Plane tickets are going to be expensive this holiday season

Thinking of flying on vacation this year? Expect to pay more for airfare than at any time in years.

Airline ticket prices for Thanksgiving are currently averaging $281 round-trip, up 25% from last year, according to travel booking group Hopper. For Christmas travel, airfare prices average $435 round trip, up 55% from last year and 19% from 2019.

These are the highest levels for at least five years, according to the website.

What is the cause ? It’s not just inflation, though it’s hit a 40-year high for most of 2022, pushing up the price of goods and services across the board. Look at the airlines. While carriers have rebuilt much of their passenger capacity as the Covid-19 pandemic ebbs, they still only have about 87% of the available seats they had in 2019, according to Hayley Berg, an economist at Hopper.

“So you’re still missing 15% of the flights and seats that would otherwise take off,” Berg said.

At the same time, demand for flights has continued to rise as households book trips that have been hampered by the pandemic. During his quarterly earnings call on Friday, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said demand for air travel “remains very strong.”

“After two years of travel delays, it’s clear consumers are getting out and traveling the world,” Bastian said.

Global demand has also been driven by people choosing to spend less on products and more on experiences, the chief executive of Delta Air Lines said. Business and international travel are also regaining some momentum, albeit slowly according to research from consultancy Deloitte.

“Demand is not about to be stifled by a turbulent summer season,” Bastian said.

Meanwhile, the cost of jet fuel remains high, thanks in large part to the war in Ukraine and dwindling crude oil refining capacity.

“For airlines, the cost of flying each seat is higher than ever, and for consumers, there are fewer seats available for purchase and each one is going to be more expensive,” Berg said. “It will continue to drive up airfares.”

Experts say the best way to stay ahead of price spikes is to book as early as possible.

“If you haven’t booked a vacation trip yet, prepare for some really painful sticker shock,” said Scott Mayerowitz, editor of travel savings website The Points Guy.

Berg, Hopper’s economist, said travelers should also try to take advantage of any flexibility they may have in their schedules. Arriving or departing on weekdays, especially earlier in the week, can often result in savings even if it means staying an extra day or longer.

If there’s any good news, it’s that the rate of delays and cancellations that plagued travelers earlier this year has been reduced, according to data from flight tracking group FlightAware.com. FlightAware spokeswoman Kathleen Bangs said airlines are quietly hiring more workers to help meet customer demand, which has helped reduce disruption.

Bangs also advises planning early and staying flexible when planning a trip is the best way to ensure a better travel experience.

“Right now demand is high which means you need to reserve your seats,” she wrote in an email to NBC News.

If the price drops later, an individual can book at a cheaper price and get a refund (on a refundable ticket) or bank it as a future travel voucher if it is non-refundable.

“But for the greatest variety of seats available on the dates you want to travel and at the most appealing times of day,” Bangs wrote, “book now.”

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