Dallas Many airline passengers are reporting sticker shock when making their summer travel plans.
Airlines have raised fares repeatedly this year, citing higher jet fuel costs. But travel agents say the main reason airlines are raising prices is that they can.
With the booming economy putting more money in people's pockets, more people want to go places for vacation.
"Prices are definitely up. Fuel is part of it, but I think it's mostly because demand is up," said Joe Galloway, owner of Transcontinental Travel in Houston. "The planes I've been on are full."
So far this year, the major airlines have imposed three widespread fare increases, starting with a $20 fuel surcharge in January and, most recently, a May increase of up to $30 per round trip.
"It's ridiculous," said Jamie Behan of Conyers, Ga., as she led her husband and twin 4-year-old daughters through the Atlanta airport before a flight to San Francisco. "We must have paid $50 more each than we thought we would. And that's spending money."
According to the Air Transport Association, the trade group representing major U.S. airlines, the average per-mile fare paid by travelers rose 2.5 percent from January to June.
Despite the higher prices, planes are more crowded. Domestic passenger traffic rose 7.7 percent over last May, the trade group said. The occupancy of an average jetliner was 73.6 percent in May, up from 69.7 percent a year ago.
While average fares for business and leisure travelers are rising, there are still bargains out there. It's not unusual for airlines to raise base fares, then engage in price wars on some highly competitive routes. Internet sales, "unpublished" rates and corporate rates also provide discounts.
Aviation consultant Bob Harrell, who tracks the lowest-priced leisure fares on 20 major routes, said widespread fare sales are actually slightly more common this year than a year ago.
In May, the advertised price of those cheapest seats was 11 percent lower than a year ago, though Harrell conceded he doesn't know how many people were actually able to get those low prices.
The sometimes conflicting numbers mean that vacationers should hunt for bargains but be patient and willing to change dates or even destinations, travel agents say.
"If you want to buy a swimsuit after July Fourth, you'll get a cheaper suit, but you might not get your size," Harrell said.
Selection appears especially limited for travel to Europe, where air fares are higher than last summer and hotel rooms in some popular destinations are in short supply. Galloway said one of his clients on Monday had to settle for their second-choice hotel in Florence, Italy, and he added that Paris and London accommodations have also been tight.
"It's not a problem getting a ticket, the problem is getting the right price," grumbled Edward Parker, a free-lance photographer from England who was visiting Chicago and trying to change his flight to Hungary.
Terry Trippler, who follows air fares for online discount travel agency 1travel.com, said he expects another fuel-related fare increase before June is out.