A quick trip to Costa Rica in mid-May sounded just right to a sun-starved office worker in Chicago—until she saw that her flight would set her back $1,300 round trip.
A New York City couple snagged two scarce tickets to the Vermeer show in Amsterdam this spring, but their luck ran out when they had to pay more than $4,000 round trip to fly there.
And a Bay Area family of four decided now was the time for that trip to the ancestral homeland in Eastern Europe—but in the meantime, their air tab had soared to more than $6,000—nearly double what they’d expected. Rather than wait, they handed over the credit card and knew the trip meant that they’d have to cut costs elsewhere.
It’s not your imagination. When it comes to booking air travel in 2023, “the sticker shock is absolutely real,” says Hayley Berg, economist at the air travel booking app Hopper. “Pretty much every region of the world is seeing a price increase.”
About a third of search demand on Hopper is for Europe, she notes, and the average airfare is up by 32 percent when compared to 2022. Travelers can expect to pay in the range of $1,000 round trip on an international flight with a major commercial airline for the least expensive coach-class seats—and demand for premium economy and business class have pushed up those fares, too.
Fares from the United States to Athens, for example, are up 45 percent from last year, averaging around $1,100 round trip; fares to Barcelona and Rome are also up more than 40 percent compared with 2022, according to Hopper.
Why are flights so expensive right now?
The sky-high costs of flights in 2023 is in many ways a perfect storm of factors, including current economic conditions, that have all culminated this year to put upward pricing pressure on airfares. These are the four main reasons flights are so expensive right now.
Of course, travel isn’t the only expense that is rising. Inflation is pushing the prices of most basic items higher in 2023. “This is putting pressure on the airlines’ costs,” says Berg. She adds, “It’s affecting everything from the pilots’ salaries to the price of the snacks they hand out on the flights.”
All told, airfares are actually rising at a higher rate than inflation. According to a recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks airfares and other costs, “[Flight] ticket prices are significantly outpacing the rate of inflation.” The agency noted that the average airfare in the U.S. rose 28.5 percent in 2022 over the previous year, while the Consumer Price Index, the most common measure of inflation, rose by 6.5 percent for the same period.
The price of oil
Jet fuel, typically airlines’ biggest expenditure after labor, is also up significantly from the early days of the pandemic, in part due to the war in Ukraine; oil that cost around $65 a barrel in 2021 has been well over $100 a barrel during the past year.
Not enough airplanes
One constraint is that new aircraft aren’t coming off the assembly line as fast as expected. Gary Leff, founder of the road warrior website View from the Wing, points out that airlines retired older planes during the pandemic, expecting to eventually replace them with the more fuel-efficient models they had on order. But Boeing and Airbus have both faced delays in manufacturing and delivering aircraft due to ongoing supply chain problems.
Still not enough pilots (and other airline staff)
Another factor is that airlines are still building back their route networks, and while they’re close to 2019 capacity in many markets, they may not have enough crew to manage more capacity. “Airfares are, fundamentally, a function of supply and demand,” says Leff. “Travel has come back and has outpaced the ability of airlines to scale back up.”
Indeed, airlines are dealing with a persistent staffing shortage, even though, as Leff points out, U.S. carriers received as much as $10 billion each in subsidies for the express purpose of keeping staff on board after the pandemic brought air travel to a halt in 2020. “They used that money to pay people to retire early, so the separations were voluntary and therefore legally permitted under bailout terms.” More recently, airlines have stepped up staff recruiting efforts and have even introduced innovative pilot training programs to fill much-needed pilot positions, but it’s a long process that will take time to show results.
Will airfares ever come back down or is this the new normal?
While the supply side of the equation remains tight, the demand side is off the charts, with many airlines reporting record booking volume since the beginning of the year.
“You have all this revenge travel and pent-up demand,” says Diana Hechler, president of D. Tours Travel, a travel agency based in Larchmont, New York. She says it’s getting harder to find good deals on airfare and hotels, but in the end, people who are set on going somewhere are paying the going rate. “Airlines will charge what the market will bear, as long as they can get away with it.”
Two factors, however, might ease the situation, according to long-time airline analyst Michael Derchin. One is the looming possibility of a recession, which would dampen demand and bring down airfares, he says.
Another is that Boeing just announced that it will step up the pace of new aircraft deliveries. “The good news is that there is a very long backlog of planes on order,” he says, and airlines are eager to put planes they’ve ordered into service.
How to find a good airfare deal
In the meantime, there are still deals to be found out there—you just have to look harder to find them, experts say, and timing is everything.
“Cheap flights can still be plentiful, even as average airfares go up,” says travel expert Katy Nastro of Going.com (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights). “The key to nabbing them is getting the timing of your booking right.”
For domestic trips, the ideal time to book is between 1 to 3 months prior, and 3 to 7 months out for holiday periods. For international travel, aim to book at least 2 to 4 months ahead, and more if you’re going at the height of the season.
Flying a budget airline can also help lower costs, and there are some new players this year over the Atlantic, including Icelandic upstart Play and Norwegian discounter Norse Atlantic. According to Going’s Nastro, “That can be helpful in just getting you over to Europe this summer, and, once there, you can take a shorter flight or alternate means of transportation to your final destination,” potentially saving hundreds of dollars.
In addition to looking into low-cost airlines, there are some other ways to improve your chances of nabbing a good flight deal. Here are some tips from the pros:
- Sign up for airline loyalty programs so that you’re on their email list and will be the first to hear about flash sales—you can do this online or through the airlines’ apps.
- Sign up for alerts from apps that are run by fare comparison and booking sites like Kayak and Hopper.
- Use a fare comparison calendar: If your travel dates are flexible, use the fare calendars on the airlines’ website or on an airfare comparison site such as Google Flights to see the full spread of airfares on different days of the week and even for different times of year.
- Book a vacation package that includes air and hotel; airlines will often offer a lower airfare for those choosing a bundled option (for instance, via JetBlue Vacations or British Airways’ air and hotel package deals—the British Airways deals in particular are pretty enticing).