First, the good news: The cost of flights to Europe this summer probably won't increase. The bad news? They're pretty pricey as is.
The summer of 2011 is proving to be one of the most expensive seasons in the past decade or longer to fly to Europe. Fare-tracking experts say that prices are upwards of 50 percent higher than they were last summer, thanks to rising gas prices and soaring demand.
"Since ample numbers of travelers are buying transatlantic airfares at these higher rates and seat inventory still is limited, the airlines feel no need to run any sales to attract more buyers," says Ann Lombardi, a travel consultant with The Trip Chicks in Atlanta.
With just a little legwork and research, you could save several hundred dollars on the price of a ticket. In addition to the following tips, the best advice we can offer is this: If an airline does happen to cut prices or offer a discount this spring or summer, don't sit on it and wait for an even better fare. Whip your credit card out of your wallet and grab that deal. Given the way prices are looking this summer, it won't last long.
1. Travel in early or late summer.
Right now, trends seem to indicate that flights from the United States to Europe are cheapest in early June and late August. For instance, trips from the East Coast to Amsterdam are around $1,000 in early June, rise upwards of $300 in the first half of July and then fluctuate wildly until late August, when they dip again. This is according to Bing Travel, which has a cool set of monitoring tools and airfare predictors to look at rates.
2. Be super-flexible.
Unless there's a specific and unchangeable reason why you have to be in Europe on a certain day, be flexible on your travel dates. Use a flight search site such as Kayak or TripAdvisor Flights and select the "flexible travel dates" option. For example: When I searched for a flight from Dulles International Airport to Paris' Charles de Gaulle International Airport during the first two weeks of July, the difference between the lowest and highest prices was $299.
However, keep in mind the additional costs that may come along with an earlier departure or later return. Will you have to pay for additional hotel nights and meals, for example? Do the math to determine if leaving earlier or returning later would be worth it — or if an earlier-than-planned return home would save you even more money.
3. Fly on a weekday.
For the aforementioned Washington-to-Paris flight, the lowest-priced flight was on a Tuesday. Mid-week flights tend to be cheaper across the board. Aim for Tuesday or Wednesday departures and returns.
4. Fly to a gateway city.
This rings especially true if you're planning to go to central or eastern Europe — flying to the western European cities tends to be much cheaper, and then you can connect with flights on one of dozens of European discount airlines.
London especially is one of the most affordable hubs in Europe, with a plethora of no-frills airlines — easyJet and Ryanair among the longest-running, most popular and best priced. Frankfurt and Amsterdam are two others.
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Let's say you're planning to spend a week in Spain. Flights from Boston to Madrid in mid-June are priced at $1,150, but flying from Boston to London is only $860. (Editor's Note: All prices include taxes and fees.) Using Skyscanner.net — the best Web site to aggregate flights on Europe's discount airlines — we turned up a rate of $47 roundtrip for Ryanair flights between London and Madrid (and that's expensive for Ryanair; we've seen rates as low as 20 bucks!).
Of course, there are a few caveats. Flights from the United States usually land at London's Heathrow International Airport, while Ryanair flies out of Stansted Airport 65 miles away — so you'll have to connect via shuttle bus and plan on extra travel time. And the budget airlines tend to have much stricter luggage weight limits and smaller maximum sizes for carry-on bags than the big airlines.
5. Consider nearby departure airports.
As in the tip above, maybe it's worthwhile to consider other airports besides the one closest to your house. Could you save a few hundred dollars by driving to Chicago for your departure instead of flying out of Milwaukee?
6. Book through a specialty provider.
If a business focuses solely on booking flights to Europe, you can bet they're working hard to line up inexpensive flights and land your business. One we like a lot is California-based europebyair.com, which has partnerships with more than a dozen airlines serving Europe and thus can broker discounted deals.
Even if you don't book your international flight through an outlet such as europebyair.com, its Web site is definitely worth checking out for discounted flights within Europe. When we last checked, the company was offering $99 flights between Brussels and six other European cities.
7. Sign up for special alerts.
You probably already receive the weekly e-mail blasts and special offers that airlines send out, but don't expect miracles from them; so many people receive them that it can be hard to nab a deal when they're available. Better yet is to track your desired flight paths through sites like FareCompare.com or MyAirDeals.com.
8. Follow Twitter feeds.
Things change at a moment's notice in the fast-paced, algorithmically driven business of determining airfare, and Twitter is a good place to keep up with it. A few feeds we've been following lately to monitor airfare include: @airfarewatchdog, @dealsonline, @dealsonairfare, @traveldeals and @airlinestravel. (Don't forget to follow IndependentTraveler.com on Twitter too!)
We've also watched updates on new flight paths and discounted fares on a slew of Twitter feeds that begin with "@Deals_," followed by the city name. For example, @Deals_Brussels touted this special on European discount carrier Ryanair on April 19: "Deals from Brussels. Splendid sale from €8/£8!!: 19 destinations across continent Europe."
9. Buy a package deal.
During past summers, you could cobble together a do-it-yourself package deal by finding well-priced flights and matching them up with reasonable hotel and local transport options. This summer, because of the high price of airline tickets, tour operator-offered package deals are a better way to go. This is especially true if you plan to fly into and out of different cities.
For example, a six-night trip to Italy, including New York-to-Rome and Venice-to-New York flights, six nights' hotel, breakfast, train fare between cities and hotel taxes, starts at $1,953 per person through EuropeanDestinations.com. The flight alone costs $1,456 on Expedia; certainly six nights' worth of hotel accommodations alone will cost you more than $497.
Create a budget for your airfare and other travel expenses with our handy Travel Budget Calculator.