Travel editor David McGonigal reports on why there’s never been a better – or cheaper – time to fly.

How low can it go? “If you gotta go, go now” Manfred Mann sang in the 1960s – prescient lyrics about the state of airfares in 2016. By the way the song was written by Bob Dylan.

Flights have never have been cheaper. Ever. Indeed, the prices that pop up on travel sites often seem too good to be true. But they are real. I’ll tell you why in a while but let’s just look at the raw figures. All the figures throughout this article are return fares, not one way.

Note: These prices were checked on 13 May 2016 and may have changed since.

IFly sent out an email this week promising flights to the USA from $779. That’s to Los Angeles of course – the cheapest flight it offers to New York is still under $1000 – $953 in fact (with Virgin Australia). This may sound like a one-off deal (though similar price range across several airlines) but a visit to the Flight Centre page reveals that these prices merely reflect the trend. Flight Centre offers Sydney to LA for $734 return.

Is London calling?
What about the perennial destination of Australians: London? The cheapest offering for Sydney to London is $1079. Those from Melbourne are even better off, with a fare from $997 that includes the whole of August 2016.

Of course, that’s a price that can’t be regarded as typical. But even if you took $1700 as the norm my initial claim that flying has never been cheaper stands up.

In 1961 it may have cost just $1200 to fly to London but that was about 26 weeks’ of average wages. Today $1700 is only slightly over one week of pay on an average wage.

Crammed into Economy we may all crave for the elegant age of air travel. But that comes at a price. Just after WWII, a flight from Australia to London cost the equivalent of $1200 (in what was then, Australian Pounds). You might think that sounds cheap but it took just under two years of the average wage to pay for it. It was the equivalent of about $130,000 in today’s currency.

Why are airfares so cheap right now?
Several elements have come together to give us these prices. The most significant is the oil war that’s raging across the globe. So far, no one has blinked in the race for overproduction and prices have fallen accordingly. The airlines are seeing the price of one of their most significant costs fall dramatically and that gives them scope to drop airfares.

There’s a lot of competition in the sky these days. Not only have budget airlines come along to show how cheap it can be to fly but the full service airlines are battling it out for market share. How better to fill seats than by lowering prices?

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Now is the perfect time to book an overseas holiday

Finally, consumer demand is weak. That might be partly a result of the decline in value of the Australian dollar so travellers know it’ll cost them more when they land in that faraway country. And, there’s a federal election on. Conventional wisdom is that business activity and household expenditure slow down when elections are called.

You’d think that a time when your television set is full of talking heads is the very best time to head for the airport and foreign climes. But counter-intuitively, our travelling slows down too. So the airlines have more seats to fill.

Will it last?
The International Air Transport Association states that airfares worldwide dropped about 10 per cent last year. The good news is that it expects that fares will continue to stay low or may even fall further. That’s because fuel is such a big factor in airline operating costs that they hedge the price against future rises in fuel costs. As those hedges expire, the airlines can take full advantage of the lower fuel prices.

Domestic bliss?
In its recently released “Australian Aviation & Airfare Analysis”, Flight Centre MD Graham Turner states that, domestically “Fares have generally started to rise from the rock bottom levels seen in recent years . . . however . . . inventory in the cheaper fare buckets is typically open up to five days out from travel . . . (and) at a time when full business and restricted economy airfares are increasing in price, discount economy fares remain fairly flat.”

What about the rest of the world?
For a while, the real deal was the cost of tickets to Hawaii that dropped from $856 ex Sydney to $511. It’s now up to about $780. But much of the world is a smorgasbord of specials. Helloworld offers Kathmandu for $978, Fiji for $620 and even Santiago with Qantas for $1246.

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Fancy a trip to Chile's exciting capital, Santiago?

It is a balancing act
It’d be nice if you could simple walk into a travel agency and walk out with the cheapest ticket on your airline of choice with flight schedules that perfectly match your travel plans. Sadly, that’s not the way it works – though finding a great, smart, knowledgeable travel agent can go a long way to making that dream come true.

Otherwise, you have to find your best compromise, largely between cost and service. These cheaper fares bring the whole world at lot closer.

Business Class bliss
Then there’s the ultimate – Business Class travel at a price you can afford. That requires a whole new search. But there are affordable rewards, particularly if you are prepared to think a bit laterally. You know your chiropractor will thank you, too.

Finnair, for example, doesn’t fly directly to Australia but it works closely with airlines that do. So you fly through Singapore or Hong Kong and connect to numerous destinations across Europe through Helsinki, travelling in Finnair’s stylish Business Class. This costs from $5700 to Rome and Paris and $6000 to London from Sydney (return) with similar prices from other state capitals.

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Find yourself in Finland with record-low flight prices

Helsinki and Finland are well worth exploring and the fare is $200 less if you break your return flight in Helsinki.

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