By Rick Steves
Your flight to Europe will likely be your biggest trip expense — it pays to be on your toes to get the best deal. And keep in mind that there's no such thing as a free lunch in the airline industry. (In fact, these days there's usually no lunch at all.) 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. Rather than checking each airline's website, I begin my search with a site that compiles my choices.
Flight search websites 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. Overall, Kayak has the best results for both intercontinental and intra-European flights on a combination of mainstream and budget carriers. An alternative is Google Flights, which has an easy-to-use system to track prices and lets you see how much you'd save by departing a day earlier or later.
A couple of sites are better for flights to Europe than flights within Europe, and some nice features make their results easier to navigate. Expedia is easy to use and consistent at finding good fares. CheapoAir offers pricing tables for mixed-airline flights to and from Europe. Vayama specializes in international flights, with 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. (For cheap flights within Europe, I prefer Skyscanner.)
Look around. No single flight search engine includes every possible airline — and some airlines deliberately limit where their airfares appear. It's always smart to check more than one website, and to look directly on airlines' websites as well.
Think flexibly about airports and dates. If you are flying into a city with several airports, select either "all airports" or simply the city name ("LON" for London) rather than a specific airport name ("LHR" for London Heathrow). If offered, select "include nearby airports" — doing so will return more flight options (for example, Pisa for Florence or Bratislava for Vienna). Choosing "flexible dates" lets you see what you might save by flying a few days before or after your ideal time frame.
Consider flying into one city and out of another. Since it rarely makes sense to spend time and money returning to your starting point, this strategy 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.
Delete your cookies and history. When searching for fares, it may help to regularly delete your Internet cookies and search history if you repeatedly search for the same itinerary. Cookies remember what you've searched in the past. So if you're looking again and again for the same flights on the same website, the site becomes aware of your search habits…and increases the prices. To delete your cookies, look under "content settings" or "browsing data" in your browser's privacy settings.
While it's possible to book your flights on most search sites (they certainly hope you will, to garner their commission), I use these sites 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 often avoid added costs by booking direct (the commissions are charged either as higher prices or in the form of fees for booking through a third party). And airlines may offer bonuses (such as extra frequent-flier miles) to those who book direct.
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's usually best to book directly with the airline, which can more easily address unexpected problems or deal with rescheduled flights. If you do buy 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 at least four months before your trip, especially for travel in spring, summer, or fall. Good deals on winter travel (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 Google's Flight Explorer, which shows the best prices to your destination in an easy-to-read graph, and can be tailored to your time frame. And several search sites, including Kayak and Expedia, offer 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. A few airlines will let you pay a small fee to hold a fare for three days. US Department of Transportation regulations state that you're entitled to cancel or change a flight within 24 hours of purchase without a fee, but if you're changing flights, you may have to pay the fare difference. Airlines find sneaky ways around these rules, so call before buying if there's a decent chance you'll need to cancel.
Be sure of your dates before you book. Changing or canceling your ticket can be very expensive, as airlines can be aggressive about change fees, with most charging around $250 per ticket per change. Unexpected circumstances can happen to anyone, so understand your ticket's change policies before you buy. (While nonrefundable tickets are cheaper and 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 and talk to your airline's representatives at the ticket desk: 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 your first choice is not open, select another seat and try to change it later. If seat assignments aren't available at booking, ask about the earliest possible date that you can request your seat (for example, 90 or 30 days before your flight) — and put it on your calendar. A week before your flight, airlines will sometimes release extra seats or change equipment: Check to see if you can get a better seat. And try to check in online exactly 24 hours before your flight, when even more seats may be released — including bulkhead and exit-row seats.
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. Decline extras that you don't want (for example, premium seating — with an extra fee). On each page of the transaction, be sure that no boxes are checked unless you want them to be.
Here are some additional ideas for finding low fares:
Comparison-shop "air plus hotel" promotional deals. Some airfare aggregators and airlines offer "getaway" deals. 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 accommodation costs — especially in big cities — these can be a good value, though you can expect to be put up in a soulless business hotel.
Sign up for low-fare alerts. Many airfare search sites — as well as the official airline sites — will email and tweet automated updates about low fares for specific routes. Or check out AirfareWatchdog, 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. A similar site called FareCompare 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 with hubs near your European destination, then find out if they fly to any US airports. Be forewarned that passenger reviews of these budget 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.
Use any scheduling flexibility to your advantage. At certain times — for instance, when shoulder season turns into peak season (and vice versa) — shifting 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 — try sites like AirfareWatchdog and TravelZoo, both of which keep track of the latest deals, or Fly.com, which displays an up-to-date list of cheap deals from your city to various destinations.
Some sites offer the option to purchase a discounted ticket without knowing full details about your airline and flight times. For example, Priceline allows you to suggest a price for your itinerary if you're flexible about your airline and flight schedule. Hotwire offers discount "hot rates" that provide details of your airline and flight time after you have purchased the ticket. Just keep in mind that you're just as likely to stumble upon deals on the airlines' own websites — particularly if you sign up for their email alerts.