You see the eye-popping prices in headlines all over social media. "Spring flights to Spain are $340." "Flights to Italy are on sale for $400." This summer it seems like it's cheaper to fly from the East Coast to Barcelona than it is to fly to LA. And in your hurry to tag all your friends to come with you on your bargain-priced Mediterranean odyssey, did you ever stop to think: Why have these fares dropped so hard?
Like the NASDAQ or the price of real estate, there's no one single mover in such a complex market as air travel. But we chatted with Emily Fisher of Cheapflights.com, who we figured SHOULD know why flights are cheap. She broke down why Spain and Italy have become this year's discount darlings.
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Cheap flights to Italy mean… even more cheap flights to Italy
"A new airline will find a route and drop prices because they think they can make a name for themselves there," Fisher explains. "Then everyone else piles on. Low fares beget more low fares, and it becomes a kind of price war."
For example, after Norwegian Air made Oslo an affordable destination (to get to, anyway), it opened a hub in Rome. The slew of discount airlines operating transatlantic flights with connections through their home countries soon followed suit with Italian routes.
Add onto that regional airlines in Europe like TAP Portugal, airberlin, and Aer Lingus flying in, and you've got a recipe for dirt-cheap fares to the boot.
It's the same reason why last summer, London and Dublin saw stupid-low fares. This year the torch has been passed to Spain and Italy. Cheapflights' data shows that the average fares to popular cities in those countries have deflated like a bag of chips the second you open it. Booking 90 days out, the average Barcelona flight fell from $1,075 in 2016 to $631 this year (down 41%); Madrid went from $1,018 to $693 (down 32%); and Venice (minus-31%) and Rome (minus-27%).
These are just averages; it's possible to find flights to any of these cities from New York for 300-something bucks. If these fares were elevators your ears would be popping. Next year it might be Paris and Amsterdam. It just depends where the discount carriers decide they want to converge.
"Barcelona is another perfect example of collision of a lot of different airlines coming into play," Fisher says. "So now instead of just looking at Delta or United to get a flight to Spain, you've got TAP, airberlin, Aer Lingus, layered on top of deep-discount carriers like WOW and Norwegian."
Unbundling, cheap gas, and cheap euros play a role
Increased competition as a factor, yeah, you could've guessed that from the back row of freshman microeconomics. But airfares are a more complicated equation than simple supply and demand. The dollar's strength against the euro -- the greenback hit an all-time high just six months ago -- has played a big role. Cheap euros mean airlines' ground costs in Europe are far less than they used to be. Add in fuel that costs half what it did just a few years ago, and airlines are actually able to pass these savings along to the consumer.
Kind of. While the sexy, sub-$500 fares might get you clicking around the interwebs looking for things to do in Venice, you're probably not going to get a full-service traditional flying experience at that price.
The unbundling of airfares isn't just relegated to the world of basic economy domestic flights. Most of those super-cheap fares you see are just to get you from A to Barca as a piece of human cargo.
"Airlines make up the cost because back in the day, you got an assigned seat, you got a meal, you got booze, you got a free bag," Fisher says. "You're not getting that with these fares."
The airlines have also compressed spaces to pack in more people. WOW and Norwegian's regular coach seats have about 30 or 31in of pitch -- the distance between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat before or behind it. Emirates, as a point of reference, has about 34in of pitch in coach. So if you want that level of "comfort," you'll have to pay for their "premium" seats.
Get in on the golden age of discount flying
Prices have been dropping for a while now. Fisher warns that trend may not continue. Fuel costs might go up. The dollar might buckle. And free skies agreements -- the airspace equivalent of trade agreements that allow international airlines to operate in other countries -- often change with the political climate. American carriers, for example, aren't exactly jumping for joy that European discount airlines are driving transatlantic prices down. With a new, protectionist administration, regulations could lead to higher prices.
As your grandparents lament the "golden age of flying" when people wore suits to fly from New York to Buffalo, so might you lament the era when you could fly to Europe for $350. That's not to say Europe is doomed to go back to four-figure airfares next summer. You just never know when your last chance to cross the pond cheaply might be. So go ahead, tag your friends, and jump on those low fares to Italy, you cheapskate. Then savor the fantastic house red at any restaurant in Rome.
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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer with Thrillist who treats himself like human cargo. Follow his journeys on Instagram @meltrez1.