Travel expert Edward Hasbrouck has good news and bad news for airline passengers in 2004, depending on where they’re flying.

The good news is that airfares will probably remain at the lowest levels in years for destinations served by discount airlines such as Southwest, AirTran and ATA.

Discount carriers are expanding their fleets at an aggressive clip, with some long-standing orders for new airplanes to be filled in 2004.

“There are a lot of cheap airline seats coming soon,” said Hasbrouck, author of “The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace.”

The bad news is that airfares are increasing for destinations not covered by discount airlines. It means that travelers headed to smaller cities in rural states probably will pay more and have fewer flights to choose from.

“Someone flying from Chicago to Los Angeles will be a winner in this game,” Hasbrouck said. “Someone flying from a small city in the South to Billings, Montana, will be the loser.”

With the current low airfares, it can be cheaper to fly than to drive to some places. A Midwest Airlines round-trip flight from Milwaukee to Phoenix, for example, would cost $282.50 in early January. That includes $36.90 in taxes and fees.

Driving the same round trip – a total of 3,774 miles – would cost $490.62 in gasoline, oil and tire wear, according to AAA Traveler magazine. The driving figure is based on 13 cents per mile, an average cost for a 2003 Ford Taurus.

Holiday travel

Several major airlines offered discounts on business-class travel to Europe during the Christmas holidays of 2001 and 2002.

“But this year it seems that only Northwest Airlines will be selling the (cheap) fares, which can be as much as 80 percent below normal business-class prices,” said Joe Brancatelli, who has a business travel Web site called JoeSentMe.com.

Some of the best travel deals will come in the first two weeks of January when people are still recovering from the holidays, said Jacqueline Marks, director of marketing/regional management for Mark Travel Corp. in Bayside, Wis.

“Prices will start shooting up once those two weeks are over, because that’s when everyone wants to get back into traveling,” she said.

The best airfares between now and New Year’s Eve are almost gone, Hasbrouck added. “Run, don’t walk, if you haven’t already booked that flight,” he said.

There’s not one Web site or other source that will give travelers all their airfare options. Fares for the same airline can vary considerably from one source to the next.

Hasbrouck suggests checking at least three places for the best deals including Orbitz.com, discount airlines that aren’t listed on Orbitz and Web sites like Hotwire.com and OneTravel.com.

“Don’t fall in the trap of looking in just one place,” he said.

It cost about $437 to buy a domestic, round-trip airline ticket in the third quarter of this year, down 6 percent from the second quarter, according to figures released last week by Runzheimer International, a travel management firm based in Rochester, Wis.

Runzheimer’s data came from a survey of corporate travel managers.

The $437 figure was an average of all airfares, including first-class seats and expensive last-minute travel.

Peak travel weeks and business-class flights aside, many airfares will remain low well into 2005 as the discount airlines continue their expansions, Hasbrouck predicts.

“It’s all about supply and demand,” he said. “As these airlines add more seats, they either are going to fly them empty or keep fares low enough to fill them.”

Aggressive cuts in capacity at the major airlines have slowed or bottomed out, Hasbrouck said. “It’s a real change from the last two years.”


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