By Rick Steves
Your plane ticket to Europe will likely be your biggest trip expense. It pays to be on your toes to get the best deal.
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 and online travel agencies, then sort them by price. Overall, Google Flights comes out on top as my go-to site. It's uncluttered and easy to use, with excellent results for both intercontinental and intra-European flights on a combination of mainstream and budget carriers. It's simple to click ahead or back a day at a time, to see how adjusting your travel dates affects your options and fare. Other popular sites include Kayak and Expedia. To research cheap flights within Europe, Skyscanner works well. On any search site, to avoid layovers, you can use filters to see only nonstop flights.
I use these sites primarily to understand my options, but not necessarily to purchase tickets. Once I've found the ideal connection, I typically click over to the airline's own website to buy my tickets there. Booking through a third party can make it more challenging to select seats, to add any extras or special requests, or to rebook in case something changes. Unless the fare is significantly lower through a third-party site, I book direct.
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 search site, 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). But beaware that a "nearby" Airport may be an hour or more away from the city center, potentially adding transfer time and cost to your plans. 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 airports.
Compare one-way to round-trip fares. On both Google Flights and Kayak, it may be possible to find two one-way tickets that are cheaper than a round-trip fare — often on different airlines. But, for most international flights, buying a single round-trip ticket (even with multi-city departures) is around 20 percent cheaper than two one-ways.
Start a clean search. If you look again and again for the same flights on the same website, the site becomes aware of your search habits…and may increase the prices (although the industry claims this is myth). One way to prevent this is to use your browser's "incognito" or "private" mode when searching for fares. In the Google Chrome web browser, select the three vertical dots in the upper right corner and then select "new incognito window." When searching in this mode, Chrome will not save your cookies or browsing history. Firefox and Safari have similar features.
Sites like Google Flights or Kayak typically redirect you to the airline's website or a third-party vendor to make your reservation. 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 as 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.
There's no such thing as a free lunch in the airline industry. Before grabbing the cheapest ticket you can find, make sure it meets your travel needs with the best combination of schedule, economy, and convenience — without being too restrictive.
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 to six 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.
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. As you delay, dates sell out and prices generally go up. Do a bit of searching to determine prices and trends, then when you see a good fare, grab it. Many airlines will let you pay a small fee to hold a fare for up to 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. Read the fine print before buying to make sure you understand cancellation and change fees.
Pick a seat as early as possible. Most airlines let you choose your seat when you book. Increasingly, there is an extra charge for this, and not just for premium 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, they'll usually open up 90 or 30 days before your flight: Put it on your calendar or set a reminder on your phone. If you're still unhappy with your seat, try checking again a week before your flight, when airlines sometimes release extra seats or change equipment. Check in online as soon as it is allowed (usually 24 hours before your flight; sometimes earlier), when even more seats may be released — including bulkhead and exit-row seats. For pointers on which seats are best on specific airplane models, see SeatGuru.
Consider different ticket tiers. Most US airlines offer several ticket tiers based on various amenities, such as class of service (first, business, premium economy, economy), type of seat (main cabin with more leg room, main cabin toward the back, etc.), baggage allowances, whether the ticket is changeable and/or refundable, whether you can preselect seats (versus waiting until check-in), and more.
The lowest fare — usually called "basic economy" or similar — looks tempting but is also the most restrictive (for instance, not allowing you to select seats or limiting the size of your carry-on). Before selecting this fare, read the rules (each airline differs) and make sure the savings are worth the sacrifices or won't cause you to spend more money in the long run (such as on checked luggage or change fees).
Larger or taller travelers, or anyone who wants a little more personal space, may find it worth the extra cost for the extra legroom afforded by "Premium Economy" seats (or whatever your airline calls their intermediate class between Economy and Business).
Understand cancellation and change policies. Many airlines eliminated aggressive change fees during the pandemic, but once normal travel levels returned, so did many fees. Even without a change fee, if you change your itinerary, you are responsible for the fare difference — so if you get a good deal on a ticket, changing a date or time may result in a higher ticket price. Note that basic economy tickets typically have change fees — and on some carriers, can't be changed at all. Unexpected circumstances can happen to anyone, so understand your ticket's change policies before you buy. (Airlines often offer to sell you flight insurance that covers trip cancellations or delays.)
If you need to alter your return date once you're in Europe, check your options online or 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.
Limit your environmental impact. One round-trip flight to Europe emits roughly as much carbon into our atmosphere as driving a car for six months. While there's no way around that, there are things you can do to help reduce or offset the environmental costs, for example by choosing a direct flight when possible (fewer fuel-guzzling and exhaust-producing takeoffs and landings than with layovers).
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; this can be an expensive hassle to correct later. Decline extras that you don't want. On each page of the transaction, be sure that no boxes are checked unless you want them to be.
Get the airline app. Although it's generally easiest to make your initial reservation on an airline's website, most airlines have a handy app that lets you manage your reservation from your phone. You can use the app to review your reservation details, change seats, order meals, check in, display your boarding pass at the airport, get flight-status updates, access in-air Wi-Fi and entertainment, and more.
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. Check the hotel's location and decide whether the cost savings are worth it to you.
Sign up for low-fare alerts. Many airfare search sites — as well as the official airline sites — let you sign up for alerts about low fares for specific routes or good deals from your home airport.
Consider budget European airlines. A few of Europe's low-cost carriers have flights between the US and Europe; these may not 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' transatlantic flights are mixed regarding 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 a budget airline.
Use scheduling flexibility to your advantage. At certain times — for instance, when shoulder season turns into peak season (and vice versa) for your destination — shifting your flight by one day could save you hundreds of dollars. Fares are generally a bit cheaper for travel Monday through Thursday than for weekends. If your travel dates are flexible, you may be able to score a great deal.