(July 18) - If you want to travel during the fall or winter holidays, consumer travel experts say you ought to be checking prices now.
"This is going to one of the most expensive holiday travel seasons ever," warns Tom Parson at BestFares.com.
Nearly all U.S. airlines are making big cuts in their schedules this fall in response to record jet fuel prices. Airlines' domestic flying will fall about 9 percent in November vs. a year ago, according to a USA TODAY analysis this week of schedule data from OAG-Official Airline Guide. More cuts are likely.
The airlines' goal is to charge higher prices for their remaining seats.
"Not only are the airlines' prices up, rental car prices are way up, too," Parsons says. "And the hotels are going to want to make up for the business they're not going to get this fall."
Higher prices will be most evident in popular winter vacation spots such as Florida, Southern California, Las Vegas, Hawaii, the Caribbean and Mexico.
For example, the cheapest non-stop fare for travel between Dallas/Fort Worth airport and Cancun, Mexico, on Dec. 18 is $350 each way, excluding airport and airline fees. But when this year's holiday travel season begins on Dec. 19, the DFW-Cancun fare rises to $377 each way, with only a tightly limited supply of seats at that price. On Dec. 26, the cheapest fare jumps to $550 each way, again with only a small number of seats available at that price.
On Sunday, Jan. 4, the peak day for return travel from warm-destination vacations, the Cancun-DFW fare rises yet again to $604 one way.
"They'll be tweaking and tweaking these prices all fall," Parsons says, and "they'll take them way up" on the most popular days.
In years past, airlines could be counted on to offer big sales on holiday seats sometime during the fall - though not usually for peak holiday travel days such as the Tuesday and Wednesday before, and the Sunday after, Thanksgiving.
This year, with fewer seats available, and many fewer flights each day to some popular leisure destinations, waiting for that fare sale is a gamble. In smaller markets, where the flying cuts are deeper, a big fare sale is less likely.
Leading discounter "Southwest still has not done one single sale systemwide since before Memorial Day," Parsons says. "That's very unusual for them, and it tells you where the market's headed."
Southwest's inaction so far also makes competitors reluctant to discount their holiday seats. They don't want to sell seats unnecessarily cheaply, or to set aside a large percentage of seats at the lowest price levels, until they see Southwest's pricing.
Steve Cosgrove, owner of Dynamic Travel, a high-end leisure travel agency in Southlake, Texas, says many travelers still will fly regardless of the price.
"For a lot of our clients, paying $50 or $100, or even $200 more for a plane ticket over what they paid last year is not an impediment, at least not for the Christmas-New Year's vacation trips," he says.