With snow piling up, it might seem a bit early to start thinking about summer. But if you want to take a vacation on your terms, travel experts say now is the time to get the ball rolling.
Cheaper fuel prices, a strong dollar and an economy on the upswing mean consumers will have a lot of competition booking airplane seats for summer vacations. "This is the perfect storm," says Rick Seaney, chief executive officer of FareCompare.com, which analyzes airfares.
While experts say expectations of a booming summer travel season will prompt airlines to add capacity, the companies' computer models will adjust pricing according to ticket sales. The fewer the seats left, the sharper the price increases.
Expect prices to rise through the spring, says Tom Spagnola, senior vice president for travel service CheapOair.com. Travellers should start booking international flights this month and domestic flights in the next month or two.
Asia- and Latin America-bound vacationers might find some bargains, while the carriers' sharing alliances that dominate the business will probably limit the availability of deals elsewhere, says airline industry consultant Bob Mann.
HOW TO GEAR UP
To shop now, use one or more of the airline pricing websites to get notified of changes. Among those offering free fare alert services are Kayak, Yapta, Airfarewatchdog, CheapOair and FareCompare.
A flight from New York to Paris on American Airlines on June 25 for one week would cost $1,232 non-stop round-trip if booked now. Trying for another day could reduce the price by $100 or more, so it is best to be flexible about travel dates.
And if you are willing to fly on a no-frills discount airline, you could pay even less. XL Airways France has a flight for $1,097 round-trip.
The day of the week you fly matters, FareCompare's Seaney says. To get the best prices, try booking a flight for a Tuesday, Wednesday or a Saturday.
On longer trips, Seaney suggests considering a connecting flight to get further savings. An example: An early summer non-stop from Washington, D.C., to Rome costs about $2,047 round-trip on United, compared with as low as $1,036 if you toss in a stop in Istanbul and fly Turkish Airlines.
You may want to vacation during off-peak periods. Seaney notes that the higher summer-season pricing does not start until after the first week in June and typically tapers down after the third week of August.
Also, keep an eye on the total price of a ticket, which can include taxes, surcharges and fees as well as airfare.
For instance, there is still a $450 fuel surcharge levied on flights to Europe, but Seaney says it is just a matter of time before that is dropped or lowered because energy prices are so low.
Flights into and out of London's Heathrow Airport carry an extra $70 to $90 tax, so you may want to use a different nearby airport, like Gatwick.
CRUISE FOR DEALS
This time every year, the cruise industry dangles its best deals during the so-called wave season - buy now for trips during the rest of the year.
"Now is when people will find some of the best pricing of the year and, more importantly, the best incentives," says Gabe Saglie, senior editor for discount travel site Travelzoo.
One recent deal promoted on Travelzoo offered free drinks, prepaid gratuities and a $100 shore excursion credit on a 10-day Alaska cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line - about $1,200 in perks. An ocean-view room for a midsummer sailing was going for about $1,800 per person (based on double occupancy) with those bonuses tossed in.