By Glenn Campbell
My tips for getting a low airfare across the Pond:
- Airfare is the most significant trip component for a budget US visitor to Europe. You can speculate about where you may want to go and stay, but you have to nail down your airfare before anything else. Once you have a cheap airfare across the pond, everything else can be worked out. (If you are comfortable with hosteling, your accommodations can be quite cheap.)
- Taxes and fees make up a huge portion of transatlantic airfares, far more than flying either within USA or within Europe (often dwarfing the actual fare, as shown above: NYC-Warsaw with a stopover in London), so it is unreasonable to expect a round-trip airfare of less than $700. However, a $700-800 airfare is almost always possible, at any time of year and with only a minimal advance purchase, as long as you're flexible about your starting and ending cities. Obviously, time of year can make a big difference in how many cheap fares are available, but don't get discouraged just because the first fares you find are high. There is always a way.
- To find the lowest fares, just plug a lot of different city pairs into Expedia or another travel site. Start with the cities you most want to visit then experiment with others. Think of creative ways to get where you want to go. The main obstacle is the Atlantic Ocean, once you're over that, there are a lot of options for getting around within Europe. It costs you nothing to plug city pairs into Expedia, so do it recklessly!
- On the US side, always start with NYC. Transatlantic fares out of New York are usually far cheaper than from anywhere else on the continent, even if you have to pay for a separate connecting flight to get there. (Always search for the code "NYC", not JFK, so you include flights out of EWR.) "CHI", "WAS", "QLA" and "QSF" are often worth checking too, but most of my transatlantic journeys start in New York.
- Fares to Eastern Europe cities are usually lower than the "old" European cities like Paris, London, Rome etc, even when changing planes in those cities. Try Warsaw, Istanbul, Riga, etc. Surprisingly, Berlin is often cheap too. (Moscow is cheap, too, but the visa process is hell if you plan to leave the airport.)
- Use cut-rate carriers to get around within Europe for a song. (See this great overview of European Discount Airlines on Wikitravel. I have have good experiences with EasyJet, Pegasus, Air Baltic.) Many of these airlines are not listed on Expedia and other travel sites. You have to go directly to their websites. Play with dates and book ahead for the best fares. (Be aware that these airlines hit you with extra charges whenever they can, including checked bags and even checking in at the airport instead of online.)
- Check the Deutsche Bahn website for train fares within Europe (or at least schedules). Train is often a good alternative to flying within Europe.
- Once you find a low cost round-trip transatlantic airfare to a city you are interested in, try experimenting with stopover options in gateway cities like Paris and London. You can often get a 24 hour stopover at little or no additional charge. (If you stay longer, the price will probably go up.)
- Once you have identified a low airfare out of NYC, try using multicity options to return to a different USA city. For example roundtrips out of Cleveland may be expensive, but a multicity trip that starts in New York City and ends in Cleveland may not be. (All you have to add is the separate one way leg from Cleveland to NYC. Be sure to allow a lot of time to connect, since the airline won't protect you if the first leg is late.)
- Also experiment with multicity legs within Europe, and see what you get. Sometimes visiting a Eastern European city with a long "stopover" in London or Paris can be cheaper than a round trip to London or Paris, even if your main destination is London or Paris.
- The Westway Hotel is my fallback hostel lodging when connecting in NYC. Located about a 10-minute bus ride from LGA and under and hour by subway from JFK. Not romantic but always $40 a night.
- Note: The cost of getting from the airport to the city can be non-trivial in Western Europe. You need to factor it into your budget. Check the airport's official website for guidance. If train seems to expensive, look into an airport bus.
- Be conscious of the frequent flyer miles you are accruing, since they can be huge. One round trip to Europe can sometimes get you half the miles you need for free round-trip within the USA, or get you much closer to elite status. Faced with comparable airfares from different airlines, frequent flyer benefits usually guide my choice.
- Consider flying Icelandair. Their fares are competitive with other airlines, but they allow you a free stopover in Iceland. (Icelandair has lousy frequent-flier benefits, however. No reciprocal airlines.) See my Iceland Travel Advice.
- Don't be afraid of Aeroflot connecting through Moscow. Aeroflot is often the cheapest airline to Eastern Europe. You don't need a visa to connect because you will not be leaving the transit area.
- If you want to fly between cities within Europe, plug-in a lot of different dates and city pairs Into Expedia. Fares can vary widely from day to day and city to city. On Expedia, I have encountered a lot of low "rogue fares" popping up in unexpected places. Remember that you can use the train to connect from a low-fare city to the one you actually want to go to.
- Eastern Europe and Western Europe are different economies. Eastern Europe prices can be half of those of Western Europe for things like food, lodging and ground transportation. Eastern Europe however is just as safe, modern and easy to get around for an English speaker as Western Europe.
- Train travel is expensive within Western Europe, almost as much is flying, but it is usually cheap in Eastern Europe. Also look into luxury buses between Eastern European cities.
- For a USA visitor, only Russia and Belarus require pre-arranged visas. (See my Russia visa article.) Nonetheless, be sure to look into the US state department's advice on travel and visas.
- Learn how to Hostel! It means you can find cheap accommodations wherever you go and at any season. Hosteling also gives you contact with a lot of other travelers for advice on where to go and how to get around. See hostelworld.com. Personally, I would stay in hostels even if I could afford the Hilton.
- There is no compelling reason to buy an airfare more than a month or two before traveling. You don't usually get a cheaper fare, but you are restricting your ability to change or to come up with something even better. (I usually buy my own airfares about a month in advance and have still gotten some ridiculously cheap ones)
- All forms of transportation—ground and air—can bog down in Western Europe in July and August. Advanced planning of intercity legs is important then. The rest of the year you can be much more relaxed and just work things out when you get there.
- Don't over-plan the ground portion of your visit. It's hard to know what you are going to want to do until you get there. Just go with the flow. I don't bother reading travel books or doing much research before I arrive. (I'd rather just go there than waste time reading about going there.) With the Internet at your hostel, you can bring a laptop and work on it all out once you get there.
- When should you buy, and when should you wait? That's probably the most difficult issue of all. If you find a low-fare online it is tempting to buy it right away. You lock in the low fare, but you also lock out any better option that you can't yet foresee. Deciding when to buy is more of an art than a science. It rests on your experience with airfares but also in your knowledge of yourself. Many people just can't handle ambiguity for very long. They are under pressure to buy now, but they may regret it when they see what they've overlooked. Others delay and put off the purchase too long, and then the low airfares are gone. You have to find a balance between the two.
- Update 10/15/13: I found some surprisingly low transatlantic fares for selected dates on Norwegian Airlines (Oslo, etc). They have a fare calculator to show you the dates of the lowest fares. I constructed a hypothetical fare in November 2013 of $400 roundtrip from NYC, including tax. (Luggage, seat selection and meal for $69 more.) Also Fort Lauderdale to Oslo for similar pricing.
- Update 3/15/14: It's fine to use a website like Expedia to search for airfares, but when it comes to actually buying the airfare you have found, consider using the airline's own website. The reason: If you have to make changes, you can deal directly with the airline. If you book through a "travel agent" (which includes Expedia and other websites) then the airline may require you to do it through them.
Note: The blacked out city in the image above is Warsaw. (I didn't want to reveal that when I first created this entry.) Yes, that's a round trip transatlantic airfare of $123 (plus taxes and fees), including a 24-hour stopover in London.