Last year, airline ticket prices fell to the lowest in recorded history — about $245 on average during the three-month period ending in September 2020 — but prices have since begun a return to pre-pandemic levels, experts say.
As travelers receive vaccinations and feel more comfortable with air travel, demand has risen, and the cheap, last-minute flight deals common during 2020 are all but gone. In their place, travelers can expect wide variations in pricing, and travelers will need to be flexible with timing, destinations and adapting to quickly changing COVID-19 restrictions this year. Destination options may be limited, especially internationally, in the coming months.
“You’re going to find some incredible bargains in places, and you’re going to find some outrageously overpriced tickets to places — Florida, for example, coastal Texas, those will probably be overpriced,” says Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the travel website JoeSentMe.com. “For all the capacity (airlines have) added, it’s still going to be very expensive because with so few places to go, there’s going to be heavy demand.”
[Read: Best Cheap Summer Vacations.]
Why Do Flight Prices Fluctuate?
Flight prices are determined by a complex algorithm that includes factors like oil prices, the global economic outlook, internal projections, competitor rates and historical data, according to Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights and author of “Take More Vacations.”
“Airfare is one of the most uniquely volatile things we purchase,” Keyes says. While it can be frustrating for a consumer, he says, “this volatility is an opportunity. Today’s expensive flight might be tomorrow’s cheap flight.”
Try these strategies to get cheap flights this year:
— Timing matters: not too early, not too late.
— Set alerts and do your research.
— Be flexible in price, destination and timing.
— Be prepared for COVID-19 restrictions.
— Consider seasonality before booking.
Timing Matters: Not Too Early, Not Too Late
Gone are the days when best flight prices could be found on Tuesdays at 1 p.m. or even at exactly 50 days out from the flight date. “Airfare is unpredictable,” Keyes says. “The best way to time it is to think in terms of ‘Goldilocks’ windows: not too early, not too late, in the middle, just right.”
For domestic flights, travelers should start searching for flight tickets one to three months in advance. For international flights, the best prices are typically available from two to eight months in advance.
The best time to buy can also vary among airlines.
“With Southwest and Spirit, you’re still going to get the cheapest fare further out. If you’re looking to fly American or United, they’re holding inventory, so it’s a roll of the dice,” says Edward Russell, airlines reporter at Skift. Generally, seven weeks from your travel date may be a good time frame, but he says tickets a week or two out that might have been inexpensive in 2020 won’t be this year.
Set Alerts and Do Your Research
To purchase at the lowest ticket price, Keyes suggests exercising patience and researching flight prices daily to get the best deal.
“Your best strategy is just to be patient and wait for those $1,000 flights to drop down to $400. More often than not, they will, so long as you’re looking far enough in advance, and you need to get alerted when those cheap flights happen — lots of people use flight trackers or search online every day,” Keyes says.
Travelers can use alert services like those offered by Google Flights or Skyscanner to keep tabs on prices for a certain route.
Be Flexible in Price, Destination and Timing
Travel experts say the word of the year for 2021 travel is flexibility.
“I have never seen a time when things are so volatile. We’ve got schedule volatility, pricing volatility,” Brancatelli says. “I think this season will require financial and geographic flexibility. We’re facing the same situation with hotel rooms and car rentals,” which have experienced price surges along with rising demand in recent months, he says.
Choosing a bucket-list travel destination can be costly. Instead, consider lesser-known travel spots and keep an open mind when it comes to destinations. While Myrtle Beach may be a favorite vacation destination for many, for example, choosing from other, less popular East Coast beaches or lakeside towns may lead to big savings.
Travelers can also try researching different days and times to travel. In addition, even after tickets are purchased, airlines may change routes or timing as they adjust flight availability to match demand.
Be Prepared for COVID-19 Restrictions
While traveling domestically thus far hasn’t demanded significant restrictions, international travel is likely to come with strings attached.
Those hoping to travel to Iceland, for example, should plan to provide a certificate of full vaccination against COVID-19 or a certificate of previous COVID-19 infection. In addition, upon arrival, travelers will be required to take a coronavirus test.
Much is still unknown about international travel for the remainder of 2021. Though the European Union announced it would welcome vaccinated Americans this summer, experts anticipate further travel restrictions are coming. And as COVID-19 infection rates rise and fall in various locations, destinations may modify their restrictions at the last minute.
Consider Seasonality Before Booking
As was true pre-pandemic, travelers can get good flight deals during the offseason or during the shoulder months between the offseason and peak season.
Those planning a trip during a peak period, such as midsummer, Christmas or New Year’s should start looking for domestic flights two to five months in advance — a bit earlier than is typically recommended, Keyes says.
Though airline prices are on the rise today, the pandemic isn’t necessarily to blame.
“Summer fares are going to go up, partly because everyone is excited to travel again, but mostly because summer fares are always more expensive,” Keyes says. However, he says, “The cheap flight outlook looks very, very good. Those factors that caused the golden age of cheap flights are going to continue coming out of the pandemic.”
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Update 04/29/21: This article has been updated with new information.