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How to find cheaper flights this year as airfares soar

Airfares jumped 11.6 per cent year over year in May
A plane is silhouetted as it takes off from Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., Monday, May 13, 2019. For those who remain undeterred by the daunting lines and flight delays at Canadian airports, questions remain about how to save money on air travel amid mounting fuel costs and inflation.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

For those who remain undeterred by the daunting lines and flight delays at Canadian airports, questions remain about how to save money on air travel amid mounting fuel costs and inflation.

Airfares — often the biggest line item on a vacation — jumped 11.6 per cent year over year in May, according to Statistics Canada. Tickets are now above pre-pandemic levels, up 15 per cent from 2019 to $960 on average for international flights from Canada, says Montreal-based Hopper Inc., with no sign of a dip in the coming months.

“Airlines are raising ticket prices to cover higher fuel and labour costs,” said Helane Becker, an airline analyst for investment firm Cowen.

Flexibility is helpful when looking to save cash, since the times you choose to book and travel — and which airport you take off from — can play a key role in the cost.

Weekends are often pricier, and flights scheduled early in the morning and late at night are frequently cheaper, as fewer folks want to fly then, said Duncan Dee, former chief operating officer at Air Canada.

“Don’t plan to leave on the first few days after the school year ends … and also don’t return home on the weekend before Labour Day, because that’s going to be a huge demand weekend,” he said.

Dee also recommends travelling in the off-season rather than peak summer months, or to consider less sought-after spots. “Latin America, for example — our summer is their winter, and a Southern Hemisphere winter … is very pleasant,” he said.

“Paris in the summer or London in the summer — that equals high airfares, high hotel prices and fully booked restaurants.”

Booking one to three months in advance for local flights and three to four months for international ones may also yield cheaper fares, he added. However, “dynamic pricing” means there are no hard and fast rules, as algorithms respond to demand and booking curves on the fly.

“Many consumers will report being quoted one fare and a totally different — higher or even lower — if they search an hour later,” Dee noted.

One way around attentive algorithms are alternative airports. Those in Hamilton, Ont., Buffalo and Plattsburgh, N.Y., and Bellingham, Wash., can present more palatable prices and fewer delays.

But voyages within Canada may be the safest option, and the softest on the pocketbook. The average one-way domestic fare was $159 in May, down from $168 in May 2019, according to data from Cirium, an aviation analytics company.

“International travel, outside of North America is just really a crapshoot,” said McGill University aviation lecturer John Gradek, pointing to a friend’s recent trip.

“To get a car rental in Italy — a little gas car, a Fiat — and a mini-house for him and his wife and his two daughters for one week was $1,200 (per day) — plus $200 a day for the car rental,” he said.

“If you’re going to go to Europe, you’ve got to really want to go.”

Gradek recommends classic Canadian getaways this summer. “Go to Banff, go to the Rockies, go visit Peggy’s Cove.”

In Ontario, several cities are offering to reward tourists for overnight stays. Ottawa, Kingston, London and Guelph are among the municipalities promising to hand out gift cards of up to $100 or ensure a night’s stay on the house at participating hotels.

The incentives come on top of the provincial staycation tax credit, which grants up to $200 in credit per person for travel within Ontario.

Low-cost Canadian carriers such as Flair Airlines, WestJet’s Swoop and recent entrant Lynx Air offer another route to savings — though the smaller fleets can mean fewer options in the event of a cancellation, with some passengers rebooked days later on less frequent routes.

A handful of travel hacks offer more clever savings.

So-called hidden city fares, where passengers skip out on the second leg of a trip to disembark at the connection point — their actual intended destination — allow travellers who found cheaper fares on a roundabout route rather than a direct flight to save cash, though carriers frown on the practice.

“Hacker fares,” which refer to two one-way tickets, can also yield savings. Search engines including Kayak and Google Flights offer round-trip queries for a pair of one-way flights. Kayak and Hopper also provide price alerts, and recommendations on whether to buy immediately or wait for lower fares.

For the more tech-savvy, bargain hunters can mask their computer’s address with a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to sniff out fares that target local residents in other countries, though deals aren’t necessarily better. For the less digitally inclined, finding a foreign travel agent may be an easier option.

—Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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