The good news: Travelers who waited out the summer hoping for lower fares to Europe this fall will find some relief, as flights to Europe are cheaper now than at the beginning of the summer. The bad news: Prices are still higher than they were a year ago.
Despite the European debt crisis, fares to Europe remain “stubbornly high,” said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com. “We suspect it’s due to consolidation, capacity cuts and plain old demand.”
Fares from New York to Madrid, for example, are as low as $762 round trip versus $1,197 at the beginning of the summer, according to Bing Travel, the Microsoft search engine. But that’s still about $50 more than a year ago, when the same route was $709. Similar patterns can be seen in round-trip fares between New York and Paris. Holiday tickets are up too, with an average price of $936 versus $861 last year, according to Bing’s Holiday Travel forecast.
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How do you keep the price of your ticket in check? Below, some tricks to finding the best fares this fall and beyond.
Use a jump city
Forget your final destination for a moment and focus on the cheapest flight you can find to Europe, which may involve spending a night in a city not in your original travel plan. Bing’s flexible flight search lets you compare up to five routes at once for the best price within a 30-day range. (Conduct your search as usual. Then, under the Flights tab, click “flexible search,” then “select a city” under Destinations to look for major European hubs like Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Paris.) After finding a flight, search for a European budget carrier like easyJet or Ryanair to fly to the city you had originally planned to visit. “Historically, the cheapest jump cities have been Dublin, Zurich, Frankfurt and Madrid,” said Rick Seaney, the chief executive of Farecompare.com.
For example, the least expensive nonstop flight for a weeklong trip to Paris from New York in mid-November was about $840, according to a recent search. Flying round trip to Dublin instead and using Ryanair to get to Paris and back saves about $232 — which can more than cover a cheap B&B for the two nights you may need to spend in Dublin to make this itinerary work.
If you don’t have a long layover as a buffer, you run a greater risk of missing connecting flights if there are delays by dealing with multiple airlines on separate tickets. And don’t expect the second airline to take responsibility if you do miss your flight. Still, the savings can outweigh the risk. Trains, which are often more convenient in Europe than planes, can be another way to get to your destination from a jump city. Momondo.com, a Danish travel search site, compares air routes with more than 4,000 train routes across Europe. Depending on the schedule, you may not have to spend money on a hotel.
You can often save by adjusting your travel dates by a day or two. ITASoftware.com, which provides the technological backbone for many airfare shopping sites, allows users to scan an entire month’s fares for the least expensive rate. (Click on “airfare search,” then “see calendar of lowest fares.”) Monday, Nov. 5, and Tuesday, Nov. 6, were the cheapest dates that month to fly nonstop to London from Atlanta ($884 round trip) for a week’s vacation, according to a recent search. The next best was Thursday, Dec. 1, or Saturday, Dec. 3, at $900. To book, users must go to another site. Bing Travel offers a handy flight summary after each search that suggests cheaper options in a pop-up box. For instance, the cheapest rate for a New York-to-Rome flight departing on Friday, Oct. 21, was $900 round trip. If you left a day later, you could save $50, according to the flight summary box.
Look beyond nonstop flights
Choosing a flight with a connection or stopover may not be as fast as taking a nonstop route, but the savings may outweigh the inconvenience. The cheapest nonstop flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam for a week in late November was $1,011 on Delta, according to a search on Hipmunk.com, which sorts fares according to an “agony” index that factors in price, length of flight and number of connections. By taking a connecting flight that stops in London for about three hours, you could shave $100 off the price. Also, don’t overlook alternative airports. The cheapest nonstop flight from Newark to London’s Heathrow airport for a week in late September was $778 on Virgin Atlantic, in a recent search. Flying into London’s Gatwick airport instead on Iceland Express with a short stop in Reykjavik was about $130 less.
Find package deals
Buying your flight and hotel together at an online agency like Expedia or Travelocity can be cheaper than booking separately. A four-night trip for two people in mid-October to London from Newark, staying at the Radisson Edwardian Mercer Street Hotel, was $1,885 a person if the hotel and flight were purchased together at Expedia.com versus $3,629 if booked separately. A weeklong trip to Dublin from New York, staying six nights at the Hilton, was $934 a person if booked together at Travelocity.com, $249 less than if booked separately.
Take a closer look at code shares
With code sharing, the industry term for an agreement that allows airlines to sell one another’s flights as if they were their own, you could book a flight to Paris on Delta and end up traveling with Air France, a code share partner with Delta. But while the flight might be the same, the price might not be. Sometimes the difference can be substantial. For example, a recent online search revealed that a nonstop flight in October from New York to Rome operated by American Airlines was $1,612 if booked through British Airways (American’s code-share partner). That same round-trip flight was $1,412 if booked through American.
You can spot a code share when comparing fares online; if you see the same route and departure times from two different airlines, it is most likely a code share. To be sure, you can check the flight details, which spell out which carrier operates the flight.
Search for upper class sales
Several major airlines have been running business-class sales to Europe over the holidays, when business travel can dry up, with prices as low as $1,320 round trip (before taxes and fees) from New York to Brussels, $1,470 from Boston to Frankfurt and $1,648 round trip from Chicago to London on Lufthansa and other carriers. But unlike in previous years, said Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the travel Web site JoeSentMe.com, who alerts members to such sales, few airlines are promoting the deals on their Web sites, forcing travelers to “peck and hunt” for the sales online.
Travelzoo.com, which offers a list of Best Europe Flight Deals, recently pointed out premium-economy round-trip fares from $1,162 (not including taxes and fees, which can add up to $250) on Air France from New York to London, and $1,857 (not including taxes and fees) from Los Angeles to London on Air New Zealand. But act quickly if you want one of those cushy seats. Mr. Brancatelli said one of his subscribers booked a ticket to Glasgow for Thanksgiving for $1,200 round trip, but by the time he told his friends about the deal, the price had gone back up to $5,000.
This story, "Flying to Europe, for a little less," originally appeared on the New York Times.