Airlines have unleashed a spate of discount fares as they try to drum up business during the slow winter months, but travelers might need to search a little harder this year for the best post-holiday bargains.
Carriers typically offer fare sales once the new year begins as travel demand slows until spring. Several major carriers have started fare sales in recent days. Carriers beginning sales this week include American Airlines, ATA Airlines, AirTran Airways, Frontier Airlines and United Airlines.
But experts say the fare sales aren't quite as generous this winter as in past years.
"It's not as deep as it was a year ago," said Terry Trippler, an airline analyst with travel site Cheapseats.com who monitors fares. "There's nothing too exciting there."
Airfares rose steadily last year, driven mainly by high jet-fuel prices and cutbacks in flights. Average fares today are about $40 higher than a year ago, Trippler said.
"Airlines have figured out that they can raise fares and people will still travel," he said.
Fares along the East Coast are also likely to be affected by the shutdown of Independence Air, a discount airline based in Washington, D.C., that closed its doors Thursday. Independence, which filed for bankruptcy protection last year, slashed many fares in its final months in what some analysts dubbed "panic pricing."
The airline "disrupted pricing in the market disproportionate to its size," said analyst Ray Neidl of Calyon Securities in an investment report.
Trippler advises bargain hunters to check a variety of airlines before purchasing a ticket. He also said the biggest travel savings might come from hotel or rental-car rates rather than airline fares.
"This is a great time to get a really cheap hotel room," Trippler said. "It's still the best time of year to travel if you're looking for bargains."