Manhattan art gallery partner Axel Katz found himself with far more free time than usual when his Dacia Gallery temporarily closed in March 2020 and he recovered from COVID-19 soon after. The 27-year-old filled the void that followed by traveling to destinations both domestic and abroad, scouring the internet for extreme airfare deals that started popping up during the coronavirus pandemic.
The low airfares he paid were almost as memorable as the sights he saw. In May 2020, Katz flew roundtrip from New York to Los Angeles for roughly $150. In January 2021, he purchased a $34 roundtrip ticket from New York to Naples, Florida.
Katz estimated he's taken nine trips in the past year, at times enjoying perks including entire rows of seats to himself as tourism vaporized. "I've never travelled this much in any other 12-month period," he said.
Today, empty planes and rock-bottom airfares are harder to come by as more Americans get vaccinated and. The accelerating vaccine rollout has also coincided with spring breaks and summer vacation planning, leading many Americans to online booking websites. Airlines are finding they no longer have to slash prices quite so heavily to draw leisure travelers.
"The deals between Thursday and Monday are not significantly better than they normally would be this time of year," said Bob Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Company, an airline industry consulting firm.
"There is still discounting out there," Mann added, "especially for mid-week travel, which is normally where business travelers are but they aren't now [with in-person business meetings still largely on hold]."
Busiest travel day of the year
Still, Americans who've been cooped up for more than a year, including college students, are now eager for recreational travel. Miami's popular party destination South Beach was overtaken by such large crowds of spring breakers that the city of Miami Beach on March 20 declared a state of emergency and imposed curfews from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. (The curfewthis week.)
The number of travelers passing through airports each day is ticking up, too. The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 1.5 million passengers Sunday, making it the busiest travel day of 2021 for the U.S., according to CBS News transportation correspondent Errol Barnett.
The number of airline passengers has exceeded 1 million for 11 straight days, according to the TSA, Barnett reported. That's despite recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention against traveling, and suggestions for Americans to delay trips or at east get vaccinated before traveling.
Fares no longer dirt-cheap, but still low
Industry analysts say airfares have been inching upward since last month, as vulnerable groups of Americans gained access to the vaccine and COVID-19 business restrictions began to loosen.
Travel expert and Harrell Associates founder Bob Harrell, who tracks airline-pricing trends, said "shockingly low" pandemic fares are rising again as "leisure travelers come out of their holes, get vaccines, and starting moving around and going on spring break."
"As demand finds its way into the market, the airlines are increasing prices," Harrell told CBS MoneyWatch.
The average minimum domestic leisure fare — meaning the cheapest available one-way ticket price on the market — across 300 different routes for the week of March 16, 2020, was $52, according to Harrell's analysis, based on data from airlines and online booking sites. That rose 14% this year to $59 for the week of March 15, 2021.
Fares have been rising steadily by the week, too. That $59 low represents a 6% jump from $56 — the lowest average fare for the week of March 8.
For a week in mid-March in 2020, the lowest available one-way fare from Dallas Fort Worth International Airport in Texas to San Jose International Airport in California was a mere $84. A year later, the lowest available fare for the same route is already in the triple digits — an increase of 33% to $112. The lowest one-way rate for a flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Orlando, Florida, has also jumped, from $18 to $34 over the course of a year, according to Harrell's analysis.
While fares are starting to rise across the online booking site Expedia, they have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. "Airfare prices are still lower overall compared to 2019," a company spokesperson said.
Currently, prices for mid-April, one-way flights from New York City to Orlando on Expedia start at around $230, compared to an average price of $300 for the same route in 2019.
"It's worth noting that we are seeing airlines respond to the increased demand, so these lower prices aren't likely to last too much longer, especially for popular destinations and routes," the Expedia spokesperson said.
Last call for low fares
Despite signs of life in the tourism industry, data from fare aggregator Kayak show it's still a good time to save money on travel, even if airfares are starting to rise. Searches for summer travel have been increasing by up to 27% each week since the beginning of the month, according to a Kayak spokesperson.
The search site recommends that travelers book trips now to lock in relatively low fares before the travel industry rebounds in earnest. Its data already show an average monthly price increase of 7% for the 100 most-searched destinations from the U.S. Prices for flights to Destin, Florida, for example, the site's top trending destination for summer travel, are up 60% this year.
For a sweet deal, consider Mexico, Kayak suggests. Average prices on flights to Cancun, Cabo San Lucas and Mexico City are still down at least 15%.