Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines have all joined United Airlines in ditching change fees for flights within the U.S.
Anyone who has checked the prices of flights online lately may be shocked at what they are seeing.
Here are some sample Halloween weekend getaways from Google Flights, as seen on the site Monday, for flights leaving Thursday, Oct. 28, and returning Sunday, Nov. 1.
- Los Angeles to Chicago: $125 round trip on United Airlines
- Minneapolis to Orlando, Florida: $147 round trip on Sun Country Airlines
- Cleveland to Miami: $150 round trip on American Airlines
- Seattle to Denver: $107 round trip on Delta Air Lines
It’s not just those dates or that platform. Choose any.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, some airfares appear so low that they look as if the airlines might have posted them by mistake. Yet the screaming bargains can also be viewed as cruel irony: Relatively few customers will dare to take advantage of the low fares out of fear of contracting COVID-19 while traveling,a risk for which there seems to be no general agreement yet.
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For those willing to take the chance, however, these may be once-in-a-lifetime deals.
Airlines’ normal pricing mechanisms have been thrown out of whack by the cratering of travel. Planes have been averaging about one-third full in recent weeks and carriers collectively losing about $5 billion a month, according to their trade group, Airlines for America. Airlines have answered by drastically cutting prices to fill seats.
Even at those levels, many travelers aren’t biting, especially when some of the biggest discounts are to destinations that have strict quarantine requirements that are sure to ruin any vacation and basically put them off-limits to all but returning residents.
New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have maintained one of the country’s strictest quarantine requirements – 14 days for anyone arriving from 35 states and territories that either have a positive test rate for the coronavirus higher than 10 per 100,000 residents or a testing positivity rate of 10% over a seven-day rolling average.
If you’d booked over the past few days, you could have flown from Atlanta to New York for as little as $71 round trip on United, leaving on Oct. 27 and returning Oct. 31, but Georgia is one of the states included among those requiring quarantine.
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Yeah, it’s cheap, but is flying safe?
There’s also the matter of personal safety.
Experts say anyone who wants to travel shouldn’t just look for low fares but rather also try to discern whether the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, is on the increase at their destination. COVID-19 rates may be low now, but they could rise by the time of the trip.
“Now we really have to start our research on a destination by looking at its public health landscape,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst for the Atmosphere Research Group. “You don’t want to buy a ticket to a place that may not be healthy.”
Would-be travelers also need to check out entry or testing requirements. One popular tourism state, Hawaii, will allow travelers to test for the coronavirus in lieu of a 14-day quarantine starting Thursday, but there are lots of rules and caveats.
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As for the trip itself, experts are divided. Harteveldt is among those who believe that passengers who take precautions by wearing a mask continuously and trying to distance from others should be fine. There has been no proof that the virus is easily transmitted on planes.
Two recent studies, however, raised questions about whether passengers can catch the virus on a plane. They were based on examples early in the pandemic and didn’t indicate whether passengers wore masks, as is now required by all major U.S. airlines.
Visitors take in the cherry blossoms at Ueno Park in Tokyo in March. The coronavirus pandemic is sending airfares to rock-bottom levels, including some deals to Tokyo. (Photo: BEHROUZ MEHRI, AFP via Getty Images)
For those willing to take the chance, there’s always a chance to score even lower prices than the everyday bargains.
Travel is likely to slow during the first week of November as the nation is distracted by Election Day, resulting in even better deals, Harteveldt said. He noted, too, that passengers might want to check out package deals for hotel, car and airlines, which can shave another 10% off the total price.
Prices are so low that some appear to travelers like the rare “mistake fares” in which technology snafus lead to airlines posting ridiculously low fares for a few minutes or hours until they are discovered, said Darci Valiente, member operations specialist for Scott’s Cheap Flights, an online service that tips members to especially juicy deals.
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International deals abound, too
It isn’t just domestic travel lighting up bargain hunters.
Valiente points to recent deals on American Airlines to South American destinations that were good through next July, like San Francisco to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for $291 round trip; Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Guayaquil, Ecuador, for $191; or Washington, D.C., to Santiago, Chile, at $297. Those are the kind of trips that normally could go for up to $1,200, she said.
At one point, Air Canada was offering flights from Pittsburgh to Tokyo at $173 round trip, she said. The offer, which like some of the others, didn’t last long, was good through April – just in time for cherry blossom season.
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No one knows what the COVID-19 situation will be like through the middle of next year or whether countries might close or reclose their borders. Japan is closed to Americans and Canadians. And the CDC continues to warn Americans against travel to much of the world even to countries that allow visitors.
With many airlines having eliminated change fees – charging passengers when they change their itineraries – booking becomes less of a gamble.
“A lot of people are looking to 2021, and a lot of us have our fingers and toes crossed about getting back to normal,” Valiente said.
Of course, when things get back to normal, airfares are sure to rise. Even in the short term, airlines that have been depending on federal stimulus money may cut money-losing flights now that the relief payments have run out. They are no longer required to keep them as a condition of receiving aid. Congress is yet to work out a new relief package.
So for now, there are “a lot of deals,” Valiente said. But “people are very nervous to travel.”
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