Japan opened back to foreign visitors in September, so out of curiosity I decided to see what it would cost for us to visit Japan. Back in the day, combining careful timing and a little bit of luck, we could usually find nonstop, round-trip flights in extra comfort seating for around $750 – $850. These days Brett and I wonder if we’ll ever be able to afford a visit to Japan again, and what that could cost us because the best price right now for a premium economy seat is $2,391. Ouch. A seat in economy is $1,319, still horribly expensive.
It doesn’t matter these days where anyone is going, but airfares are higher across the board, currently at their highest point in five years. Between March and April of this year, ticket costs increased 16.8% in one month! Prices are predicted to increase even more as the holiday season approaches.
The airline industry was one of the hardest hit during the Covid-19 pandemic and travel, when both domestic and international travel slowed to a near halt. That period and the slow climb back has obviously affected today’s prices, but there are other things going on as well:
- Supply and demand is the biggest force affecting ticket prices today. There are fewer flights and more demand for seats than prior to the pandemic. Anyone who has flown this year has most likely suffered through cancellations, schedule changes, and so forth. Airlines are trying to do better by restricting the number of tickets sold in order to reduce the number of delays that plagued travelers earlier in the year. Fewer tickets mean higher prices.
- Staff shortages caused by the pandemic contributed to delays and cancellations. Many airlines are still understaffed, which mean fewer flights, more delays, and higher prices.
- Rising fuel costs have also meant an increase in the price of tickets. Airlines typically purchase fuel months to years in advance, and if they’ve had to buy fuel recently, ticket prices have to go up to cover those costs. An airline that bought fuel when prices were low can continue to offer lower prices. Southwest is an airline that consistently does very well buying large amounts of fuel at low prices, which is a big reason they’re able to keep ticket prices low.
- Lack of competition has meant that many major airlines no longer have to compete with low cost airlines. Prior to the pandemic, airlines like Wow, Norwegian Air, and others offered bare-bones services at prices that major airlines were forced to compete with, creating lower fares overall. Many discount carriers went out of business during the pandemic, or had to cut itineraries way back. For example, we used Norwegian Air twice to return to the U.S. from Europe because their fares and itineraries could not be beat. Norwegian Air no longer flies to any U.S. airports, and operates only regionally within Europe, offering no price competition to U.S. carriers for cross-Atlantic flights.
- Because of current situations occurring in the world, air routes have had to change. Route changes hike costs for airlines. Current changes don’t affect domestic flights within the U.S., but they can affect the cost of international journeys.
The news isn’t all bad, and there are still ways to save if you want or need to fly somewhere.
- Think domestic travel versus international. It’s always going to be cheaper to go someplace in your own country.
- Fly economy. Yes, the seats are narrower and closer together, but the price for that seat is going to be considerably less than first class or premium economy. Our rule of thumb is five hours: anything over that and we will pay the extra for more comfortable seating. Below that, we are fine with economy.
- Choose a flight with stopovers versus nonstop. The more stops along the way, the lower the price (usually). Travelers can also sometimes work layovers to their advantage. At some airports it’s possible to leave and tour the city you’re in, or go for a meal outside the airport. We sometimes opt for flights that have a long overnight layover, and book a hotel room and get some sleep before the next leg of our journey. The cost of the room has always been less than the increased price for a nonstop flight.
- Look for an alternative airport that’s nearby. Costs can sometimes be significantly lowered by flying out of a regional airport or one in a nearby city versus using only bigger airports in major cities. For example, we’ve saved by flying into and out of Love Field in Dallas versus choosing a flight that arrives at Dallas-Fort Worth International.
- Consider budget airlines. These airlines usually have a low ticket price but charge for things like seat choice, luggage (even a carryon), food . . . just about everything. But, add up the cost of what add ons are really necessary and the price can still be much lower than a full-service airline. Almost all major airlines now offer “basic economy” seats these days, with no frills or seat choice, but with a lower cost than regular economy. Southwest Airlines has found its niche somewhere in the middle between a true budget airline and a major one and offer good value. Currently, a RT, non-stop ticket to Japan on a budget airline is only $689 (before any extras are added).
- Find a ticket first, then the destination. Search for ticket prices that fit your budget and then choose a destination that fits that price. There are some amazingly low-priced tickets out there to wonderful places.
- Use search tools to find the best prices. Skyscanner; Scott’s Cheap Air, Google Flights, and similar sites can help find the lowest prices around for tickets.
- Use credit cards strategically. Travel credit cards can be used to earn points toward free tickets or upgrades. Opening a card usually brings a huge bonus along with it when a set amount is spent within a specific time period, and using the card for other purchases, like groceries, gas, or dining out, can offer double or triple points to quickly increase the point balance. **Only use a travel card if you can afford to pay it off every month.**
Airline fares are expected to remain high for the time being, but there are ways to work around those high prices. It requires some genuine effort these days to find the good deals, or a workable itinerary at an affordable price, but it can be done. Traveling is different these days, and higher airfares are just one part that will probably be around for a while.