Your Summer Travel Itinerary: Paying More to Fly While Fighting the Crowds

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As gas prices fall and more Americans consider a road trip rather than flying this summer, you might think that airlines would try to lure customers in with cheaper fares and an increased number of flights. Well, sorry.

Thanks to an increase in demand occurring alongside a shaky economic recovery, airlines are not only raising ticket prices this summer but they’re keeping the number of flights largely the same. Meaning: Prepare to sit in your row’s dreaded middle seat — and to pay dearly for the privilege.

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A recent study by travel site shows that domestic airfares will be 5% higher than last summer, while flights to Europe will rise 11%.

It’s the second year in a row with substantial increases in the cost of air travel. Airfares were 10% higher in the fourth quarter of 2011 than the year before and rose 15% overall from 2010.

One reason airlines often give for the rise is an increase in the cost of jet fuel, which continued to balloon this spring. However, jet fuel prices have actually been dropping over the last few weeks and aren’t much higher than they were last year.

That essentially means the biggest reason airfares will be so high this summer is because airlines are simply hesitant to add flights even as consumer demand is improving. That’s a harsh combination for flyers. It not only means higher prices but more crowded planes. Last year, planes were 82.1% full, one of the highest rates in years.

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The increase in airfares is spurring many Americans to consider hitting the roadways, especially as gas prices remain (relatively) low, compared with last year at least. Plus, drivers don’t have to worry about TSA searches and what seems to be an endless stream of new fees.

While many Americans will take to the road instead of flying, it appears that flyers who initially considered traveling to Europe will still fly, but just stay closer to home because of the spike in international airfares. According to Kayak, searches on its site are up 22% for Los Angeles, 20% for Las Vegas and 19% for Kahului, Hawaii.

Some travel experts essentially have one piece of advice for summer travelers: Book now. Still, there are a few tricks to buying tickets, even at peak times. Tuesdays are often the best days to find cheap flights because that’s when airlines typically release more tickets to the public. If you’re not traveling for another two or three months, consider a recent survey’s findings that showed the best time to buy tickets is six weeks before your trip.