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Best bets for Europe flights

When searching for airfare to Europe, most of us don't even consider shelling out for first or business class — especially since the weak U.S. dollar has made European travel more expensive than ever. But before you book that same old economy-class ticket, have you considered all your options?
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Fares to London on Silverjet and Eos tend to run a bit higher than the Paris fares on L'Avion. Silverjet yielded round-trip fares between $2,150 and $2,400 with taxes, while Eos showed prices between $2,350 and $3,710.Geoff Caddick / EPA
/ Source: Independent Traveler

When searching for airfare to Europe, most of us don't even consider shelling out for first or business class — especially since the weak U.S. dollar has made European travel more expensive than ever. But before you book that same old economy-class ticket, have you considered all your options?

You may not know that many airlines now offer a "premium economy" class, where some of the perks of business class — such as expedited check-in and extra legroom — are available at a much more affordable price. For passengers considering making the leap to the real thing, several all-business airlines have emerged to compete price-wise with the luxury cabins on traditional airlines.

Of course, if budget is your bottom line, you should be aware of the handful of long-haul discount airlines offering low fares that could save you money on transatlantic flights.

Below, we outline three alternatives to regular economy-class flights to Europe, including the costs, pros and cons of each — so whether you're looking for cheap fares or an escape from the coach-class cattle car, you can find the right transatlantic option for you.

All-business airlines
These relatively new airlines focus exclusively on business-class service for transatlantic travelers. They offer the amenities you'd expect from business class, including extra space onboard and highly personalized service, for less than the business-class service on most major airlines.

Who: L'Avion, Silverjet and Eos.

Cities served: Silverjet flies between Newark and London's Luton airport, while Eos serves New York (JFK) and London Stansted. (Eos has announced that additional flights from Newark are on in the way in May 2008, and service to Paris is also being considered for later in the year.) L'Avion flies between Newark and Paris (Orly).

Cost: Fares on these airlines can be quite lofty, but in other cases they may not be that much higher than economy prices. For example, we recently found round-trip prices from Newark to Paris starting at just $1,429 (including taxes and fees) on L'Avion.

Fares to London on Silverjet and Eos tend to run a bit higher than the Paris fares on L'Avion. Most of the dates we tried on Silverjet yielded round-trip fares between $2,150 and $2,400 with taxes, while Eos gave us prices between $2,350 and $3,710.

All three airlines provide business-class perks such as personalized service, extra space onboard, and multi-course meals accompanied by fine wines.

Both Eos and Silverjet have seats that convert to flat beds, while L'Avion's seats offer a much deeper degree of recline than the standard economy-class seat.

Passengers on Eos and Silverjet are whisked through a fast-track security line and led directly to exclusive lounges where they can relax, eat and check their e-mail before flights.

These airlines are well worth checking if you're planning to travel over a major holiday, when high demand for leisure travel drives up economy-class prices. Since business travelers are less likely to fly during the holidays, you could find a great deal on a luxurious flight.

So far, these airlines serve only one U.S. city (New York) and two European ones (London and Paris). If you're traveling to or from somewhere else, you'll have to make your own arrangements to reach these airlines' gateway cities.

Schedules are fairly limited, with each airline offering only one or two departures from each city per day.

Luxury comes at a price. While there are occasionally deals to be found, in most cases fares on the all-business airlines are significantly higher than the average economy-class ticket.

There is some concern about the financial health of these airlines. A fourth business-only airline, MAXjet, went out of business at the end of 2007, and some industry insiders speculate that Silverjet and Eos may not be doing well either. If you're feeling unsure, you may wish to purchase travel insurance for your trip.

Long-haul discount airlines
At the opposite extreme from the business-only airlines are the long-haul discounters. Much like Southwest and JetBlue in the U.S. and Ryanair and easyJet in Europe, a number of airlines have emerged to provide "discount" service on transatlantic routes. As with other discounters, low fares may translate to fewer amenities.

Who: There are a number of transatlantic discounters, including Eurofly, Zoom, LTU, Condor, Martinair and Fly Thomas Cook.

Cities served: Because several of the transatlantic discounters (particularly Condor, Martinair and Fly Thomas Cook) have a mainly European clientele, they tend to fly into and out of only a few popular American vacation cities, such as Miami, Orlando and Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, Eurofly flies from New York's JFK Airport to a number of cities in Italy. Zoom serves London (Gatwick) from Fort Lauderdale, JFK and San Diego. And LTU offers the greatest number of choices, flying from a wide range of U.S. gateways to a variety of European destinations (with an emphasis on German cities).

Cost: Despite the "discounter" moniker, we found fares on these airlines to be pretty similar to the economy-class offerings on traditional airlines — close enough that it's worth checking both. For example, LTU's $672 fare for a round-trip New York - Munich flight was quite a bit higher than the United flight we found for $457 on the same dates — but Zoom won big with a $625 round-trip flight from New York to London during the summer high season; the next runner-up was $970 on Air France. (All prices include taxes and fees.)

The competitive pricing could save you money over economy-class fares on the major airlines.

If you're flying to a country where the discounter is based (such as Italy for Eurofly or LTU for Germany), you could find a nonstop flight that's more convenient than a similarly priced connecting itinerary on a major airline.

Many flights may be seasonal or may not depart every day of the week.

Many of the discounters do not offer frequent flier programs, and their baggage limitations may be a bit stingier than those of the traditional airlines.

The discounters do not serve as wide a variety of cities (in Europe or the U.S.) as the traditional airlines.

Premium economy class
If you can't afford business class but are tired of the cramped conditions in coach, here's your middle ground: a number of traditional airlines are letting passengers pay a little extra for a better experience in economy. Perks generally include expedited check-in and boarding, greater seat pitch and an extra in-cabin amenity or two (such as complimentary headphones). You won't get lie-flat seats or meals served on fine china, but a little extra legroom can make a big difference on a long flight.

Who: Virgin Atlantic, United, Scandinavian Airlines, BMI, British Airways and Air New Zealand (only on certain routes).

Cities served: Virgin Atlantic, BMI and Air New Zealand fly to the British Isles from a number of U.S. gateways, while the other airlines serve a wider range of European cities.

Cost: Premium economy fares are significantly lower than first or business class fares on the same airline and typically cost less than the offerings from the all-business airlines as well. However, a round-trip premium economy fare will usually set you back double the cost of a basic round-trip economy fare (or more).

On an upcoming Virgin Atlantic flight from Newark to London (Heathrow), we found a premium economy fare of $1,348 round-trip (with taxes and fees), as opposed to $596 for the same flight in regular economy class. Meanwhile, Scandinavian Airlines quoted us a fare of $1861.43 for premium economy service between Newark and Stockholm, as compared to $811 in economy.

United handles its premium economy class a bit differently than most other carriers. Its Economy Plus seats (which offer five more inches of seat pitch in the front of the coach cabin but seemingly no other real perks) are given out on a first-come, first-served basis to high-ranking frequent fliers and to travelers who pay the $349 annual fee for Economy Plus Access. If there are any seats left over before the plane departs, ordinary travelers may be able to upgrade to an Economy Plus seat for $25 to $30 one way.

Premium economy is ideal for leisure travelers who want an option between economy and business class in terms of price, comfort and perks.

Because premium economy is offered by many major airlines, travelers have far more itinerary and schedule options than they do on the all-business airlines or the transatlantic discounters.

While premium economy is cheaper than business class, it still runs more than twice the price of a regular economy ticket and may be unaffordable for travelers on a budget.

The perks of premium economy class vary widely by airline, and may not amount to much beyond a slightly wider seat. Be sure to read up on what's included before ponying up the extra money.

Premium economy is mostly available on foreign carriers; the one U.S. airline that offers it (United) charges a lofty annual fee.