Why Are Flights So Expensive Right Now? | Cost of Flying in 2023

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Why Are Flights So Expensive Right Now?

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Travelers looking for flights for a trip this spring, summer, and beyond are confronting the same problem: Flights can be really expensive right now – in some cases, we're seeing some of the highest airfare in years. But, that's not the full story…

It's been a rude awakening for travelers after two-plus years of unbelievable pandemic bargains: Think sub-$50 domestic flights on major carriers, $200 roundtrip flights to Europe, and even a $63 flight to Chile and back. But what's gone around has come back around as travelers face skyrocketing fares for many domestic flights and international trips, too.

Those eye-popping prices bring up a slew of questions. Why are flights so expensive right now? Can travelers expect flight prices to rise more this year? When will flight prices go down? Or will they at all?

Struggling to find a better deal on flights? Check out our quick tips on how to score a bargain right now!

Let's dig into what's happening with sky-high flight prices and see if we can find that light at the end of the tunnel, too.


Are Flight Prices Going Up?

Yes. That's undeniable. You've no doubt seen some eye-popping prices on flights lately.

It's not just you. Data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index shows a 25.6% increase in airfare from last January to January 2023. That means right now, on average, Americans are paying a quarter more for flights than they did a year ago. And, that year-over-year number has been even higher in previous months.

But hold up: That doesn't mean every single flight is more expensive. “Average airfare” is made up of millions of individual fares. Some are no doubt higher … but there are still many great deals out there for cheap flights. The trick is knowing how, when, and where to find them.

why are flights so expensive right now

That's what we specialize in here at Thrifty Traveler. Our team of flight deal experts spends all day, every day searching for the lowest airfares and ticket prices around the world and sends them straight to the inbox of our Thrifty Traveler Premium subscribers.

We're proof that cheap flight deals are still out there – and they aren't going anywhere. It may just be a bit harder to find them than in years past.


Why Are Flights So Expensive Right Now?

So why are flight prices so high right now? It's a concept you're already familiar with: Supply and demand.

After it nearly evaporated in 2020, demand for travel is fully back in 2023 and isn't going anywhere. In fact, it might be higher than ever. That's good and bad news.

As with all things, one of the biggest factors behind flight prices is the simple law of supply and demand. When demand disappeared at the start of the pandemic a few years ago, it forced airlines to cut the supply of flights until it returned. Airlines downsized their staff, dropped routes, and reduced flight frequencies, running just 20% of their normal operations or less.

With next to no appetite for travel, they slashed fares to unthinkable lows to generate whatever sales they could, like this: A flight from Atlanta (ATL) to Santiago (SCL) that normally costs $900 or more … for just $63 roundtrip.


Want to see some more deals like this? Sign up to get our alerts for cheap flights … for free!

However, things have changed, Travel demand has steadily climbed back to levels we haven't seen since before the pandemic, outpacing airlines' ability to carry all those passengers.

Planes are regularly going out completely full now, especially within the U.S. After putting planes in the desert, retiring jets, and downsizing staff to survive the downturn, airlines have been unable to grow back to 100% fast enough to cope with this surge in demand.

Airline hiring chart from Airlines for America 

As you can see, airline staffing dipped to unthinkable lows in 2020 and 2021 and airlines have gone on an unprecedented hiring tear over the last year to try to meet that rising demand. But with all the training required and a younger, more inexperienced workforce, a higher headcount isn't enough for them to do so.

Combined with ongoing pilot shortages and difficulty replacing the planes they retired, that staffing mismatch has been a major factor in rising airfare. The supply of flights has been unable to keep up with the demand to fly.

Finally, there's one critical number that will help you understand why flight prices seem to be so high right now: The cost of jet fuel is very high. 

Jet fuel chart Airlines for america 

After labor, fuel is airlines' second-biggest cost. And that's not a great trend line for airlines. Over and over again, we've heard major airline CEOs promising to pass along the cost of jet fuel to the consumer. Translation? Fares have to go up.

“Higher jet fuel prices lead to higher ticket prices,” United CEO Scott Kirby told CNBC's Squawk on the Street in 2021. “Ultimately, we'll pass that through.”

At the end of the day, supply and demand ultimately win out in these situations. But the high ticket prices you're seeing might also have something to do with how expensive it is for airlines to fuel planes right now.


When Will Flight Prices Go Down?

If prices are up 25% compared to last year, are they going to come back down to earth? Or will flight prices just keep rising by a quarter every year until we invent teleportation and stop flying altogether?

Although it's hard to accurately predict if prices will drop, recent data trends actually show that we're heading in the right direction.

Airfare in January 2023 was actually down 1.4% compared to the previous month. That month, December 2022, was actually 2.1% cheaper on average than November. And November was 1.6% cheaper than October on average, too. So we might be heading incrementally in the right direction, even if it doesn't always feel like it.

Plus, according to data from the lobbying group Airlines for America, when compared to pre-pandemic fares in 2019, it appears flight prices peaked in May 2022.

Airlines for america fare growth chart 

So was May 2022 the worst of it? Or are we heading back into even higher airfare as 2023 marches on? The next few months will be telling.

But there's one reason we're optimistic about flight prices going down in 2023: Competition. If supply and demand is the principle behind airfare, competition between airlines is the game changer.

The airline industry is cutthroat. Every year, we see new players enter and exit the game and all of those airlines – old and new – are constantly targeting their competitors, offering dirt-cheap prices to undercut each other in hopes of winning more customers.

And undercut they do. Take a look at this example from late last year.

Miami to Athens fares 

The connection between competition and price here is undeniable. This unthinkably cheap fare to Greece from Delta was targeting American Airlines' territory in Miami (MIA), offering its competitors' customers a bonkers fare in exchange for making a connection in New York City (JFK).

It's a classic example of “fare wars” and how they always mean savings for you, the traveler.

But more importantly, the major carriers like Delta, American, and United aren't just fighting with each other anymore. With business travel not back to 100% and leisure travel roaring, even the biggest airlines have to compete with low-cost budget carriers like Spirit, Frontier, Sun Country, and new entrants like Avelo and Breeze. That's a recipe for some lower fares for the foreseeable future.

Overseas, budget carriers like PLAY Airlines and Norse Atlantic have helped spur some amazingly cheap flights to Europe – as low as $300 round-trip (or even less.)

For instance, when Norse Atlantic launched, it was offering crazy low fares flying to Oslo (OSL). So what did Delta and its partner airlines, Air France and KLM, do? They matched it.

NYC to Oslo fare 

Sure, you can snag a cheap flight on one of these barebones airlines. But they also routinely force major airlines like Delta, American, United, and their international partners to compete on price, too. And that's a win for consumers.

Read our reviews of what It's Like Flying PLAY and Norse Atlantic Airlines!

For now, we're still finding some dirt-cheap fares to Europe, though there's no question it's gotten a bit harder. The future of cheap flights hinges on that competition staying strong.

The bottom line: Average flight prices are going down, albeit slightly, and unbelievably cheap flights are still out there. You might be seeing some far-more expensive fares on the specific flights you're searching for, but healthy competition means we're heading in the right direction overall.


Where Can You Find Cheap Flights Right Now?

Seeing sky-high airfare almost everywhere you look? You're not alone. But trust us: Cheap flight deals are still out there.

Finding cheap flights is what we do here at Thrifty Traveler. We scour the globe for the lowest prices, weeding out the exorbitant fares and sending our Thrifty Traveler Premium (and Thrifty Traveler Premium+) members the best of the best deals. Here's a small sample.

While a quick domestic hop might cost you $500 or more, we've seen fares out to Hawaii from across the nation drop as low as $309 roundtrip – or under $200 from the West Coast!

hawaii flight deal 

Want flight deals like this one from your home airport? Try Thrifty Traveler Premium!

Seeing flights to Europe for $1,200 or more seems like the norm … but it's not. If you time it right, you can get to Paris for $476 roundtrip, Ireland this summer or fall for less than $400, or even out to Croatia for as low as $465 total.

chicago to zagreb fare 

Even somewhere dreamy like Tahiti is within reach in 2023. And with fares as low as $499 roundtrip – flying major carriers, not budget airlines – scratching it off your bucket list won't cost much.

la to tahiti flight deal 

Still not sold that you can find cheap flights? Follow these tips:


Bottom Line

Trying to predict when airfare prices will go up or down is more art than science. It can be unpredictable, given the puzzling sales we see from airlines day after day, year after year. Cash grabs, mistake fares, flash sales, and fare wars can spring up at any moment.

There are still bargains to be had now for future travel. You might be seeing sky-high flight prices right now, but with airlines increasing operations and competition heating up, we're feeling optimistic about the future of cheap flights as we all take to the skies in 2023.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

16 Responses

    • These are unprecedented times and I look forward to the unprecedented silver linings and opportunities that this environment will bring. YOLO! Thanks for the very informative articles and insights, guys! I’m a huge fan and have shared your site with many folks.

  • Been a travel agent for 50 years, and I for one, will not be boarding a plane/ship/train/bus
    for a very long time. It was my business, til the bookings stopped in February 24th.
    Low fares might help spur younger people, but older or hopefully, smarter people will want everyone on an airplane/ship/bus/train to wear a mask while underway. That’s simply not going to happen. Also, for the foreseeable future, the middle seat on airplanes should be empty–don’t know what that means for smaller carriers. NO MORE SELF SERVICE BUFFETS ANYWHERE/ANYPLACE/ANYTIME–no cruise ship, no restaurant, no wedding, no hotel, no conference should allow people to get their own food. No more sharing those ubiquitous serving utensils.
    Watching people breeze by the Purell dispensers on the last two cruises we took last year—
    even with an attendant standing there–arguing they had just washed their hands—
    will be enough to keep me and my clients from sailing. This is the saddest time ever to
    be a travel agent.

      • I think the opener “Been a travel agent for 50 years” is a pretty fair clue that this person hasn’t likely gone through life perpetually afraid, Mr./Ms. Knee-jerk Reaction. 😉
        Seriously though, Lyn is probably 70- to 80-years old demographic and at higher risk. We lost my stepmother, stepfather, great-uncle, and at least a dozen other friends/family (age range mid-70s to mid-90s) in 2020 and 2021 due to covid and/or accompanying pneumonia/complications. So while I’ve flown 14 times so far in 2022, I understand and appreciate that the older generation might not have that same POV.

  • You make some valid points! As travel slowly rebounds, one way airlines will be able to manage and control the supply is by blocking off the middle seat. As demand for air travel goes back up, continuing to limit the supply of seats (e.g. blocking off the middle seat) means they will be able to charge more for aisle and middle seats until demand is back to normal levels. I believe the unheard of flight deals we are all currently seeing are a shorter term trend to get some people back in the air. Will be interesting to see what happens!

  • Hey there, You’ve done a fantastic job. I抣l definitely digg it and personally recommend to my friends. I am confident they will be benefited from this website.

  • You can go anywhere to get fair prices on your trip from Detroit MI to Beijing China EXCEPT Delta. Before the pandemic a round trip from DTW to PEK was a little less than $ 1800 but now Delta charges over $ 11,000. A year ago they were charging over $ 6000 a round trip ticket. You can go to anywhere else and get fees in the $ 1800 – 2500 range. On top of all this the fees you paid for a trip just before the pandemic and then got a voucher instead doesn’t help anymore because it has expired. Delta is JOKE and ripping off the people. Don’t go Delta!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Air fares are out of hand if you want to travel with family. Trying ro go to Mexico and the fares have soared

  • Southwest used to be a low cost carrier. Now they are most expensive airlines.
    I was looking for a flight from Phenix to Baltimore and for any given date Southwest was at least double than the other airlines. Is there a reason? Are people still flying SWA?

  • And yet, all these carriers have publicly announced record breaking profits in the last 6 months alone. I refuse to buy this “woe is us” excuse of labor and jet fuel price increases as a convenient excuse to pass off insanely overpriced flight tickets.

  • Great article, very informative. Thanks for sharing your insights. The huge increase in jet fuel was a staggering number.

  • I live in Ireland and my job regularly takes me to Spain and Portugal. For a while, during the pandemic, you got one way flights as low as €10 (about US$11), but now you’ll pay 15 times that amount unless you are willing to arrive late at night. Car rental has also got very expensive – a car that used to cost about €9 ($10) per day now costs €25 ($28) or often much more.

    Sometimes one of the airlines makes a “mistake fare” and a one way ticket costs as low as 99c ($1.10), and while these are great – I immediately tell my friends about them – they rarely coincide with my business needs or agenda.

    For several years a car ferry has been operating between Ireland and Spain. It takes about 32 hours and costs about €350 ($390) one way which includes meals, accommodation etc. I load all my equipment into the car (no worries about 23kg/56lb bags, airport security etc), have a proper four course meal and breakfast on board, and arrive refreshed after a good night’s sleep. On the way back I can bring as much wine, brandy, beer (and excellent coffee) as I wish.

    So now I don’t fly to Spain or Portugal, unless I absolutely must. The ferry operator has introduced a new ferry on the Rosslare, Ireland to Bilbao, Spain route and it is so much nicer than being squashed in the middle seat for 3 hours being offered ridiculously priced coffee or sandwiches which have seen better days.

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