Travel

As the summer travel season nears, prices are rising for airfare and car rentals

Ask anyone who’s been traveling during the pandemic, and they’ll tell you that the travel experience is changing.

That’s such an understatement, but it’s an accurate description. It’s not just the flights that are more expensive. Nor is it the shortage of rental cars. It’s not fair to blame vaccination requirements and mask mandates, either. Rather, it’s that all of these things are happening at once.

For my flight Friday morning, I was looking forward to seeing what the airport looked like in the new “masks are optional” mode. By my calculation, fewer than 10% of the people at the airport were wearing masks.

At the gate, right before boarding, Alaska Airlines canceled the flight. There was no pilot to fly the plane. Thankfully, the staff at the gate rebooked me for the next flight 90 minutes later.

While planning my last-minute trip to Fairbanks on Thursday night, it was a challenge getting a rental car. I finally found a brand-new Jeep Cherokee at Alaska 4x4 Rentals. The cost was almost as much as my airline ticket. And my last-minute ticket was expensive.

The shock-and-awe of pricing and availability certainly is not limited to cities in Alaska, though. But it’s rough right here. Airlines are having a tough time staffing up for increased travel demand. Some carriers are cutting flights. And rental car companies still can’t find enough cars.

“I could use an extra 400-500 cars here in Anchorage,” said Gary Zimmerman, general manager of three rental car brands in Anchorage: Hertz, Dollar and Thrifty.

If you can’t find a hotel room, it may not mean that every room is booked. Rather, there may not be enough staff to clean the rooms.

Looking at travel prices in the U.S., pricing is up and availability is limited. Reports that air prices had gone up 40% in recent months is an over-simplification, I think. But almost everything costs more — and prices continue to rise.

Just last month, it was easy to find a ticket from Anchorage to New York for $111 one-way. Earlier this year, prices were hovering around $103 one-way.

If you want to fly in late June, United has a daily nonstop flight, priced around $1,023 round-trip. Alaska Airlines offers one-stop service via Seattle for about $851 round-trip.

Renting a car in Newark isn’t cheap, either. A two-day weekend rental will cost about $228. A one-day midweek rental costs more: about $199 per day. To check rental car rates, I used Costco’s rental car search engine. You have to be a member to book it, but I’ve found it to be a dependable source.

Are you flying to Chicago? Last month, I found tickets for $127 one-way on nonstop flights with United and Alaska Airlines. For travel in late June, Alaska offers one-stop service for $561 round-trip. United’s nonstops are running $608 round-trip. For comparison’s sake, I picked a June 29 departure for a weeklong stay. Prices vary — which means they could cost much more, but not much less.

To rent a car over the weekend, the cost was $273 for two days. With Costco’s search engine, you’ll find four companies featured: Avis, Budget, Alamo and Enterprise. That’s really just two companies, though, since Avis and Budget are owned by the same company. Alamo is owned by Enterprise, which also owns National.

To Denver, prices hovered around $149 one-way for most of the winter. But traveling in late June will cost more: $563 round-trip on Delta, via Seattle or Salt Lake. Alaska Airlines has a nonstop: $638 round-trip. A rental car for two days will cost around $273 round-trip.

Between Anchorage and San Francisco, both United and Alaska offer summertime nonstops. They’re more expensive than one-stop service this summer. For most of the winter, one-stop flights were selling for $139 one-way. Traveling in June costs more: $460 round-trip on Delta via Seattle, or nonstop on Alaska Airlines for $556 round-trip. Cars cost more, too: around $314 for a two-day weekend rental.

Even Seattle prices are going up. Last month the prevailing rate was $99 one-way on either Alaska or Delta. That price doubles if you’re traveling in late June. I couldn’t find a single car for rent in late June on the Costco site. So I went to Hertz and found a two-day rental for $398.

It’s one thing to have prices go up on regularly scheduled flights. It’s another thing when the flights are canceled. And it’s happening on both domestic and international carriers.

Icelandair canceled its Anchorage-Reykjavik schedule altogether. But other international carriers are canceling flights, too. Eurowings Discover, a subsidiary of Lufthansa, had scheduled three flights a week from Anchorage to Frankfurt starting June 1. But now, the first flight is June 13.

Condor Airlines also is flying Anchorage-Frankfurt, starting May 21. But the airline canceled its first two Sunday flights, May 22 and 29.

Flair Airlines, the super-cheap Canadian airline, was slated to start flying to Vancouver, British Columbia, on May 20. But the carrier pushed the launch back by more than a month, to June 24.

Alaska Airlines is reducing its schedule to several destinations. The Anchorage-Salt Lake daily nonstop was supposed to launch June 17. Now the first flight is on June 18, but will operate only once a week through the summer.

Alaska’s daily nonstop service from Anchorage to Minneapolis was supposed to launch the same day, June 17. But now Alaska is flying Saturday and Sunday only until July 1, when daily service begins.

Schedule changes and cancellations happen all the time. But these are last-minute changes, brought on in part by labor shortages, the pandemic, increased demand and fuel prices. As scheduled flights are canceled, it adds more upward pressure on fares for the remaining flights.

My rescheduled flight to Fairbanks was a success — and it’s beautiful here in the Golden Heart City. I’m not really upset about my original flight being canceled, either. I got a note saying that the pilot’s wife went into labor at the last moment, which is why he called out.

Scott McMurren

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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