Why Are Flights So Expensive Right Now?

Scott Keyes
5 min read
Scott Keyes
April 10, 2023
5 min read
Table of Contents
This is some text inside of a div block.

It’s not just your imagination—airfare really has gotten more expensive over the past couple of years, but that’s in comparison to the rock-bottom fares that we saw at the height of Covid.

Fares plunged initially during Covid as airlines struggled to fill their seats. But in March 2022, airfare set a new record one-month increase, jumping 11% from the previous month. In April 2022, it obliterated that short-lived record, spiking 18%. And in May 2022, fares went up 12%.

Since then, airfare has largely decreased (or at least leveled out). Fares have fallen 7 of the past 9 months, down 12% from their peak last May. It appears we’re entering a period of renormalization, meaning that fares will largely be expensive during the most popular times but there will also be plenty of cheap fares to go around, both on- and off-peak, particularly if you’re willing to be flexible.

Summer is one of those popular times—the winter holidays are another—which means that if you’re looking for a decent flight this summer, you’re going to have a difficult time finding one, especially this late in the game.

There are a number of factors impacting the cost of a plane ticket, like when you book, where you’re flying to, when you’re taking the flight, and even airline competition at the departure and arrival airport. In general, though, these are the kinds of cheap fares that we’re finding and sending out to members from US airports to destinations around the world.

The cost of cheap flights that Going finds and sends out to its members

Of course, there can be variations in flight cost within certain regions and by time of year. Take the Caribbean, for instance. Prices to the French Caribbean and British Virgin Islands tend to be high, whereas Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are routinely low. Prices to Asia from the West Coast tend to be lower than from the East Coast; alternatively, prices to Europe tend to be lower from the East Coast than from the West Coast. And all southern destinations, like Central and South America, tend to be cheaper from Miami than from anywhere else in the lower-48. Plus, peak seasons, like summer and winter holidays, tend to bump up prices no matter where you’re traveling.

With all of this in mind, don’t let the recent spate of expensive fares trick you into overpaying. Here’s what’s happening with airfare and why there’s still tons of cheap flights coming around the bend.

Why are flights so expensive right now?

Cheap flights aren’t gone forever; they just might be gone for this summer.

Summer is peak season

They’re vanishingly scarce right now because (a) summer flights are expensive, and that’s true every year; (b) last-minute flights are expensive, and that’s true every year, and (c) last-minute summer flights are especially expensive, always.

Last-minute flights are always pricey

There were ample cheap summer 2023 flights months ago, and there are cheap fall/winter flights available today. But finding great last-minute deals is rare, especially during the most popular (and expensive) time of year to fly.

Demand is outpacing supply

It’s also a story of simple supply and demand—people want to travel in the summer. Despite the fact that pent-up travel demand has somewhat dissipated and the supply of flights has increased from this time last year, demand for travel is still higher in the summer months. High demand + low supply = higher fares.

Once the summer travel boom subsides, lower demand means lower fares. We’re already seeing it today; recent fares like $352 nonstop roundtrip to London and $210 nonstop roundtrip to Cancún have been commonplace, but for travel in the fall and winter.

Oil prices play some part but not much

The higher price of oil is a factor, though less important than many folks realize. Oil is currently around $80 per barrel, up $10 from this time in 2021 but down $30 from this time last year. Most analysts see some (though not all) of increased oil costs getting passed on to travelers. The result is tickets that are only slightly more expensive on average than in a parallel world where Russia hadn’t invaded Ukraine and disrupted world oil markets. This is a small (though non-zero) part of recent fare increases.

Why rising average fares don't matter

An interesting fact about airfare is that you can’t book average fares. You can only book available fares.

I took a flight recently from Portland to Boston. I paid $200 roundtrip and when I asked the guy sitting next to me I found out he paid $600. Together, we paid an average of $400 roundtrip, but nobody actually paid $400.

In March 2023, Going sent out deals like West Coast to New Zealand for less than $900 roundtrip; JFK to Berlin, Paris, and Rome for about $330 roundtrip; and business class to Peru starting around $1,200 roundtrip.

The key to remember is that two things can be true at the same time: (1) average airfare is going up, and (2) cheap flights are still plentiful.

How airlines can afford to offer $400 flights to Europe

Disbelief is a common reaction to the sight of $330 roundtrip fares to Paris, but I assure you they’re real and they’re spectacular.

How can airlines afford to do this? Because economy airfare just isn’t as important to airlines as it used to be.

Decades ago, airlines made the vast majority of their money on economy airfare. The price of tickets mattered a lot to them.

Nowadays, in many cases airlines make the majority of their money on things other than economy airfare. They make it on selling business and first class seats. They make it on selling credit cards and frequent flyer miles. They make it on corporate contracts. They make it on cargo. They make it on bag fees and seat fees. They make it on hotel commissions and rental car commissions.

In other words, airlines’ entire business model has shifted from relying on one revenue stream to now relying on many revenue streams. They diversified, and now the price of a coach ticket just isn’t as important to airlines’ bottom lines as it used to be.

How can you get better deals?

Don’t let current expensive summer fares mislead you. There are still tons of cheap flights to be had and tons of ways you can avoid overpaying.

Book fall/winter flights now.

While last-minute summer flights are egregiously priced, post-Labor Day fares are still downright cheap. If your schedule allows, take advantage of the great fares we’re finding Going members for travel September through April 2024.

Take advantage of flexibility.

The normal way people search for flights is a 3-step process: (1) choose where you want to go, (2) choose when you want to go, (3) check flight prices. But by setting price as the last priority, it’s not terribly surprising folks end up with expensive flights. So instead, if you want a vacation and you’re hoping to get a cheap flight, take that same 3-step process and flip it on its head. (1) See what cheap flights are currently available out of your home airport, whether through Going email alerts or our Deal Filters feature, (2) choose a destination, (3) choose your dates. By setting price as the top priority rather than the last priority, you’re far more likely to be the beneficiary of cheap flights.

When you don’t have flexibility, get your timing right.

Not every trip is a vacation where you have a lot of control over when and where you go. For those trips with little flexibility, booking at the right time is critical. The best strategy is to use the concept of Goldilocks Window—not too early, not too late, just right in the middle. For domestic flights, cheap flights are most likely to pop up 1 to 3 months in advance, 2 to 8 months in advance for international flights. If you’re hoping to travel during a peak period like summer or New Year’s, add a few months onto those windows.

Remember the 21-Day Rule.

The cheapest fares often have a 21-day advance purchase requirement. So if there’s a specific flight you need and you’re hoping fares come down, set 3 weeks out as the absolute final deadline to book. It’s exceptionally unlikely fares will get cheaper after that point; instead, they tend to get far more expensive.

Join Going and never overpay for flights. We search for deals from your airports and let you know when prices drop up to 90% off.

Last Updated 
April 10, 2023
Scott Keyes
Founder & Chief Flight Expert

Scott has traveled to 46 countries (and 46 states!), living in California, to Oaxaca, to Oregon. He’s left-handed, drinks five cups of tea daily, and holds a vendetta against the “Happy Birthday” song. On a dare, he once ate 13 hot dogs (and a bowl of Dippin’ Dots) at the ballpark. He grew up in Ohio and founded Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) in a Denver coffee shop. Favorite airport: PDX.

character throwing a paper airplane
Treat your travel to cheap flights

Sign up for free to start getting flight alerts. Or upgrade to get 4x the deals, rare destinations, peak season tickets, and Mistake Fares. Either way, you’ll never overpay on flights again.

Sign up