Here's why your flight from Charlotte could cost more this summer — and how to save

Here's why your flight from Charlotte could cost more this summer — and how to save
An American Airlines jet prepares for departure at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. (Credit: Observer archives)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Cassie Cope/ The Charlotte Observer - Summer travelers can expect to pay more for their plane tickets, because higher fuel prices are likely to drive up the cost of airfare.

Officials with American Airlines, which has its second-largest hub in Charlotte, said in their first-quarter earnings that when fuel prices increase, the cost of air travel also goes up.

The cost of a plane ticket can depend on other factors, including seats, demand and competition.

Since last summer, oil prices have increased over 60 percent, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said in the call. "That's a big increase over a short period of time," he said.

Currently, fares for summer travel overall are actually much lower than previous years due to increased competition, said Tracy Stewart, senior editor for Airfarewatchdog, a website that tracks flight prices.

But that won't last.

"July fares will most likely always skew towards the astronomical," Stewart said.

Travelers can offset those costs in a variety of ways. Here are some tips:

Use a travel agent

While the number of travel agents nationwide has declined, using an agent can sometimes lead to a better deal.

In 2000, the number of travel agents nationwide peaked at about 124,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2016, the BLS reported 81,700 travel agents.

In part, those numbers have dwindled because of the ease of booking online.

But there are still benefits to using a travel agent, advocates say.

Travel agents have updated travel information and might be able to plan a cheaper route, whether that means having multiple connections, or a longer layover, said Tiffany Wright, of AAA Carolinas, which has a travel agent service.

Travel agents also negotiate with different vendors to get better costs, said Gary Silverstein, president of Mann Travels. "We work for our clients. We don't work for the tour companies or the airlines," he said.

Often, vacation packages sold by travel agencies have locked-in airfare, so changes in price don't affect the costs, said Silverstein who has had the travel agency, which has nine locations across the Charlotte area, since 1979.

"The airlines are notorious for wanting to raise rates at the drop of the bucket," he said.

That's because airlines can increase prices instantaneously through computers, unlike other industries, he said.

Try nearby airports

Charlotte typically has higher airfare on average than other nearby airports.

The average fare from Charlotte was $412 for the fourth quarter of last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

By comparison, Raleigh/Durham averaged $353, Atlanta averaged $354, and Greenville/Spartanburg averaged $402.

Ninety percent of daily flights out of Charlotte are operated by American Airlines.

"Our fares out of CLT are competitive for the market," said American Airlines spokeswoman Katie Cody. "We do have a high percentage of business travelers, who tend to buy more flexible, last minute fares, which are typically priced higher."

Because of American Airlines' high percentage of connecting travelers and an efficient and cost-effective airport, local passengers get access to a much broader network, she said.

About 80 percent of passengers at the Charlotte airport connect to other flights, instead of starting or stopping their trips here.

But flying from another airport means a traveler has to drive to that airport. It also could mean a longer flight with layovers.

If someone flies out of a cheaper, smaller airport, they are likely stopping in Charlotte or Atlanta, Cody said.

Book early, check options

Wright, of AAA Carolinas, urged travelers to book their flights early.

"I can say, that while many travelers might wait around to the last minute, it's unpredictable and they could find themselves without a flight," Wright said. "Sometimes those special last minute fares don't happen."

Wright also encouraged travelers to search tickets individually, if they are traveling as a group. "Sometimes individual seats are cheaper than a block," she said. "If you decide to buy individually, make sure there's no per-ticket processing charge that would offset the savings."

Stewart, of Airfarewatchdog, suggested travelers consider delaying thier vacation. "Instead of searching peak summer, try mid-August through mid-September," he said. "The weather will be just as nice, but you'll pay much less."

The later in the season you go, the fewer crowds you'll have to compete with at beaches, museums, and other attractions.

In addition, travelers will have better luck booking a deal if they allow wiggle room with departure and arrival dates, he said. "Even just a day or two difference in either direction can save you hundreds," he said.