By Rick Steves
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.) If you save money, you usually incur some kind of loss. The formula I keep in mind when shopping for a flight is "Dollars saved = discomfort + restrictions + inflexibility. " Expensive full-fare tickets offer the ultimate in flexibility, but I've never met anyone spending his or her own money who flies that way. Before grabbing the cheapest ticket you can find, make sure it meets your travel needs with the best combination of reliability, economy, and flexibility.
Research flights online. 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.com and Expedia.com — can miss several 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 "agony" rating) and a helpful timeline display of available flights, including layovers, to give you an at-a-glance rundown at your options. Inside Trip assigns each journey a numerical "Overall Trip Quality" score, based on such factors as the total trip time, comfort, and the number, duration, and ease of layovers. You can sort your options either by price or by overall quality.
Airfares flex like crazy — so buy your tickets at the right time. There can be up to 10 different pricing levels for each flight, fares fluctuate throughout the day, and cheap tickets are limited to a few seats. To get the best fare, it's wise to start looking for tickets four to six months before you fly — as soon as you're able to commit to a firm date.
The specific window for optimal booking depends on the season. For spring and summer travel, prime time is January, February, and March. In general, the sooner the better (though that doesn't always mean the best prices are available in January). Fall travel should probably be booked by May or June, because the trend for airfare prices and availability is known by then. If you're traveling in September (particularly the first half of the month) — a very popular time to fly to Europe — start looking even earlier. Travel during winter, November through March, can be purchased a month or so in advance (with the exception of winter breaks and holidays, which require earlier booking).
Find out when "peak season" begins and ends for your travel destination. At certain crucial times, moving your flight by one day (out of peak and into shoulder season) could save you hundreds of dollars. Fares are generally a bit cheaper for travel Monday through Thursday than for weekends (and it's also generally cheaper to book midweek).
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. It's probably been 10 years since I flew in and out of the same European city. Think cleverly about making what used to be called an "open jaw" itinerary — now dubbed a "multiple-city" trip. Since it rarely makes sense to spend the time and money returning to your starting point, this can be very efficient. In general, the fare is figured simply by taking half of the round-trip cost for each of those ports. I used to fly into Amsterdam, travel to Istanbul, and then ride two days by train back to Amsterdam to fly home (because I thought it was "too expensive" to pay $200 extra to fly out of Istanbul). Now I understand the real economy — in time and money — in breaking out of the round-trip mold. Note that multiple-city flights are cheapest when you use the same airline for each segment.
Pay attention to additional fees. Most airlines levy a hefty "fuel surcharge," which varies depending on the airline and the price of fuel. Charges for checked bags are another headache, although most transatlantic flights do not charge for the first checked bag (ask the airline). Combined with airport taxes (which vary by city), these fees can add hundreds of dollars to your total ticket price. In early 2012, the US government made pricing more transparent by enacting a law that requires the advertised price of a ticket to include all taxes and fees for any flight that includes a stop in the US. Advertised rates don't, of course, include optional add-ins (such as insurance or seat upgrades) — you must opt in for these extras.
Changing or canceling your ticket can be very expensive. Be sure of your dates before you book; airlines can be very aggressive about change fees. 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.) Most airlines charge a penalty of about $250 per ticket per change. (Sometimes you must rebook new dates immediately or lose the value of your ticket.) Even then, you typically need to make changes at least 24 hours before your departure to avoid losing the entire value of the ticket. If you need to alter your return date in Europe, call (or, if possible, visit) 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.
Reserve a seat for maximum comfort. To avoid being squeezed in the middle of a row, pick a seat as early as possible. Most airlines let you choose your seat when you book (although there may be a charge 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. For pointers on which seats are best on specific airplanes, check out SeatGuru. Several airlines have an intermediate class between Economy and Business; it goes by various names, but look for something like Economy Extra. Seats are a bit more expensive, but they're also more comfortable (wider and with more legroom). These are worth considering for larger or taller travelers, or for those who get squirmy on long, intercontinental flights and can afford the extra fee.
Review your ticket information carefully when you book. Double-check your dates, destinations, 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.
Check In and Take Off
To ensure your flight goes as smoothly as possible, heed these tips:
Check in online before heading to the airport. Most carriers' websites allow you to check in and print your boarding pass from home (or from your European hotel) 24 hours before departure time. This is a good way to confirm your flight schedule and seat assignment, and it can save you from a long check-in line at the airport. It can sometimes be a hassle to check in for a connection on two different carriers, even if they're partnered (for example, the first leg on Lufthansa and the second leg on United). First try checking in on the website of the company from which you bought the ticket; if that doesn't work, try the other carrier's site. In a pinch, you can check in for the entire journey at the airport, but in rare cases, you may have to wait until your layover to check in for your connecting flight. Don't dawdle — check in as soon as you possibly can.
Increasingly, airlines are allowing you to download a scannable boarding pass onto your smartphone. I've seen many TSA agents scratching their heads over these at the front of long security lines, so clearly the kinks haven't been worked out yet. But it's certainly going to become a more popular option down the line.
Bring a printout of your eticket and your passport. Even though most airlines no longer issue paper tickets, it's always smart to bring the printed receipt with you in case there are complications at the airport. Be sure the receipt has both your eticket number and the airline's reservation code. When flying to Europe, you're required to show your passport to the airline before boarding the flight.
Fly in comfort, even in economy class. I've never in my life paid for anything more than coach. And many times I've ended up on a full flight, spending nine hours in a middle seat. Here are my tricks for a comfortable flight in cattle-car "luxury": Dress warm and loose. I take off my shoes and belt and then cuddle up with a sweater and scarf. I wear noise-reduction headphones. These mute both the rumble of the engines and the mind-numbing chatter of people around me. And with headphones on, I get into conversations only if I want to. This makes the flight much more restful. I have a full charge on my laptop and lots of reading or writing to do. This provides me with a mental escape and an opportunity to prepare for my upcoming travels, and it makes the time race by. And I take a nap with the help of Ambien (the generic name for this prescription drug for insomnia is Zolpidem). For me, just a quarter-tablet is good for a couple of blissful hours. When I wake up, I have to work the kink out of my sore neck, but I'm thankful for the shut-eye. It enables me to function much better on my first day in Europe.