Airlines have unleashed a spate of discount fares this week as they try to drum up business during the slow winter months, but travelers might need to search a little harder this year for the best post-holiday bargains.
Carriers typically offer fare sales once the new year begins and as travel demand slows until spring. Several major carriers have started fare sales in recent days. American Airlines, for example, announced a sale that includes round-trip fares from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport as low as $208 to Washington, D.C., and $218 to Los Angeles.
Other carriers beginning sales this week include ATA Airlines, AirTran Airways, Frontier Airlines and United Airlines.
But experts say the fare sales aren't quite as generous this winter as in past years.
"It's not as deep as it was a year ago," said Terry Trippler, an airline analyst with travel site Cheapseats.com. "There's nothing too exciting there."
Airfares rose steadily last year, driven mainly by high jet-fuel prices and cutbacks in flights. Average fares today are about $40 higher than a year ago, Trippler said.
"Airlines have figured out that they can raise fares and people will still travel," he said.
Fares along the East Coast also are likely to be affected by the shutdown of Independence Air, a discount airline based in Washington, D.C., that closes its doors today. Independence, which filed for bankruptcy protection last year, slashed many fares in its final months in what some analysts dubbed "panic pricing."
The airline "disrupted pricing in the market disproportionate to its size," analyst Ray Neidl of Calyon Securities said in an investment report Wednesday.
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United Airlines raised most advanced-purchase leisure fares $15 to $30 each way this week, and some last-minute ticket prices were raised as much as $50.
Major airlines nudged up fares for business and leisure travelers Friday, hoping to boost revenues as the summer travel season begins.
The biggest fare increases by former Independence Air competitors -- including United, Ted and US Airways -- are on same-day round-trip travel.
The timing of the fare sale caught analysts off-guard, coming just over a week after Delta and American Airlines raised fares on most of their U.S. routes.