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Planning on flying this summer? Prepare to pay like you haven't in years, unless, that is, the airlines have second thoughts.

Blame it on consolidation (Delta/Northwest, United/Continental, US Air/AmericaWest, Frontier/Midwest, Airtran/Southwest); on past bankruptcies (Eastern, PanAm, TWA, Aloha); on higher fuel costs; on capacity cuts; and on increased, pent-up demand. Or maybe it's just the airlines finally deciding that they're tired of losing billions. Oh, and one other thing: in happier economic times, when fares went this high, a JetBlue, Independence Air, SkyBus, People's Express, or another discounter appeared out of the blue and gave the existing airlines some heat. That's not happening this time. Banks and other lenders are skittish, so no low-cost carrier has popped up or will pop up until the money starts flowing again.

Whatever, fares are the highest we've seen in years, especially for travel from July through mid-August. Newark to LA? You're looking at $500 round-trip with tax at present prices for the typical 7-to 10-day itinerary (all fares quoted are round-trip with tax). Oh and that's on connecting flights. You want nonstop? That'll be $100 more.

San Francisco to Boston? Average fares are about $600 on nonstops, a bit less on connecting flights.

How about San Diego to Washington? Mid-$500's on most airlines' nonstops (connecting flights are ironically higher).

Think shorter hops are less? Then you haven't checked prices between Minneapolis and Cincinnati lately. Remember when Northwest and Delta competed on that route? Oh right, they merged. Lowest current fare? $500 for July travel. Even with gas prices up, you're better off driving. Even medium haul routes with healthy competition are pricey. Chicago to Seattle, a route served by eight airlines, is in the mid $400's at current levels.

If you're flexible in where you travel, some routes are relative bargains. Ft. Lauderdale to LA, thanks to Virgin America, Spirit, and JetBlue entering the nonstop market, can be had for the mid-$300's for July travel. LAX to Miami is even less on connecting flights at just under $300 (same price in reverse direction).

Whatever happened to the $99 each way trans-continental fare? Remember 25-cent sodas? Check your high school history textbook.

Of course, this could all change. People may stay home in droves, or drive in droves, putting downward pressure on fares. Anyone who tries to predict airfares is only guessing. Our best advice is to sign up for free airfare alerts (run a Google or Bing "fare alert" search to see the broad range of what's offered) and pounce when a fare goes down from these lofty levels. Or wait to travel in mid to late August, when the kids go back to school and fares moderate somewhat. A sale could pop at any second on any given route, so check often and don't dilly-dally if a good fare appears. And now might be a good time to cash in some frequent flyer miles, assuming your airline has available seats, which is unlikely on popular routes and dates. Or maybe a cruise or Amtrak might be a better vacation idea. The more resistance consumers show, the more likely airlines will back down. We've seen this movie before.

George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and blogger whose website, www.airfarewatchdog.com, tracks unadvertised airfare wars and fare sales, including the most helpful and always updated Top 50 Airfares.

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