Sky-high airfares this summer – ‘people are going to be shocked’

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12-23-09 O’Hare International Airport, Terminal 3, Chicago - Passengers wait in line to go through a security checkpoint at Terminal 3 inside O’Hare Airport Wednesday in Chicago. - JOHN J. KIM ~ SUN-TIMES

For consumers preparing to make summer vacation travel plans, antacids may be in order.

Higher air fares and still sky-high gasoline prices are driving up the cost of the summer trip.

“People I think are going to be shocked by how much higher some fares are,” said President George Hobica. “We’re seeing fares that we haven’t seen in years.”

While fuel costs have driven up fares, other factors include airlines intentionally cutting back on capacity and flying fewer planes (which makes fewer seats available). Another factor is airline mergers, which have led to less competition on some routes, travel experts say.

Overall across the country, air fares have gone up on average 6 percent to 10 percent, travel experts say. But to some destinations from Chicago they’ve spiked much more. Last year, among sample nonstop airfares for travel from Chicago in July to San Francisco, consumers could find fares of $318 round trip, but this year, that’s jumped to $510, according to BestFares Chief Executive Officer Tom Parsons. Nonstop flights to Denver have gone from $248 to $344, he added.

Compared to last summer, the average fare to Las Vegas is up nearly 20 percent, to San Diego it’s up 19 percent, to Cancun it’s up 26 percent, to San Juan, it’s up 29 percent and to Rome, it’s up 19 percent, according to Kayak.

“International travel is much higher than it has been in previous summers,” said Hobica. “Part of that’s taxes. The airports keep on adding taxes. Governments are adding taxes.”

There has been “airline sticker shock,” among clients looking to book flights to Europe, said Jeanne Fosco, Aurora-based regional travel manager for AAA Chicago. The Summer Olympics take place there this year, driving up demand.

“What people tend to do is either wait or not go at all,” she said. “Unfortunately, the folks that are waiting are going to be waiting for a long time because it’s not going to be coming down.”

Hotel fares are also up.

“We’re seeing about a 5 percent increase for the hotels, said Fosco.

For those planning to drive, gasoline prices remain near historic highs, even they have come down in recent weeks and are more than 20 cents a gallon below year-ago levels. On Sunday the average in the Chicago area for unleaded regular was $4.22 a gallon. Nationally, the average was about $3.85.

Budget-conscious consumers are taking steps to try to make their summer vacation travel more affordable, said Beth Mosher, spokeswoman for AAA Chicago.

“We’re seeing more and more people book hotel rooms with kitchenettes, so they can eat in at least one meal of the day, she said. “We’re also booking more and more condos and townhomes than ever before for the same reason, most of the time those will include a full kitchen, and people can eat in and save some dollars.”

While cruise prices are little changed from last summer, with the cost of getting to cruise ships up, some clients are scaling back those plans, said Fosco.

“They’re not taking the seven-night cruises, they’re minimizing to the three- and four-night,” she said. They still want to get away, but they can’t really afford maybe the seven- or 10-night cruise. They’re just downsizing the days.”

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