Courtesy of Shutterstock
Courtesy of Shutterstock
There are ample ways to score a deal on flights to Europe.
If you really want to get to Europe inexpensively, you’ll need to do some homework and be flexible with your travel. But for the savvy traveler, there are great ways to save money hopping the pond.
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Everyone knows someone who recently “got an incredible deal” on a flight to Europe—they’re bound to tell you about their search savvy or good luck. Who are these travelers unearthing cheap fares to Europe for $199? Well, you’re in luck—here are some ways you can potentially join their ranks.
The easiest way to find a cheap fare to Europe is to choose an off-peak time of year to visit: There is less tourist activity from September through March, when you won’t be competing with a lot of leisure travelers for seats. While airlines earn the bulk of their revenue between June 30 and September 30, those same airlines still want to fill their aircraft on cold Tuesdays in February, too, which is to your benefit, since this is when you can snag some of the biggest savings.
Speaking of Tuesday, note that the cheapest fares will be on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; avoid Friday or Saturday flights. Midweek isn’t popular with leisure travelers and that’s when inexpensive fares to Europe are more readily available, even during the summer. After all, who wants to start their European vacation with a Tuesday night flight? Leisure travelers typically want to maximize weekends and holidays.
It helps to spot a cheap fare to Europe if you have a sense of what airline tickets normally cost on the route you’re eyeing—Boston to Barcelona, for example. That takes experience, research, and patience. If you’re several months out from your estimated travel date, search for the flight you are looking for once per week or so to see how the fares average out.
ITA’s Matrix is one helpful online tool to help ascertain going rates. Matrix is owned by Google Flights and powers several OTAs (see next section), but you can also use it as a research tool once you get the hang of the interface. The free search engine allows the savvy budget traveler to quickly review and understand fares on various routes over a two-month period—it’s the go-to tool for the serious fare-searcher. You can’t book flights directly with Matrix, but you’ll be armed with the information needed to find the absolute cheapest fare on a route—and, accordingly, be at the ready to snap up a great deal when you see it.
There are two types of third-party online booking channels where you can search for your cheap fare to Europe: online travel agencies (known as OTAs) or metasearch engines. OTAs include websites such as Orbitz and Expedia. Metasearch engines include the increasingly popular Google Flights, as well as Momondo and Kayak.
With the OTAs, you’ll book your low-cost flight to Europe directly with the OTA itself. If you need to make changes or cancellations, you do that directly with the OTA, as well, which can add a layer of complexity, since many airlines will not help passengers with a third-party booking. But if booking through an OTA results in a cheaper fare than booking directly with the airline, and you don’t foresee making any changes, all the better for your wallet.
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Dozens of OTAs will show up in a search, each with varying levels of service and terms and conditions. Be sure to familiarize yourself with those policies. For example, some OTAs allow a full refund for a purchase so long as you cancel within two hours of making a booking, whereas many airlines have a 24-hour grace period. Expedia is an example of an OTA that allows passengers to cancel a fare or hotel purchase within 24 hours of booking for a full refund, just like many airlines.
With a metasearch site, you’ll find a fare and then be passed directly to the airline’s website to complete your booking. In their search results, metasearch sites will also include mix-and-match flight options that might consist of flying the outbound leg to Europe with one airline and returning home with a different carrier. Generally, metasearch sites will find the lowest fares because they are comparing data from a number of sites and sources, including the airlines themselves.
Only a certain number of low-fare seats will be available on any given flight. Once they’re sold, the next fare level is offered to passengers. In other words, as the flight date approaches, fares for popular routes are likely to increase.
As a passenger seeking a low fare, it’s best to finalize your plans early, which means more than 60 days out from travel. The same rules apply for a ticket purchased with airline points. The longer in advance you secure your rewards ticket, the better the chances of obtaining an inexpensive redemption. For example, the American Airlines AAdvantage program allows you to redeem points up to 330 days in advance. That means that on January 1, you could conceivably book a flight for late November, when flights to Europe can be had for as little as 22,500 points each way.
Got your sights set on Rome? You might do well to book a cheap flight to a main European hub such as London, Paris, or Frankfurt, and then hop on a low-cost carrier to your final destination. “If you want to get the cheapest flights possible, focus on getting the cheapest fares across the ocean, even if it’s not from your home airport or to your ultimate destination,” said Scott Keyes, founder of airfare newsletter Scott’s Cheap Flights.
“To give a personal example, I used to live in Washington, D.C., but the best ticket I ever purchased was from New York to Milan for $130 round-trip,” he recalled. “At the time, tickets from D.C. to Milan were around $800. By jumping on the New York flight, plus the $20 bus ride up, I saved $650 and got an incredible deal to Europe.”
To do this right, you’ll need to factor in distances and transportation costs between airports, including additional taxi or train rides. For example, you might find a great fare to London’s Gatwick Airport, but your connecting flight with Ryanair to Pisa departs from London’s Stansted Airport, which requires about an hour of transit time. The cost to get between the two London airports starts at around $30 by bus.
When it comes to this strategy, be careful with tight connection times. A one-hour delay on departure may not seem like much, unless you’re aiming to connect with a low-cost carrier for an onward destination once you reach Europe. Those carriers do not care if your flight with Air France was delayed, causing you to miss your Vueling flight to Barcelona. You’ll likely need to rebook at your expense, which can quickly eat up any long-haul savings you had initially managed.
If a cheap fare to Europe seems too good to be true, well, it still might actually be true. Low-cost carriers such as Norwegian, Eurowings, WOW Air, and Icelandair regularly offer incredibly low round-trip fares from the United States to Europe.
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A cautionary note: Until earlier this fall, one such carrier, Primera Airlines, offered unbelievable intercontinental fares, allowing many thousands of passengers to experience getting to Europe on the cheap. However, the airline declared bankruptcy and ceased operations in fall 2018, leaving numerous passengers stranded.
To book with confidence, you’ll need to do your homework. For example, a recent search for flights from New York to Rome for travel in May 2019 revealed that the least expensive fare was $460 with Air Italy, some $300 cheaper than an Emirates flight and half as expensive as an option on American Airlines. But have you heard of Air Italy prior to this? Before booking, do some research (here are some online reviews of Air Italy). The social media accounts of low-cost carriers can also indicate whether past passengers have been satisfied. For Air Italy, the reviews appear to pan out; personally, I’d feel comfortable booking with Air Italy. But if I’d never heard of an airline, I’d certainly think twice.
It’s not just the low-cost carriers that have amazing fares to Europe. The mainstream airlines want to compete, too. Emirates’s fare to Rome in the search mentioned above is also very competitive—not bad for an airline known for its over-the-top first-class cabins. And earlier this year, American Airlines and British Airways each offered flights from the East Coast to Switzerland for just $350 round-trip, not including bags. Scandinavian Airlines, or SAS, will fly you to Copenhagen from Newark for around $610 round-trip, again excluding bags.
Look for promos on introductory routes as well. In 2017, for instance, Emirates inaugurated service between Newark and Athens at very affordable rates to build demand for the route and fill the planes.
Low-fare newsletters such as Scott’s Cheap Flights or Airfare Watchdog sprung up in the early part of this decade as passengers heard tales of incredible flight deals and so-called fat-fingered pricing errors, wherein the airlines mistakenly input lower-than-expected fares. For instance, Scott’s cites a $130 fare from New York to Italy, where the intended price was $1,300—a zero was dropped inadvertently by the airline’s revenue management team.
Scott’s offers a free newsletter that highlights inexpensive fares based on your desired origin and destination. (For instance, mine is set for New York City airports excluding Newark, so I will regularly see excellent international fares from LaGuardia and JFK.) It also offers a premium version of this service for $39 per year; it’s worth the investment because the best deals are brought to the attention of paying subscribers first. Also helpful for the cheap-fare searcher, Scott’s additionally offers detailed and user-friendly instructions on how to to best use metasearch engines such as Google Flights, Momondo, and ITA’s Matrix.
Usually the cheapest way to fly to Europe is with airline miles or points. I have been lucky enough to snag several tickets on American Airlines from New York’s JFK Airport to London’s Heathrow for 22,500 points per person, per leg. Points blog The Points Guy values those points at $0.014 per mile, so when converted to a revenue ticket, those tickets worked out to approximately $315 each way. That’s a decent fare in economy. The taxes and fees added around $75 per ticket.
The best news? Points are not so difficult to obtain. For example, there are frequently excellent offers on airline-branded credit cards and through American Express with sign-up bonuses of 50,000 points or more. Learn more about how best to obtain and use points through sites like The Points Guy or One Mile at a Time. If you put your spending on a credit card and pay off your balance on time, you can accumulate points quickly and be off to Europe, almost cost-free, in a jiff.
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