Are cheap flights a thing of the past? Here’s why your summer trip is so expensive

Flight prices are up by around a fifth this year.
Flight prices are up by around a fifth this year. Copyright Canva
By Angela Symons with AFP
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Here’s why your summer trip is so expensive and what you can do about it.

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Airfares are soaring in Europe and beyond, leaving many of us wondering, are the days of cheap flights over?

Both long and short-haul routes are affected, with ticket prices in France jumping 23.6 per cent on last year, according to statistics from the Ministry of Ecological Transition.

International flight prices from the UK increased by around 18 per cent from last year, according to travel booking website Kayak.

“There’s still a lot of pent-up demand for travel going back to the pandemic,” explains Kayak’s UK country manager, Evan Day.

“And that demand - combined with rising inflation and high fuel costs - has kept flight prices high.”

What is behind the spike in flight prices?

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, sanctions on fuel imports have caused prices to spiral.

“Because of the 71 per cent increase in oil prices year-on-year, our average fare has increased by 31 per cent,” Easyjet CEO Johan Lundgren told AFP.

Fuel represents around 30 per cent of carriers’ costs.

A sharp increase in maintenance costs linked to the scarcity of certain metals and disrupted supply chains have also contributed to the phenomenon, says Marc Rochet, head of the French companies Air Caraïbes and French Bee.

He also mentions the repercussions of wage increases in the aviation sector.

Despite price hikes and inflation also squeezing consumer wallets, there’s no decrease in the demand for flights.

Europe is as popular as ever, with many destinations offering value for money on the ground now that the Euro has stabilised. But flight prices from the UK to European destinations are sky high.

This is partially down to a less obvious hangover from COVID.

“During the pandemic, as a way to avoid losing consumer trust many airlines opted to assign credits to customers that had bookings cancelled,” says Justin Penny, head of aviation at travel company Flight Centre. 

“Fast forward two years and despite 2022 being a pivotal moment of change in travel confidence, many of these credits remained unclaimed. 

“2023 is now the final year that many of these schemes are set to close, meaning individuals are faced with the ultimatum - use it or you lose it,” he explains. 

“This requirement has caused a mass increase in demand for European flights that require less planning and saving than a long haul break, in turn causing the prices to shoot up in tandem.”

Demand for flights is outstripping availability

Despite restrictions easing and the world opening up last year, strikes and cancellations threw many long-awaited trips into disarray. This has further fuelled pent-up desire for travel.

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Some airports, like Amsterdam’s Schiphol and London Heathrow, introduced passenger caps to reduce the impact of staff shortages. This forced airlines to reduce their schedules.

Airlines like Flybe and Flyr have gone bust, while others are facing financial difficulties after years of being grounded due to COVID. This has slowed growth, preventing their return to full capacity and left them in dire need of extra cash.

With fewer seats available compared to pre-pandemic, demand is outstripping supply.

And as remote work retains its grip, business travel has failed to bounce back - meaning a greater reliance on revenue from economy seats.

At the same time, Airbus and Boeing are struggling to deliver new aircraft on time. This will leave airlines with fewer planes than expected this year.

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Boeing’s CEO said at a meeting earlier this month that manufacturing delays will result in around 9,000 fewer seats this summer, which may force airlines to reduce flight numbers and routes.

AP Photo
Travellers queue at security at Heathrow Airport in London, June 2022.AP Photo

Will flights remain expensive?

Signs show that airlines are gradually beginning to recover from the pandemic.

The aviation sector “is in very good shape, in full rebound”, according to Pascal Fabre, a specialist in this field at financial consulting firm AlixPartners.

In this context of rising prices, many airlines “achieved higher turnover in 2022 than they did before the crisis, even though capacity remains low,” he notes.

This is the case of Air France-KLM, which announced earlier this month that it had “fully reimbursed” the aid granted by the French state to enable it to survive COVID-19.

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However, fuel prices remain high and the risk of further strikes looms this summer.

Eurowings CEO Jens Bischof says he expects flight prices to increase further due to rising fuel, personnel and airport costs, according to a report by Germany's Funke media group.

“Flying for a taxi price is no longer possible,” Bischof told Funke. He predicted that flights would be around 20 per cent more expensive during peak season this year than in 2022.

As the EU introduces ever stricter legislation to reduce emissions from flying, aircraft operators may also have to invest in more efficient planes. They will also be required to buy emission allowances to offset their carbon footprint.

The costs of this could lead to further hikes in ticket prices in future.

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Is it still possible to get cheap flights?

Although flight prices are higher than normal, they are at least staying stable.

“We can see in our data that flight prices have remained almost flat the last six months,” says Evan.

You may have noticed, however, that booking in advance is no longer a surefire way to secure a good deal. This may be because the uncertainty of the pandemic has abated, so more people are reverting to this technique over risky late booking.

Evan suggests using Kayak’s data-driven forecast tool to get ‘price alerts’ on flights.

A new ‘Savings Generator’ tool on flight comparison site Skyscanner - currently in beta mode - could also help you pinpoint the cheapest day to fly.

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Going beyond the current ability to search by ‘cheapest month’, it uses data to help you identify how far in advance to book for your specific route, what day and time offer the lowest cost, and how your flight price compares on average.

If you have the freedom to choose your travel dates, flying earlier in the summer is a good way to save money. The end of July is the most expensive time to travel from the UK, Kayak data shows, while Saturday is the most expensive day of the week to travel.

Flying in early June instead could save you up to 44 per cent on flights and 15 per cent on hotels.

Sundays tend to offer the most value for UK domestic flights, Tuesdays for European flights, and Wednesdays for longer-haul international routes, Kayak reveals.

Forgoing added extras like hold luggage can also help slash your trip price.

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Where are the cheapest places to fly to in 2023?

It may sound obvious but flying to less touristy places is often cheaper - especially when you factor in accommodation and meals.

Need some inspiration? Check out these lesser known beach destinations and under the radar European cities.

If you’re desperate to go further afield, set your sights on the US, says Evan.

“Flight prices are still at last year's level for several US cities,” he reveals. For best-value airfares, consider cities like Dallas, Texas; Atlanta, Georgia; Orlando, Florida; and Tampa, Florida.

US flights remain affordable because capacity has bounced back almost to 2019 levels, Flight Centre's Justin explains.

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“Increased competition among transatlantic airlines will likely result in a stabilising of ticket prices in 2023,” predicts Justin. “Should travel appetite to the US wane, prices to this bucket list destination could even drop slightly lower than 2022,” he adds.

What are the alternatives to flying?

European investment in rail infrastructure is making it cheaper and easier to travel by train than ever before.

Companies like NightJet and European Sleeper are bringing new night trains to the continent that rival the convenience of flying.

Spain and Italy are embracing new EU rules on rail liberalisation, opening up the market to low-cost train operators like Ouigo and Iryo.

What's more, train prices have remained stable: they have only gone up by 3 per cent since 2019, compared to a price hike of 58 per cent on flights, according to a report by German online travel comparison and booking website Omio.

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This has led the platform to see a 20 per cent increase in train bookings and a 54 per cent decrease in train bookings.

Embracing train travel now could also shield you from emissions-related flight price hikes in future - and it will help you reduce your holiday’s impact on the planet.

“We all need to rethink how we travel, and how we can have a more positive impact when we do,” says Justin Francis, CEO and co-founder of activist holiday company Responsible Travel.

“Part of that - as difficult as it feels - means flying less. That might mean taking one, longer trip this year with a flight. It might also mean embarking on a rail-based adventure or sticking close to home,” he advises.

Justin points to Responsible Travel’s micro-ship cruises around Scotland, canoeing adventures down the Dordogne in France and cycling trips through Italy’s Chianti vineyards as proof that “flying less doesn’t have to mean missing out”.

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Check out some of Europe’s best new rail routes here.

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