Rising airfares for summer are grounding some travelers

Every year, Houston attorney Steve Loden and his partner fly to Indianapolis for a family reunion.

But skyrocketing airfares this year will force them to make the 1,000-mile-journey by car.

“It will be a fun road trip,” said Loden, who recently found each round-trip ticket now costs $520, up from $340 for last year’s trek to Indiana.

Gasoline prices are also high, but Loden figures he and his partner will save money because they won’t have to rent a car in Indianapolis or board their German shepherd, Arbie. Instead, the dog will join them on their car trip.

People are changing their summer vacation plans as rising jet fuel prices are expected to lift airfares by more than 15 percent.

The average domestic round-trip ticket will be $561, up from $485 last summer, according to Microsoft’s Bing Travel.

But that’s not across the board.

You can fly from Houston to the Big Apple without taking as big a bite from your bank account as last year, because fares to New York dropped 17 percent to $358.

To get to Las Vegas, though, you’ll need to ante up $440, up 21 percent from last year, Bing reported.

“The airlines are treating summer as though it were Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday,” said Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com.

Airlines hiked airfares seven times since the beginning of the year because of the higher fuel prices, Seaney said.

And some flights now include hefty fuel surcharges.

Warren Chang, vice president of Fly.com, a subsidiary of TravelZoo, recently searched for a flight from Newark to London and found a $300 fare. But the fuel surcharge was $350.

Such surcharges and airfares are driving consumers to scour travel sites in search of deals, but many aren’t clicking the buy button, he said.

“We are seeing a pickup in search traffic overall,” Chang said. “We see that people are searching for airfare, but there’s slightly less bookings.”

Consumers keep looking because they want vacations they may have postponed last year or in 2009, Chang said.

“Some people put it off because of the state of the national economy,” said John Lindlof, owner of the Quality Travel & Cruises American Express in Spring. “After they skipped one vacation, now they’re ready to take the vacation that they deserve. That’s why there was such a rebound last year.”

He originally anticipated a pickup in his business compared to last year, which was better than 2009. But once airfares started to climb, he revised his expectations and now predicts his sales will be flat.

The declining demand caused by higher airfares has pushed airlines to reduce their flights, which means consumers who do fly will often will crowd into full planes.

“I think it will be the fullest we’ve seen maybe in history,” Seaney said.

Hitting the highway

The higher airfares are driving more people to make the choice Loden did, to drive instead of buying plane tickets, said George Hobica, Airfarewatchdog president.

“The only people who fly at any cost are expectant grandmothers,” Hobica said.

Despite the higher fares, deals can be found.

For example, violence in northern Mexico is discouraging travelers from visiting other parts of the nation, and that means airlines are offering deals to the Yucatan resorts of Cancun and Cozumel, Lindlof said.

The recent natural disaster in Japan means fewer Japanese tourists are visiting Hawaii, so the state has better deals to draw travelers from the U.S. mainland, Lindlof said.

“There’s always deals out there,” Seaney said. “As you get deeper into summer, Florida gets cheaper. The reason for that is hurricane jitters.”

Downgrading elsewhere

Consumers who are willing to pay higher airfares may adjust other parts of their travel plans.

“Instead of maybe staying at a five-star hotel, they stay at a four-star property. They’re still taking vacations, but they may be scaling back,” Lindlof said.

Hotel prices, though, are also up 7 percent, averaging $242 a night versus $227 last year, Bing found.

jenalia.moreno@chron.com