Thursday, September 19, 2013

Transatlantic Airfare Tips: How to Hop the Pond for Less

By Glenn Campbell (updated Sept. 22, 2014)

I fly to Europe from the USA about twice a year, always on an extremely tight budget. Compared to airfares within the USA, transatlantic fares are atrocious, but here are some ways to find the lowest fares. I never spend more than $800 for a roundtrip, even with some fancy stopovers, and I have occasionally found fares as low as $600. The article contains my tips for getting across the pond for the lowest airfare possible, honed over about 5 years of active travel.

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. Cheap airfares within Europe often mean your best bet is to land in an obscure city then take a train or cheap flight to your intended destination. If you are into hosteling, then your ground accommodations can be quite affordable, but you have to get across the pond first.

Taxes and fees make up a huge portion of transatlantic airfares, far more than flying either within USA or within Europe. They often dwarf the actual fare (as shown above: my 2013 NYC-Warsaw trip with a stopover in London: Airfare $128. Taxes/fees $670.). The taxes and fees are the main reason low airfares are so fare. A round-trip airfare of about $700 is the best you can expect. In the summer (June-August) fares go sky-high. In that case, anything under $1000 r/t would be golden. The rest of the year, even around Christmas, you are aiming for a fare of $700-800.

Whatever time of year you travel, don't get discouraged when the first fares you see are high. There is always a way if you are willing to be creative and land in an unexpected place. Once you hop the pond, airfares within Europe are comparable to those within the USA, and there are plenty of bargains to be had.

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!
Here are some specific tips on working with Expedia and other travel resources....

  • 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.) After you find a low NYC airfare, you can experiment with other USA cities heading to that same European destination.
  •  CHI, WAS, QLA, QSF, ATL, MCO, MIA, YYZ and BOS are often worth checking too, but most of my transatlantic journeys start in New York.
  • Fares to Eastern Europe cities are usually lower than "old" European cities like Paris, London, Rome, Amsterdam, even when changing planes in those expensive cities. Try Warsaw, Istanbul, Riga, etc. Getting to Moscow always seems to be cheap (fares around $700 r/t) but the visa process is hell if you plan to leave the airport. (Here are my Russians visa tips, even though my effort failed.)
  • Check Expedia frequently for rogue fares. A "rogue fare" is my term for a low airfare the appears only for a short time in an unexpected place. They could pop up anywhere, and you find out about them only by checking airfares frequently. An exceptional fare would be around $600-700. If you see a great fare, book it immediately. On Expedia, you have 24 hours to ask for a full refund—a feature I use liberally.
  • In 2014, Copenhagen was a surprising low-fare city. Try it! I flew from JFK to CPH for $748 r/t, and such fares were consistently available in late 2014, even booking at the last minute. Copenhagen itself is horrendously expensive (twice the prices as the USA, with hostels starting at $40), but it is easy to get directly from the airport to Germany by train. For example, you can get off your flight at CPH in the morning, board a train directly from the airport terminal and be in Hamburg or Berlin by the end of the day. In Germany, you'll find prices about the same as the USA. Train tickets can be booked online at
  • My experience in Copenhagen suggests you should never discount Scandinavia for low fares. The fact that the cities are expensive doesn't necessarily mean airfares are.
  • In theory, you could book a trip to a cheap Eastern Europe city, then get off the plane in, say, London. Unfortunately, your luggage has to go all the way to your destination. I also worry that my remaining legs may be cancelled if I fail to get on a connecting flight. (Probably not a real risk, but I can't be positive.) This system works better on the US side, where you can, say, abort your journey in New York when you change planes there. In USA, your luggage is always returned to you at the first city you land in, so you can clear customs, and you have to recheck your luggage for connecting flights. Such is not true when you land in, say, AMS. In Europe, you won't see your luggage until your final destination, so it is best to stick with your booked itinerary. 
  • 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 EasyJetPegasusAir 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. Read the fine print.)
  • Check the Deutsche Bahn website for train fares within Europe. Train is often a good alternative to flying within Europe. Low fares require only a minimal advance purchase. The Bahn site allowed you to immediately book trains that begin or end in Germany. For other trains, the site is useful mainly for schedules.
  • 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 separate 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 via LGA. Located about a 10-minute bus ride from LGA and under and hour by subway from JFK. Not romantic but always $40 a night. If only JFK is involve, not LGA, then try the Q4 Hotel or the NY Loft Hostel, which are convenient by subway to the airport.
  • 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. I'm even willing to pay a $100 premium for the right FF miles.
  • Consider flying Icelandair. Their fares are competitive with other airlines, but they allow you a free stopover in Iceland. (Icelandair has useless frequent-flier benefits, however. No reciprocal airlines.) See my Iceland Travel Advice.
  • 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 (like Edward Snowden), but apparently there is a passport check there, which makes me uncomfortable. Before the Ukraine problems in 2014, I was willing to fly Aeroflot, but until Ukraine is settled, I regard it is risky. Not any physical danger, but your flight could be cancelled if tensions escalate.
  • Fun fact: In the summer, it is about the same price to fly from JFK to India as it is to fly from JFK to London.
  • 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. Cut-rate carriers often fly out of obscure airports you never heard of.
  • 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 can be 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. In Western Europe, buying your tickets a few days in advance can greatly reduce the cost.
  • In my younger years, I used a Eurail Pass to loaf around Europe. Now I consider it not a particularly good deal. You can do a lot better with point-to-point fares on a variety of modes (plane, train, bus).
  • For a visitor from USA, only Russia and Belarus require pre-arranged visas. (And the Russian one is extremely difficult. See my Russia visa article.) Nonetheless, be sure to look into the US state department's advice on travel and visas for every country you are visiting.
  • 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 Personally, I would stay in hostels even if I could afford the Hilton.
  • There is usually no compelling reason to buy an airfare more than a month or two before traveling, except perhaps in the summer. 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. Nonetheless, once you know you are travelling, kept checking airfares on your preferred travel sites. If you are traveling in summer and see a fare for under $1000, you might want to grab it.
  • Travel sites like Expedia give you a 24 hour grace period after you purchase your ticket to obtain a full refund. (You cancel the flight right on the website.) This means when you see a low fare, you can grab it right away. Then you have 24 hours to piece together other elements of your trip and decide whether you really want it.
  • 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. (June is a more relaxed month and a good time to travel. Only the airfare is a barrier.)
  • 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 in their plans. 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.
  • 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. This airline is not listed on major travel websites (and probably doesn't give useful FF miles).
  • 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.