On her blog called the Travel Gal, Cindy Carlsson of St. Paul shares stories and photos from trips to Botswana, Ecuador, Cambodia and Thailand, but it was the expense of a potential trip to Berlin this summer that finally put the brakes on her wanderlust.
"We looked at the cost of the air tickets and the exchange rate and decided we couldn't do it," she said.
Fuel surcharges and increasing demand have steadily pushed the cost of tickets up. Travelocity estimates that prices rose on average by 7 percent last year; on some flights, the rise was much higher than that. Ticket price is only one measure of the increased cost of flying; passengers also paid extra for their box lunches, their exit row and aisle seats, and on United at least, their second checked bags.
There are ways to fight back.
Carlsson is a good case in point. After giving up on Berlin, she patiently monitored airfares. When Northwest, promoting its direct flights to Paris, offered a $2,100 deal on a weeklong hotel-air package for two, Carlsson snagged it. She and her husband, Lane Phillips, are going to France in May.
"Doing the research, putting in some work, that's what being an informed consumer is about," said Erik Torkells, editor of Budget Travel magazine.
Today, most of that work can be done on the Internet. Booking tools that once were available only to travel agents are now available to anyone. At sites such as kayak.com, consumers can compare fares day-to-day from mulitple airlines, getting a clearer picture of how pricing changes over time. At farecast.com, they can look at graphs that show price fluctuations over time, and predict when fares will rise or fall. Airfarewatchdog.com sends consumers weekly or daily updates on low fares from any chosen airport.
Each site has advantages and disadvantages, meaning you need to use more than one to get the best fare (see the accompanying article that outlines a step-by-step approach to a successful fare hunt.)
Even with thorough research, consumers may need to make compromises to get real bargains.
"Flexibility is key," said Kellie Pelletier of kayak.com, an "aggregator" site that searches multiple websites for the best deals. "If you can fly when others aren't, you'll get the best deal."
That can mean planning your European vacation in winter; fares and hotel rates are much lower then, and many of the reasons travelers like Europe -- restaurants, museums and other cultural attractions -- are just as appealing in February as they are in June, but with shorter lines.
On the other hand, no one wants to go to the Caribbean in July. "There are reasons the off-season is the off-season," said Torkells of Budget Travel.
Flexibility can also mean hunting for fares when the airlines are releasing sale fares and trying to fill up planes on short notice.
"If there is a time of week when you have the best chance to get a cheap fare it's Tuesday or Wednesday," said Terry Trippler, a Minneapolis-based airline expert. But he said those cheap fares are harder to find.
"I don't see many more public price increases this year -- it's bad publicity for the airlines," he said. But he said that the airlines are making fewer seats available at the lowest fares, increasing revenue without sounding alarms about rising prices.
George Hobica, owner and operator of airfarewatchdog.com, said that there are a couple of bright spots on the horizon for bargain hunters. One is the potential for increased competition in Minneapolis-St. Paul if Delta and Northwest merge. Federal regulators could force the merged airline to give up some routes to avoid a monopoly.
"Maybe some of the discount carriers will be able to start flying at MSP," he said. "That could really help keep prices down."
Trippler also believes that the merger has the potential to open gates to Southwest, JetBlue or both. If the merger goes through, he said, "we may just get some competition in here and we'll do just fine."
Another hopeful development, in the view of airfarewatchdog's Hobica, is the airlines' increased use of "promo-code" fares to drive traffic to their websites. Airlines send e-mails to customers registered at their sites, including a code that allows the customer access to a bargain rate on given routes. In this way, the airline can broaden its customer base while cutting into the business of online booking sites. Airfarewatchdog.com, a free site, monitors these promo-code fares and shares the information with its subscribers.
"We had a promo-code fare recently of $68 round-trip from Los Angeles to Guatemala -- the taxes and fees were more than the ticket," Hobica said. "It's another way to look for bargains."
Chris Welsch • 612-673-7113