High air fares hurting students’ holiday travel plans

Less competition blamed for lack of deals

Students travelling at peak times, such as after the exam period and New Year's, may not be able to get direct flights to their destination. (Photo: morgueFile)

The holidays are always a busy time for fourth-year student Alice Marsh. When she goes home to Orillia, Ont., there are usually no fewer than three Christmas dinners to enjoy and dozens of friends to visit.

But this year, for the first time in the four years she's been living in Halifax while attending university, Marsh will miss her Ontario Christmas traditions.

"I have an aunt, an uncle and my cousins who live in Kentville and it's either spend $50 to take the bus to the Valley and spend Christmas with them, or spend $500 to go to Ontario," says Marsh. "This year, prices just finally got to the point where it doesn't even seem worth it to head home."

The rising cost of fuel over the past 18 months has prompted airlines to boost the total cost of flying through fuel surcharges.

Although Air Canada dropped its fuel surcharge Sept. 18 because of a drop in oil prices, ticket prices are still high. The surcharge has added a total of $20 to $60 to the cost of a flight. Calls and e-mails to the airline were not returned.

"Even without the fuel surcharge, the cost of flying today is still higher than it has been at any point over the last 10 years," says Sandra Missons of Dalhousie's Travel Cuts, a student budget travel service.

Missons also points out that students who arranged their holiday travel early, before Air Canada eliminated the surcharge, will not be reimbursed for the extra fee.

Less competition contributing to high costs

Missons says one reason the cost of flights has been consistently high in recent years is that there are fewer airlines than there used to be, and as a result there is less pressure on the companies to offer deals to customers.

Jetsgo, a discount airline that flew within North America, went under in 2005. Halifax-based CanJet stopped offering commercial flights the following year and now only offers chartered trips.

Added to this, airlines are choosing to reduce the number of weekly flights they offer to many destinations as a way of lowering operating costs. It was estimated that this fall and winter, Air Canada would reduce its total number of flights by seven per cent from last year's numbers.

This means students travelling at peak times, such as after the exam period and after New Year's, may not be able to get direct flights to their destination.

Students looking for new ways to travel

Missons says the sky-high cost of flights is pushing some students to get creative with their travel plans. She says some students are choosing to return to Halifax before Jan. 1 because flights before then are significantly cheaper than flights scheduled in the new year.

Another option many students are looking into is finding alternative modes of transportation for the holidays. Missons says the train is a popular option for students who do not have strict time restraints, because students always get a 30 per cent discount on the cost of train tickets.

"It's difficult to arrange the train for students heading out of Halifax, because the most popular destinations like Toronto are all so far away. But some students are willing to compromise speedy travel if it means they can save quite a bit of money," says Missons.

Nate Lyman is a recent graduate of the University of King's College who will be moving away from Halifax for good during the holidays. With all his belongings needing to be shipped from Halifax to his parents' home in Toronto, Lyman opted to take the train.

"The train allows you to bring on more luggage than airplanes and without additional costs. That's important when you're moving back home after four years," says Lyman.

He has also discovered an additional psychological advantage to taking the train.

"The amount of time spent on the train allows you to reflect on what you're leaving and prepares you mentally for the next chapter that's about to unfold."

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