These Popular Airline Routes Are Becoming More Expensive

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Whether you most often fly cross-country for business or home to see relatives, it’s not uncommon for flyers to have one or two routes they use the most. But here’s some bad news: Across all the routes with at least 1,000 daily passengers in 2018, fares were up an average of 6.2%. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean your favorite flights will cost you more.

Here’s what our research revealed on which flight routes are becoming more expensive — and which fares have gone down.

Key findings

  • Fewer travelers may mean higher fares. There appears to be a relationship between the daily number of passengers and airfare costs. Namely, routes where daily passenger numbers dropped saw prices rise. For example, the biggest increase in airfare was on the Chicago-to-Minneapolis route (from $135 to $189), for which there was an 11% drop in daily passengers. And Washington, D.C., to Indianapolis — one of the least popular flights, with just under 1,200 passengers — saw rates increase by 26% ($159 to $201).
  • Some Minneapolis flights are up, while others are down. Although Chicago to Minneapolis and Dallas to Minneapolis (from $154 to 209) saw the largest percentage price increases, Boston-to-Minneapolis flights went from $249 to $171 (the largest drop at 31%). Fort Myers, Fla., to Minneapolis also had a modest decrease, from $224 to $208 (a drop of 7%). As the nation’s 17th-busiest airport and home to Delta’s second biggest hub, the number of passengers out of Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport has increased each year since 2010 — this growth could be contributing to the price fluctuations.
  • Music City is a hot route. Boston to Nashville saw a nearly 23% increase in daily passengers, while Los Angeles to Nashville was also up 16%. With Nashville hosting almost 16 million visitors in 2018 — an increase of 7% from the previous year — the demand for more flights will likely go up.
  • Prepare to pay up for cross-country flights. These longer routes are among the most expensive. For example, Los Angeles to New York City costs about $377, while New York to San Francisco costs just $5 less. Rounding out the top five is Charlotte, N.C. to Los Angeles ($369), San Francisco to Washington, D.C. ($356), and Boston to San Francisco ($332).
  • The least expensive routes are those less than two hours. Seattle-to-Spokane, Wash., was the cheapest at $118; Sacramento, Calif.-to-San Diego flights cost an average of $122; and Las Vegas to Los Angeles cost flyers $124.

Routes where average airfare rose the most

Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth appear four times each on the list of the top 10 biggest airfare increases, with percentage changes all at 21% or above. And as a combination, the Chicago-to-Dallas route rose from $179 to $223, taking the fourth spot on the list.

Both airports have among the highest average domestic airline itinerary fees in the nation. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport comes in at No. 2 and DFW International Airport ranks ninth, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data. Per the BTS, itinerary fares are based on the total ticket value, which can include additional taxes and fees levied by an outside entity at the time of purchase.

Routes where average airfare dropped the most

Washington state travelers seem to be enjoying some nice airfare discounts. Flights to and from Seattle saw the second- and third-largest drops in average airfare. The Spokane-to-Seattle route went from $140 to $118, while the Chicago-to-Seattle trip decreased from $244 to $213 (a 16% and 13% drop, respectively). Salt Lake City to Seattle also dipped from $210 to $188 (a 10% drop).

Sea-Tac (Seattle-Tacoma) Airport has seen a 43% increase in traffic over the past five years, and these additional flights could be allowing for more competitive pricing.

How you can swipe — and save — on airfare

With some popular routes becoming more expensive, it might be worth looking into airline or travel credit cards if you’re a frequent flyer. If you’re already a credit card spender and you’re not earning rewards that can help offset the cost of your flights, you could be missing out.

Airline credit cards

If most of your travel occurs along one route or you’re loyal to one airline because it offers the most competitive prices for your typical flights, consider an airline credit card. These cards not only let you rack up miles to put toward future flights, but you may get extra benefits like free checked bags or priority boarding.

And if you’re someone who flies a lot, an airline card could help fast-track you toward higher loyalty status tiers.

Here are some options:

CardAnnual FeeRewards PotentialExtra Perk
United℠ Explorer Card$0 for the first year, then $95Earn 2 miles per $1 spent at restaurants, on hotel stays and on purchases from United. 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases.2 United Club one-time passes
Delta SkyMiles® Gold Card$0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99. See rates & fees2 miles for every dollar spent on eligible purchases made directly with Delta and 1 mile for every eligible dollar spent on purchases.First checked bag free on Delta flights*
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card$692 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases and Rapid Rewards® hotel and car rental partner purchases. 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.3,000 anniversary points after your cardmember anniversary
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®$0 Intro Annual Fee for the first year then $99Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent at gas stations, restaurants, and on eligible American Airlines purchases*Preferred boarding on American Airlines flights
JetBlue Plus Card$996X points on JetBlue purchases, 2X at restaurants & grocery stores, 1X on all other purchases50% off of in-flight cocktail and food purchases
* Terms apply to American Express credit card offers. See americanexpress.com for more information.

Travel credit cards

On the other hand, if your flying dollars are spread over many routes and airlines, a more general travel credit card could be your best bet.

These cards can allow you to redeem your earned rewards with a number of airline partners, as well as other options. More premium ones (often with higher annual fees) may offer additional VIP travel perks, such as lounge access or travel protections.

Here are some options:

CardAnnual FeeRewards PotentialExtra Perk
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card$952X points on travel and dining at restaurants & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases worldwide1:1 point transfer with several airline and hotel travel partners
The Platinum Card® from American Express$550 See rates & fees5X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel and 5X Membership Rewards® points on prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com.Up to $200 airline fee credit*
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card$0 Intro Annual Fee for the first year then $952 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every dayReceive up to $100 credit on Global Entry or TSA Precheck
Discover it® Miles$0Unlimited 1.5x Miles for every dollar spent on all purchases - with no annual feeRedeem your Miles in any amount to credit purchases from your statement
Citi Premier℠ Card$95Earn 3X Points on Travel, Including Gas Stations, Earn 2X Points on Dining Out & Entertainment, Earn 1X Points on All Other PurchasesPoints are worth 25% more when travel is booked through Citi’s ThankYou® portal
* Terms apply to American Express credit card offers. See americanexpress.com for more information.

If prices are too high for you, consider alternatives

Though flying might seem to be the fastest way to get to your destination, other methods of transportation might offer better solutions if you’re not traveling a long distance. And, after factoring in that you have to arrive at the airport a couple of hours before you take off (and potential delays), other types of travel might not end up taking longer after all.

  • Drive to a different airport. If you don’t have a great choice of routes near you (or they are on the expensive side), see if it’s worth driving an hour or two to the next nearest airport. Sometimes you can find a great deal.
  • Drive the whole way. Why fly when you can drive? It might feel inconvenient, but it’s typically a lot cheaper (you just have to pay for gas and tolls), and you won’t be at the mercy of departure times, flight delays and long check-in lines.
  • Go by bus. Greyhound transports 16 million passengers a year, offering more than 245,000 combinations across the country. If the route you need is available, it could be worth pricing out. If you’re not traveling cross-country, you could consider other regional options such as Trailways, BoltBus or Jefferson Lines.
  • Take a train. In 2018, more than 846,000 riders used Amtrak during Thanksgiving week. Tickets can be just as pricey as airfare depending on your travel needs, but it’s another option to research — and you may enjoy the scenic alternative.

Methodology

To find the flights with the largest price increases, we looked at average airfare data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Specifically, we compared average airfare data from the fourth quarter of 2018 to the fourth quarter of 2017. We ranked the routes from highest to lowest based on percent change in average airfare.

Dawn Papandrea is a writer specializing in personal finance topics including credit cards, family finances and consumer issues. Her work has appeared on a number of financial websites including LendingTree, ValuePenguin, MagnifyMoney, CreditCards.com, BankRate.com, U.S. News & World Report, as well as publications including Family Circle. Dawn has a master’s degree in journalism from New York University. Follow her on Twitter: @dawnpapandrea.

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How We Calculate Rewards: ValuePenguin calculates the value of rewards by estimating the dollar value of any points, miles or bonuses earned using the card less any associated annual fees. These estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone, not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.

Example of how we calculate the rewards rates: When redeemed for travel through Ultimate Rewards, Chase Sapphire Preferred points are worth $0.0125 each. The card awards 2 points on travel and dining and 1 point on everything else. Therefore, we say the card has a 2.5% rewards rate on dining and travel (2 x $0.0125) and a 1.25% rewards rate on everything else (1 x $0.0125).