Does a nagging voice in your head interrupt daydreams about summer vacation?
"Get your airline tickets before the cheap seats are all gone."
That voice is usually right. This year, you need to ignore it.
Airlines closed off their lowest fare categories starting in mid June, says Rick Seaney, co-founder of the website FareCompare.com. That means the least expensive summer air fares could cost as much as $250 more for a round-trip ticket than last year.
"They're probing to see how much they can raise ticket prices," says Seaney. "Don't start thinking about buying until April or May or you'll pay a serious premium."
But don't stop shopping.
Prices change day to day and you need to watch activity on a route for a while to get a feel for what's a fair fare. We're in the prime time for summer fare-checking: three months in advance, when airlines start actively adjusting prices based on how a flight is selling.
No one knows which way fares are headed in a week, month or longer. But U.S. airlines appear to have the upper hand on pricing. Their revenues from passenger tickets rose 10 percent in January, their 13th consecutive month of revenue growth.
Carriers have deftly matched the number of seats they fly with how many they can sell for profitable prices. Big airline mergers — like Delta-Northwest and United-Continental — cut competition on certain routes and led to fewer planes in the skies, says George Hobica, founder of the travel-advice website airfarewatchdog.com.
Big bargains in air travel still pop up but often disappear just as fast, he says.
On Tuesday, Delta quietly sold flights to Europe from U.S. cities as low as $138 round trip. The sale lasted just seven hours. Delta wouldn't say if the fares were a mistake or retaliation for a competitor's sale fares, said Hobica. Bargain hunters should regularly check travel websites and sign up for their automatic air-fare alerts on price changes.
"It's all about vigilance and persistence," Hobica says.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8128.