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Relief for travelers as airfares dip for Tampa flights

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Published:   |   Updated: May 10, 2013 at 06:41 AM
TAMPA -

With Memorial Day, the beginning of the summer travel season, fast approaching and a potential four-day weekend for July Fourth, travelers finalizing vacation plans may find some surprises when they shop for airfares.

For the first time in recent years, many airfares are down slightly, including fares to seven of the top 10 destinations for people traveling from Tampa this summer, data from Orbitz.com show.

Staying close to home and splurging on a hotel and a trip to the beach could be promising as well: Orbitz.com rated Tampa the most affordable U.S. summer destination in 2013, followed by Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas and Denver.

More than 3 in 4 Americans will take a summer vacation this year, with the largest proportion, 42 percent, headed to a beach, the online travel agency reported.

“With the economy continuing to rebound, we're seeing consumers move away from settling on a shorter summer road trip and thinking more about that big vacation,” said Jeanenne Tornatore, Orbitz.com's senior editor.

“Airfare has taken a dip from last summer, and there are great deals available for promotions and mobile bookings,” she said

Round-trip fares between Tampa International Airport and New York from June 1 to Aug. 31 have declined 37 percent over the same period a year ago to an average of $185.73, the online travel agency reported.

Airfares between Tampa and Boston are down 26 percent to $220.94, and those between Tampa and Washington have dropped 23 percent to $194.32.

However, airfares between Tampa and Las Vegas are up 26 percent to an average of $388.53, and those between Tampa and Seattle rose 9 percent to $463.39.

Airfares for the Memorial Day holiday to various destinations from Tampa are up $6 from a year ago to $377, Travelocity.com reported, based on its bookings.

But Tampa can expect a lot of visitors this Memorial Day, Travelocity spokesman Joel Frey said. Tampa is the 16th most popular destination for Memorial Day among Travelocity.com bookings, up from 23rd a year, Frey said.

Since Southwest Airlines does not sell tickets through those online travel agents, its fares are not included in the data they developed.

Southwest has made some small increases, ranging from $2 to $10 each way, during the past year, spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger said. “While fares will be up by a small percentage this summer, it's not much,” she said.

“The most important thing for customers traveling Southwest this summer is that we offer the first two checked bags for free,” Eichinger said. “When families are traveling, these fees can add up quickly and really add on to your overall travel budget.”

Southwest also does not charge for changing a reservation after booking a flight, which could cost up to $200 at other airlines if the change is not made within 24 hours of booking.

Some websites that do not book travel have emerged to help consumers keep abreast of the rapidly evolving airline travel market.

Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com, which offers advice and news of deals, said airfares on some routes might drop and others inch higher as airline mergers on some routes reduce competition.

“You might get a great bargain in one area. It's kind of hard to make a sweeping generality about the summer high season,” Banas said.

Prices motorists pay at
the gas pump might fall, but that won't necessarily be reflected in airfares. Airlines typically enter long-range contracts to hedge against the prospect of steep increases.

“Airlines use gas prices as an excuse to raise prices with a fuel surcharge,” Banas said.

But the main things travelers must watch these days are fees for checked and carry-on bags, preferred seats and changing a reservation.

For example, Allegiant Air, a discount carrier that flies from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport to 25 nonstop destinations, this week offered a round-trip fare to Bangor, Maine, during mid-July of $239.98, compared with the best fare for those days from Tampa International Airport of $423.60 on Delta Air Lines, a difference of $183.62.

Allegiant's fare does not include a $14.99 charge for booking with an Allegiant agent at its call center, rather than buying a ticket at the terminal.

Add a $4 fee for using a credit card rather than debit, the $50 cost for a checked bag each way to and from Maine, $50 each way for a personal item that doesn't fit beneath the seat and is placed in the overhead rack, and the price of travel increases to $458.97.

But a savvy traveler who checks Allegiant's fee schedule could save $40.02 by prepaying for the checked bag and $64 by prepaying for the carry-on, lowering the price to $354.95.

That's $118.65 less than the price of travel from Tampa International, including Delta's fee for a checked bag each way at $25.

This year, before the peak summer travel season to Europe, round-trip flights from Tampa were available for less than $1,000. Summer fares have been higher this year than in the past two or three years, said Mathias Friess, chief executive of Tampa-based Webjet.com, which specializes in international bookings.

A former airline executive who directed North American sales for Lufthansa in New York and was general manager of national sales for Virgin Blue in Australia, Friess said round-trip fares between Tampa and Europe generally start around $1,500 this summer.

Webjet's computer model for locating inexpensive airfares is attuned to finding routings that can benefit leisure travelers who are willing to spend a little more time between connecting flights.

Webjet found flights between Tampa and six major cities in Europe in mid-August with airfares of $1,175 to $1,494, about $300 less than typical fares.

“South America is also very popular,” Friess said, referring to airfares to destinations south of the equator, where it's winter when it's summer here.

International airfares at Orlando International Airport, with its greater number and variety of international flights, often can be less than at Tampa, he said.

But the good news this summer: Prices for nonstop and connecting international flights Webjet researched for mid-August basically were the same from the two cities to six major European destinations, such as a $1,240 round-trip to London from Tampa, compared with $1,276 from Orlando.


tjackovics@tampatrib.com

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