Airfares are slowly rising.
Round-trips to many domestic cities are $50 to $100 higher than they were a year ago. The cheapest fare to the West Coast, for example, is $378 -- up $40 from the $338 fare that expired Oct. 31.
Still, there's good news. The price boosts are relatively moderate, and fare wars are likely to continue through the middle of next year.
What's more, winter travel to Europe is cheaper than ever.
The airlines can't charge full excursion fares -- $468 to the West Coast -- because discount fare wars have raged since last spring.
The current promotional sale, which cuts West Coast fares to $378, covers travel from Jan. 7 to March 31 for most destinations. Low fares to Central and South Florida, Arizona, Colorado and Nassau in the Bahamas are good only through Feb. 9.
Despite plunging profits, airlines can't abandon discounts because a sagging economy has drastically cut vacation travel.
"I look for a continuation of these short-term fare wars -- which save consumers $50 to $100 on a cross-country ticket -- through the first half of 1992," says Ed Perkins, editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter in San Francisco.
To be sure, the airlines intend to raise prices. Continental Airlines, for example, announced this week a $20 increase for all round-trip fares. That would raise the price of a full-fare ticket to the West Coast to $488, assuming no discounts.
But analysts say the price increase probably won't stick since it's unlikely that all carriers will adopt it. Northwest Airlines has already said it won't raise prices.
"My guess is the Continental increase will be withdrawn. If one or two major carriers say no, the rest will have to follow suit," says Tom Parsons, editor of Best Fares, a travel magazine published in Arlington, Texas.
Mr. Parsons expects a new round of discounting in April, after the current fare war ends on March 31.
His advice: Don't book now for any travel after March 31. You'll save money by waiting until March, when the airlines are likely to announce new discounts that will take effect in April.
"If you're traveling at Easter, let's wait for the new fare war," he Parsons says. If you can travel before March 31, book now and get discounts of 20 percent to 25 percent off regular excursion fares, he advises.