By Rick Steves
Your plane ticket to Europe will likely be your biggest trip expense — and these days, there’s no such thing as a free lunch in the airline industry. (In fact, these days, there’s usually no lunch at all.) Because airlines offer fewer flights and sales, you’ll have to be on your toes to get the best deal. Before grabbing the cheapest ticket you can find, make sure it meets your travel needs with the best combination of schedule, economy, and convenience.
Where to Start
If you're not using a travel agent, your first step is to research your options. While each airline has its own website, I prefer to begin my search with a site that compares my full range of choices.
Flight search engines compare fares available at multiple airlines, online travel agencies, or both, and then sort them by price. I’ve tested a number of them on a variety of journeys, both transatlantic and within Europe. Surprisingly, I’ve seen that the industry’s big sites — like Travelocity and Expedia — can miss good-value results that other sites turned up. Overall, Kayak seems to have the best results for both intercontinental and intra-European flights on a combination of mainstream and budget carriers. (However, for cheap flights within Europe, Skyscanner has a slight edge.)
A couple of sites are better for flights to Europe than flights within Europe, and some nice features make their results easier to navigate. Hipmunk has a lively interface (with a cheery cartoon chipmunk) and a helpful timeline display of available flights, including layovers, to give you an at-a-glance rundown at your options (with an "agony" rating for each). Vayama specializes in international flights, and often finds cheaper fares that might not show up elsewhere — but beware that its customer service doesn't have a stellar reputation for handling cancellations and changes.
While it’s possible to book your flights on most search sites (they certainly hope you will, to garner their commission), I use them only as a first step. Once I’ve zeroed in on which airline has the best deal for my trip, I check the airline’s own site to compare fares. You can avoid third-party service fees by booking direct, and airlines may offer bonuses (such as extra frequent-flier miles) to those who book direct.
On the other hand, search sites occasionally beat the fares on the airline’s official site, sometimes by using “mix and match” journeys to connect the legs of a single trip on multiple airlines. (However, these trips can be difficult to rebook in case of a delay or missed leg — review the schedule carefully, watching out for very tight connections or extremely long layovers.)
For maximum peace of mind, it can be best to book directly with the airline, which can more easily address unexpected problems or deal with rescheduled flights. If you do wind up buying tickets through a third-party site, make sure you carry their phone number with you — you’ll need to speak to a person if you have a problem.
Buy your tickets at the right time (to the extent possible). Airfares flex like crazy, but in general it’s wise to start looking for international flights four to five months before your trip, especially if you are traveling in spring, summer, or fall. Good deals on travel during winter (November through March), can usually be purchased a month or so in advance, with the exception of winter breaks and holidays, which require even earlier booking. Year-round, it's generally cheaper to book midweek.
All that said, knowing the best time to buy is still a guessing game, though you can improve your chances by taking advantage of some tech tools. Google's Flight Explorer shows the best prices to your destination in an easy-to-read graph, which you can tailor to your time frame. Several search sites, including Kayak and Expedia, offer similar price-trend graphs.
Be ready to buy. Given how erratic airline pricing can be, you want to be ready to pounce on a good fare when you see it. Waiting to talk with your travel partner could cost you a good fare. As you delay, dates sell out and prices generally go up. Figure out in advance what constitutes a good fare, then grab it when you find it. Long gone are the days when you or your travel agent could put several different reservations on hold while you made a decision.
Consider flying into one city and out of another. Since it rarely makes sense to spend the time and money returning to your starting point, this can be very efficient. For most "multicity" flights, the fare is figured simply by taking half of the round-trip cost for each of those ports, though you'll likely save money by using the same airline for each segment.
Be sure of your dates before you book. Changing or canceling your ticket can be very expensive, as airlines can be very aggressive about change fees, with most charging around $250 per ticket per change. Unexpected circumstances can affect anyone, so understand your ticket’s change policies before you buy. (While cheaper, nonrefundable tickets are the most restrictive, even certain types of business and first-class tickets have penalties for changes.)
If you need to alter your return date in Europe, call your airline’s European office. If you absolutely must get home early, go to the airport: If you’re standing at the airport two days before your ticket says you can go home, and seats are available, they may just let you fly.
Pick a seat as early as possible. Most airlines let you choose your seat when you book, and most charge extra for roomier seats. If seat assignments aren’t available at booking, ask about the earliest possible date that you can call to request your seat (for example, 90 or 30 days before your flight) — and put it on your calendar. Larger or taller travelers may find it worth the extra cost for the extra legroom afforded by "Economy Plus" seats (or whatever your airline calls their intermediate class between Economy and Business). For pointers on which seats are best on specific airplanes, see SeatGuru.
Review your ticket information carefully when you book. Double-check your dates, times, destinations, baggage allowance, and exact spelling of your name. Confirm that the name on your reservation exactly matches the one on your passport, which can be an expensive hassle to correct later. A simple second look can give you a chance to fix any mistakes and save you enormous headaches down the road.
Here are some additional ideas for finding lower fares online:
Comparison-shop “air plus hotel” promotional deals. Some airfare aggregators and airlines offer “getaway” deals, where, for one low price, you get a round-trip flight to a European city as well as a few nights’ lodging. Given Europe’s high accommodations costs — especially in big cities — this can be a good value, though you can expect to be put up in a soulless business hotel.
Sign up for low-fare Twitter and/or email alerts. Many airfare search sites — as well as the official airline sites — will email and tweet automated updates about low fares for specific routes. Airfarewatchdog is a free service that does a particularly good job of finding the cheapest fares across multiple airlines (including those that don't show up on most search sites), and limits their alerts to flights that actually have seats available. The similar FareCompare also tweets alerts specific to your home airport.
Consider budget European airlines. A few of Europe’s low-cost carriers have flights between the US and Europe; these don't normally show up in the search results of most US-based airfare comparison sites. Check this list for carriers that serve your European destination, then find out if they serve any US airports. Be forewarned that passenger reviews of these carriers' trans-Atlantic flights are mixed regarding their legroom, onboard services, and overall comfort — all of which are more important on a long overseas flight than a quick intra-European hop. Do your homework before committing to a lengthy flight on one of these carriers.
Use any scheduling flexibility to your advantage. At certain times — such as the overlap between peak season and shoulder season for your destination — moving your flight by one day could save you hundreds of dollars. And consider that fares are generally a bit cheaper for travel Monday through Thursday than for weekends.
If your travel dates aren’t set, you may be able to score a great deal. Check out the take-what-you-can-get airfares from websites such as lastminute.com or Last Minute Travel. Airfarewatchdog and Travelzoo keep track of the latest deals (though Travelzoo lacks a flight-search function).
“Bidding-for-travel” sites like Priceline and Hotwire are also worth checking. But you’re just as likely to stumble upon deals on the airlines’ own websites — particularly if you sign up for their email alerts. Be aware that deeply discounted fares generally have serious restrictions; for example, you can’t always choose the time of day to fly. But the savings could make it worthwhile if your travel dates are flexible.