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Europe Airfares Are at Historic Lows—but That Likely Won’t Last

By Barbara Peterson

Sep 28, 2021

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International carriers are seeing a spike in demand following the U.S. decision to reopen to vaccinated visitors.

Photo by Lukas Wunderlich/Shutterstock

International carriers are seeing a spike in demand following the U.S. decision to reopen to vaccinated visitors.

With the lifting of U.S. entry restrictions for vaccinated arrivals, suddenly travelers on both sides of the pond are chasing the same airline seats.

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New York to Paris for less than $200 one way. San Francisco to Zurich for under $400 roundtrip—during ski season, no less. As these deals from recent flight searches indicate, one of the few bright spots in transatlantic travel in the past 18 months has been a raft of airfare bargains even in traditional peak-season periods.

But with the U.S. planning to loosen entry restrictions for vaccinated visitors starting in November—and European nations having eased their own quarantine rules and other limits on American travelers—people on both sides of the pond will be chasing the same airline seats. And, some experts say, that means prices will inevitably rise.  

“We expect that both airfare to and from Europe will increase,” as travelers grow more confident in traveling abroad, says Adit Damodaran, economist at travel booking app Hopper. Even so, he says, transatlantic fares are currently still at “historic lows,” averaging $570 roundtrip, the cheapest average in five years of data gathering, he adds.

And prices are even lower in some popular destinations. To Madrid, for example, air tickets were recently selling for $427 roundtrip from several U.S. gateways, down 33 percent from 2019 prices. At press time, fares from the United States to Lisbon, Barcelona, and Dublin could be found for well under $500 roundtrip for autumn travel. Hopper says searches for flights to and from Europe have already shot up 30 percent following the U.S. announcement.

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Some observers, however, believe that airlines will continue to offer attractive prices for some time at least for their economy product because business travel continues to lag and leisure fliers are more price sensitive. Also, carriers typically add capacity when bookings soar, notes Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights.

“In the next six months there’ll be a window of opportunity where we’ll see really cheap flights to Europe,” he says. “The airlines are going to be meeting higher demand with a ton of new flights.” He notes that when Iceland became the first country to welcome Americans who were fully vaccinated, airlines jumped in with new flights to Reykjavík, including U.S. carriers like United and Delta, as well as Icelandair. The same thing happened when Greece and Croatia followed suit.

But not all airlines will be rushing to add seats. Airlines with a lot of widebody planes in their fleets may be concerned about flooding the market, given the financial losses they’ve incurred in the past year. Take Lufthansa, which together with Austrian and Swiss operates more than 200 weekly flights to 17 U.S. cities. The German carrier said in a statement sent to AFAR that even though bookings had jumped by 40 percent following the relaxation of U.S. travel restrictions, “at this moment, we already have a robust offering to the United States.” The carrier acknowledged, though, that “the situation is very fluid and Lufthansa is capable of expanding its capacity quite quickly.”

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But as the U.S. airlines found recently when they tried to ramp up operations too quickly, it can take time for international flights to pick up steam. “We need to see those international flights at full capacity before airlines will add additional routes back,” says Steve Hafner, CEO of travel booking site Kayak. He forecasts that airlines will “cautiously add back routes” heading into the holiday season and may even be back to a full, prepandemic schedule for summer 2022.

The bottom line? There’s no guarantee that international air fares will stay as low as they have been for much longer. So if you see a great fare, you may want to pounce.

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