Americans will pay out a little more to get where they want to go this holiday season, according to travel industry analysts.
Air fares are up 17 to 18 percent on average over last year in a review released by farecompare.com. Statewide gas prices could be at a yearly high and at least 12 percent higher than the same period a year ago, AAA North Dakota reports.
Strong demand, both nationally and locally, is behind the higher air fares.
A ground crew directs a United Airlines plane to the Minot terminal during an inaugural flight in June. Minot welcomes the extra flights now that the busy holiday season is approaching.
"We are extremely busy," said Rhonda DeMakis, owner of International Travel Agency in Minot. "We are seeing a lot of travel for this winter. Anybody thinking about it needs to be planning now."
According to farecompare.com, the weak economy last year meant fewer travelers and better deals in mid-November as airlines sought to fill their seats. That's not happening this year. The number of travelers nationally is up, while capacity remains down because of cuts made by airlines earlier in the recession. That means more competition for the available seats, especially during the peak holiday travel times.
Minot has been fortunate to have increased its airline capacity this past year, adding flights to Denver and more flights to Minneapolis. Flights to Salt Lake City were introduced but rolled back.
"We could really use those Salt Lake flights back. It's made a big crunch since those two flights are gone. This is when we need those extra seats and we don't have them," said DeMakis, noting that winter travel to warmer destinations makes up a big part of North Dakota bookings.
Minot travel agents say airline seats remain available for the holidays, but people may have to look harder and be more flexible about their travel plans. Finding connecting flights at other airports can be a challenge.
Michele Schrader, manager at Preferred Travel in Minot, said it has helped that Minot has alternatives because many local flights are full for holiday travel and people need to look at different airlines and different flight times. Schrader said it's a good idea to book your flight six months to a year out, especially when flying during a peak travel time. She's already booking people on flights through the end next year, so if you intend to travel for Christmas 2011, make your plans now. It's not too early, she said.
Andrew Maragos, manager at Travel Connection Centre in Minot, said Minot's flights to Las Vegas have created opportunities for some people to make connecting flights to other southwestern locales. He added that prices remain reasonable on Amtrak, although seat availability is limited going east beyond Minneapolis.
The highways also could be busy this holiday season. Gene LaDoucer, spokesman for AAA North Dakota, West Fargo, said $3-a-gallon gas prices aren't likely to detour travelers.
"People have become accustomed to paying prices in this range," he said.
The statewide average price of gasoline on Nov. 8 was $2.93.
A year ago, the November average was $2.70 and the December average was $2.66.
Instead of following the historical trend of dropping in the fall when demand slumps, gas prices held steady. The statewide, peak average price this year was about $3 in May.
"Inventories are strong," LaDoucer said. "Demand is weak as we approach the winter season. Generally at this time of year we would see gasoline prices move lower, but what we are seeing is the federal government recently took action to jumpstart the economy. It has resulted in a weaker dollar, which has the effect of increased prices for gasoline and oil. ... That, plus signs that the economy may be turning around, has speculators investing more in gasoline and oil, which is forcing the gasoline prices somewhat higher. We don't know how long that's going to last, whether the fundamentals of supply and demand will keep a lid on it."
But for the near term, he said, it looks like travelers can expect gas prices to remain higher than they were last year.