noting that fares rise about $1.50 a day after Halloween until 10 days before departure, when they rise about $6 a day. But if you’re planning three months out, you might wait.
“Generally, patience pays,” Kaplan said. “On average you get the best deals between a month and two months before you fly.”