NEW YORK -- Hoping to get a good deal on summer travel? Start planning now.
Spring is still two weeks away, but airfares for summer are rising fast. Many fare-watchers think summer prices will be significantly higher than last year.
In past years, some savvy travelers who held out on buying tickets reaped the reward when prices fell. But fleet and route cutbacks have given airlines more of an upper hand than at any time since before the recession. Hotels and rental car companies are also raising prices.
Large U.S. airlines have collectively tried to raise prices four times this year and succeeded twice. Those price hikes, as little as $5 apiece, are expected to accelerate in April and May.
How much ticket prices go up will depend largely on the price of fuel, often an airline's biggest expense. The average fare was 9 percent higher in January than a year earlier, according to the trade group Airlines for America.
So what's a traveler to do?
Study early: Start looking for a summer airfare about three months ahead of time (That's right about … now.) If the fares seem too rich for your blood, don't panic. Just because fares are higher than last year doesn't mean they won't fall between now and your summer vacation.
If you're worried about waiting, use this trick: Select the flight you want and start booking it online. When you hit the point where you select a seat, look at the seat map. If it's still fairly empty, wait. It's likely the airline will lower prices to fill those seats.
Shop around: All travel booking Web sites are not created equal. Some may offer lower prices than others. There are also benefits to visiting different types of sites. Expedia and Orbitz offer package deals that can save you hundreds of dollars if you're booking a hotel or rental car together with airfare.
Those with fare predictor technology, such as Bing.com, let travelers know if it's a good time to book. And Southwest advertises fares only on its own site, so it's important to check there if the airline flies to your area.
More airlines are also offering sales on their own Web sites to draw traffic there.
And to ensure you're getting the best deal, don't forget fare alerts. You can set up alerts for specific destinations, or general ones for your departure city, at airfarewatchdog.com or farecompare.com. Twitter is also a great place to find deals. Follow airlines that fly from your home airport as well as a handful of travel sites to cover all your bases.
Be flexible: Don't just compare airlines. It's important to compare airports, too.