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Rising airfares will make it harder to save on vacations this summer: experts

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MONTREAL - If you've been procrastinating on plans for the family's summer vacation, you're going to need to move fast as rising airfares and packed flights have made it tough to find deals, but there are still a few tricks that could help, experts say.

Ticket prices are up one per cent for travel this summer — and that's on top of last year when they were the highest in eight years, said Rick Seaney, CEO of U.S.-based travel website FareCompare.com.

There are several other factors working against late planners, including a number of mega airline mergers in the United States that have put a damper on price competition.

Airlines have also been cutting seat capacity over the last few years in the face of high fuel prices and a weak economy, leaving the industry with fuller planes and less incentive to offer great deals to customers.

"This summer people are going to be shopping for airfares and getting some sticker shock in certain cases," Seaney said in an interview from Dallas.

But he remained optimistic that strategic planning could still unearth a few good deals.

One approach is to plan your trip outside of peak vacation periods, but considering that summer travel season is upon us, you'll have to be a little more crafty.

Consider flying during the last 10 days in August because fewer families embark on big vacations when the kids are about to return to school, which means airlines begin to offer more discounts.

And be prepared to react quickly to a good ticket price, because often they don't stick around.

The best deals this year are Ireland, Germany, Switzerland and Spain, while prices are higher on flights to London, Paris and Rome. Korea and Tokyo are cheaper while Australia offers off-season deals.

Prices within Canada are relatively stable because there's just not enough competition to push prices down too much, said Seaney.

Industry observers don't believe that Air Canada Rouge or WestJet Encore will have much immediate impact on fares because they will each operate just a few aircraft this summer.

For travel to the U.S., consider major cities like Austin and San Antonio which are both trying to boost tourism. Fort Lauderdale is in stiff competition with nearby Miami, which often benefits vacationers. There's also last-minute weekend deals and July 4 sales for those who don't mind being spontaneous.

The key to finding a bargain is to compare offers and be willing to take less convenient flights to save the 10 to 30 per cent premium for non-stop flights.

"It's important that consumers shop multiple channels," said Robert Kokonis, president of airline consulting firm AirTrav Inc.

He suggests passengers look at airline websites as well as online sites like Expedia, Travelocity and itravel2000 and fare aggregators like kayak.com and Hotwire. Flight Network promises to give consumers a credit for future flights if their current flights drop in price.

Neighbourhood travel agents are a handy source for more complicated travel or where advice is needed about specific hotels or cruises.

Another way is to avoid airlines altogether by taking a road trip or booking with Via Rail for travel in the Quebec City to Windsor corridor. Seats have been going for as little as $22 in economy and $55 in business class.

For those who insist on flying, they can avoid higher taxes by departing from an airport in the United States. The decision can save hundreds of dollars for a family, but travellers should be aware of baggage fees, charges to change flights, and other costs not included in the ticketed price.

Also keep in mind that more than two-thirds of all airline sales occur Monday evening, so the best time to shop is between Tuesday afternoon and Thursday evening when airlines try to match lower fares.

Vacationers can also save by travelling on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday.

Sometimes procrastination pays off, however, when it comes to booking hotel rooms, packages or cruises as many companies slash prices to fill space.

A weak European economy has made hotels relatively inexpensive outside the main tourism meccas. An alternative is to rent an apartment or even room through websites such as www.airbnb.com or www.homeaway.ca.

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