How to save on summer airfare

Chaotic schedules often lead to fantasies of summer vacation. The same schedules typically result in putting off planning said getaways. Now that summer’s upon us, the question arises – is it too late to book a vacation? It’s a reasonable concern, seeing as many airlines have few seats left during the summer months, particularly for prime vacation destinations. Another daunting consideration – prices for the seats that do exist.

The good news – it’s possible to take a summer break without breaking the bank.

When compiling its summer travel research, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics focused on the period of time beginning the Thursday before Memorial Day and ending the Wednesday after Labor Day. Based on its own research, the online metasearch site Kayak has found August to be the least expensive month for summer travels.

Keoni Wagner, vice president of public affairs at Hawaiian Airlines, concurs: “Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen summer travel starting earlier and finishing earlier than the historical pattern,” Wagner told Yahoo! Travel. “As a result, the last half of August, but before Labor Day, is probably the best place to look for summer bargains.”

Even cheaper – forgoing vacation until September, the summer month Kayak found to be the least expensive for leisure travel with average airfares dropping to a low of $296.67. When to book?

“Don’t think your options end in August,” Maria Katime, a spokeswoman for Kayak, told Yahoo! Travel. “In crunching the numbers, we determined the lowest average domestic airfares were found 21-35 days prior to departure, making September a good option for those who can’t get a vacation planned over the next month. Not only will travelers find great deals, the weather’s still good.”

Want to go sooner versus later? Travelers are still in luck. Based on its searches from January through March 2013, Kayak announced in an April report that this summer’s top three destinations are Las Vegas, Orlando, and Honolulu. “Airfares to Vegas ($299.10) and Honolulu ($772.20) decreased year-over-year (down 3% and 7%, respectively) and Orlando fares ($280.24) only increased 1%,” Kayak reported.

International summer destinations topping charts are London, Paris and Rome. Roundtrip airfare to London is $1,460.28, up 11.8% from 2012. The big difference from last year – availability. Sarah McIntyre, a spokeswoman at Virgin Atlantic, points to the 2012 Olympics for last year’s lack of available seats. McIntyre told Yahoo! Travel she sees clear sailing in 2013. “ At the moment, U.S. passengers can find some great rates flying beyond London to Edinburgh, Manchester or Aberdeen on our brand new UK short haul service, Little Red.”

McIntyre’s strategy is a sound one elsewhere. Choosing a destination airport that’s a hub for other destinations has payoffs. One that’s often overlooked – Honolulu. “Our fares offer a free stop-over in Honolulu,” says Wagner. “Because Hawaii is located on the flight path from North America to Australia/New Zealand, this is an opportunity to hit two spots with one trip.”

Another international destination to put in the mix – Canada. Vancouver led the charts for trending North American destinations for 2013 and had an airfare decrease of 4%. Montreal got a big thumbs up with a 33% drop in airfare.

With announcements from Frontier Airlines that it’s charging carry-on luggage fees for third-party website reservations, as well as $1.99 for onboard refreshments such as coffee and soda, and United Airlines and US Airways upping their change fees from $150 to $200, how have airfares been affected this year? Per Kayak, based on the top 50 domestic destinations, airfare for this summer is $402.27, a decrease of 2.16% from 2012 rates. Within Europe, average summer fares to top 50 destinations dropped 2.67% to $1,322.98.

With the BTS reporting that nine out of 10 summer trips (about 91 percent) are in personal vehicles, it appears many travelers seek to get around airfare through ground travel (see best summer road trips). Not so fast, says Marie Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the Automobile Club of Southern California (AAA). “Gas prices are making it more of a toss-up as to whether it’s cheaper to drive or fly in some situations,” Montgomery told Yahoo! Travel. “If planning a summer trip that’s more than an eight-hour drive, look at AAA fuel cost calculator for real-time gas price estimates for a trip based on make and model of car as compared to airfare. “

Additional strategies also affect savings. Kayak’s suggestion: “Long weekends average the cheapest round-trip fares; consider taking a few long weekend trips versus one long vacation.”