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Fare warning: Act now for airline deals

By Chris McGinnis
Special to CNN

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(CNN) -- If you've been waiting around for the airlines to discount fares for summer travel, now might be time to pounce, as the deals will be few and far between as the weather warms up.

Why so high?

First, keep in mind that the airlines are under huge pressure to raise fares because of the recent spike in fuel costs -- they have tried and failed several times in recent months to add $20 or $30 fuel surcharges to many fares.

Eventually, if fuel costs don't decline, the airlines will succeed with either a surcharge, or an across-the-board fare hike. As I write this, some of the major carriers are floating a 3 percent fare hike on most leisure fares.

Time will tell whether it will stick or not. It will also be interesting to see if low fare carriers match the increase since they are under similar pressure to get out from under increasing fuel prices.

Second, remember airlines price their tickets based on supply and demand -- and demand for air travel is going to be very high this summer. Earlier this month, the FAA predicted that we'll see as many or more air travelers this summer than just before September 11, 2001. Airport security screeners are already straining to process the increasing number of passengers.

So when you combine high fuel costs with high demand, the airlines aren't too inclined to slash prices -- even the discounters.

Fair fare deals

For the past three years around Easter, the airlines have come out with big across-the-board deeply discounted fare sales designed to stimulate summer bookings.

But this Easter, only United and Northwest offered what I'd call a very mild fare sale -- the discounts were not all that deep, and they were only good for trips through mid- to late-June.

This week, the only carriers to discount heavily for summer trips were AirTran and US Airways. These deals are pretty decent and are good for trips all the way through October 6. As usual, most major airlines matched the sale -- but only on routes where they compete with AirTran -- not elsewhere.

If you are planning to go to Europe, you should be sitting down when you check out fares for summer travel -- nearly all round-trip fares from most U.S. cities are north of $750-$800.

You can find a few deals for somewhat less for travel in early June, but beyond that, the sky seems to be the limit. And if you wait much longer to book your trip, the "cheap" seats will be gone, and you'll end up paying more like $1,000 for a roundtrip ticket.

My best advice for fare shoppers: If you know when and where you want to go this summer, jump at the next fare sale because ticket prices are unlikely to get any cheaper.


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