Low-Cost Airfares to Europe

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Four money-saving methods for securing discounts

How to get a low-cost airfare to Europe? Let us count the ways. There are numerous methods, some complicated, some straightforward and some, frankly, a bit odd, for saving money on airfare. We've created a partial road-map below and we suggest that you read through all four methods before trying any. Good luck!

1. Saving money by being "flexible" in your choice of departure dates and destinations
Airhitch (airhitch.org) is the 35-year-old organization (it started in 1969 as a campus organization!) that will help you literally hitchhike your way across the Atlantic in either direction, any time (even at the peak of the summer travel season) for a remarkable $165, plus taxes and fees (the total comes to $210) provided you are flexible with the exact date of your departure and the exact European city where you'll start your trip. Still listening?

In actual fact, Airhitch says, it turns out that Airhitchers are able to get rides across the Atlantic more than 99 percent of the time, often right to their preferred destinations and on their preferred dates. And if it doesn't, Airhitch insists, what does it matter? How important is it, really, to start your trip in Amsterdam rather than Brussels, Dusseldorf rather than Frankfurt, on September 18 rather than September 17? (especially since, due to the European Union's revolutionary overhauling of intraEurope air-transport, fares within Europe are dirt-cheap these days, often cheaper than the bus!)

Think like a traveler, not a tourist, Airhitch recommends, and you'll find those variances to be inconsequential--at least if you are traveling just for the sake of traveling and not for some specific extrinsic purpose (like hooking up with a guided tour or going to a wedding or visiting Aunt Minnie). When you sign up for Airhitch, shortly before it's time to fly, you'll go through a "flight-briefing" that helps you optimally manage your departure based on spot availability. The flights are rated from "A" to "F", with an "A" rating meaning as great a likelihood of boarding as if you actually held a confirmed seat, and "F" a less than 10 percent chance of being able to get on board. It's up to you to read the data, with the help of the "Airhitch Online Staff," and get to the airport, find the flight, and board it (which is sometimes easy, sometimes a huge headache, but is always made easier thru guidance from the AOS right thru the process).

What else should you know about Airhitch? First off, you don't pay anything until after you board your flight. This leaves you free at any time leading up to actual boarding to "shop" elsewhere for a "better deal," without penalty. Embedded in the cost of Airhitching, which is not paid until after you board, is a non-refundable $29 registration fee, but even this fee can be waived, if you ultimately decide not to Airhitch, if you simply share with the AOS the details of whatever alternative method you decided on instead of Airhitching. So essentially, you are completely free to change any aspect of your trip, as long as you keep the AOS informed, without costing you an extra penny. The airlines will have no record of you in their computers and it is highly likely that they will not do anything to you in case you change your mind about anything at all. The only downside of this unique and radical method of boarding aircraft is the need to be relatively flexible and patient, but if you are traveling purely for the sake of traveling, that's pretty necessary anyway!

2. Searching the web

If you're not an adventurous Air-Hitch flyer, then your next best course--in our view--is to follow a four-step procedure on the Internet for finding low-cost transatlantic fares. This multi-part formula goes as follows:

Step One: First ascertain the lowest published airfare for the transatlantic route in which you're interested by accessing one of the "BOT" search engines which compare the offers of such sites as Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia with those of the major airline sites. Among the many new "BOT"s, and tend to be the most thorough in their search capabilities. Write down the lowest price they show for the date and European city in which you're interested.

Step Two: Then turn--ta dum!--to Budget Travel Online, click on and call up the phone numbers listed (many of these companies you might have already looked up online, but calling sometimes results in a cheaper price). Sometimes the fares over the phone undercut what you can find on the Web, sometimes they don't. If they do, write down the price they offer. And then....

Step Three: Take the lowest price you've ascertained from Steps One and Two above, reduce it by, say, 20 percent, and then submit the reduced number to one of the "name-your-own-price" services: either Priceline.Com or Hotwire.com are good possibilities. If you get that lower price, you've scored a major coup; if not, you've lost nothing, and can proceed to book with the company offering the lowest price under Steps One or Two, above.

3. The ultra-exotic international carriers Ever thought of flying to Europe on Uzbekistan Airways? For a short, heady time some months ago, bright budget travelers could cut their transatlantic flight cost to as little as $300 round-trip by departing from New York on a plane ultimately going to far-off Tashkent, but stopping on the way for fuel in Amsterdam. Because Uzbekistan Airways was not exactly in heavy demand, it usually had seats available on its New York/Amsterdam segment, which it sold off at sacrificial rates.

Well, Air Uzbekistan no longer stops in Western Europe on the way to its exotic and remote capital (it stops instead in Kiev); but other equally exotic airlines do. Wanna get to London cheap? Fly Kuwait Airlines. Frankfurt? Check out Singapore Airlines. While some of these carriers will not quote a reduced rate directly to you, they all work with specific favored "consolidators" (discounters) that can usually offer heavy discounts for the transatlantic portion of the trip. Here are examples to key European cities:

To London, the standard high season price that most people pay from New York is the in the neighborhood of $775 plus tax charged by such familiar carriers as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and American Airlines, for a 14-day advance-purchase round-trip excursion fare on midweek departures. Flying instead on Air-India in high season (on a flight that goes New York-London-Bombay/New Delhi), you will pay up to $250 less between New York and London if you buy your tickets from such Air-India consolidators as Air and Cruise Line Travel (212/689-9455) or Galaxy Tours and Travel (212/564-9611). In autumn, you can pay even less to London by flying there on Kuwait Airways, which stops in the British capital on its way to the Middle East. Consolidators such as Ferns Travel (212/868-9194) regularly sell autumn-winter New York/London round-trips on Kuwait Airways starting under $300. But in 2003, who needed Kuwait airlines with Virgin frequently underselling the competition with fares as low as $178 roundtrip to London.

Fares from Los Angeles to distant London on Air New Zealand, which flies that route transatlantic and then continues on to its home country. In summer (Air New Zealand's low season), the Kiwi carrier has been known to charge as little as $460 plus tax (during limited-time sales) for round-trip flights from the U.S. West coast to the British metropolis. And those rates usually stay under $500 even in the fall, when New Zealand activity picks up. Contact Air New Zealand directly (800/262-1234 or 800/671-6560).

To Frankfurt, if you contact a consolidator for Singapore Airlines like Travel Point (212/967-1766) which offers roundtrip service in the low season for $199 but expect to pay as much as $599 in the high season.

To Brussels, standard round-trip rates on Belgium's flag carrier, Sabena, run $870 in summer and early fall, $714 in late autumn, from New York. By contrast, Biman Bangladesh can get you there round-trip for as little as $337 plus tax in high season, through such consolidators handling its flights as Syncom (212/573-9076) or United Travel (212/481-7799). Biman Bangladesh crosses the Atlantic, stopping in Brussels, on its way to the India sub-continent.

4. Another alternative: Charters and consolidators to Europe

Tour operators and packagers often get special airfares by selling large amounts of tickets for the airlines. Some even utilize charter carriers to cut costs further. But one needn't buy an air-hotel package to take advantage of these savings: these same companies also offer air-only options. Connections may be limited, check-in time may be increased, and ticket changes can be difficult, if allowed at all. But if the schedules work for you (being flexible helps), this method is also a money-saver. For summer and early fall travel of 2002, mainstream sources generally charge $100 to $300 more than prices quoted below.

New Frontiers is widely known for bargain air-hotel packages to Paris, but it also offers air alone on its charter carrier, Corsair, from Los Angeles to Paris. Flights leave for Paris on Tuesdays and return on Sundays. Prices range from $548 for departures in May, $648 in early June, up to $748 for an economy seat in summer's peak season, all valid for a 90-day stay. Similar rates are offered for Corsair flights from Oakland to Paris (departing on Fridays, returning on Thursdays, from June 20 to September 9 only). New Frontiers also works as a consolidator for various airlines, with connections all over the U.S. to Europe. For a price quote, call 800/677-0720.

If you fancy Italy, Fantasy Holidays (800/645-2555) can help you get there affordably. This operator sells discounted tickets aboard Italian national carrier Alitalia, with connections not only to major airports like Rome and Milan, but to destinations such as Bologna, Florence, Naples, Pisa, and Venice. What is extra nice is that prices are usually the same no matter which final airport you choose. Fly to any of the above cities by June 11 and prices start at $610 for departures from New York (JFK), Newark, Boston, Chicago, Miami, or Atlanta. From June 12 through August 31, prices begin at $970.

Sceptre Tours is a staple in the Ireland market, and can arrange inexpensive airfare to the Emerald Isle with direct flights on Aer Lingus. Known primarily as a discount packager to Hawaii and Mexico, SunTrips also arranges charter flights from the San Francisco area (where there is a large Portuguese community) to the Azores, a historic island chain located a few hours off the coast of Portugal, $509 from Boston or New York (JFK) for departures from June 1 to August 31. For the same dates from Chicago, rates begin at $599, and from Los Angeles, round-trips start at $695. If you prefer flights to Dublin, add $10 each way. Prices quoted are based on midweek flights; for weekends add $30 each way. Returns are valid a full six months after departure. Call 800/221-0924 for more details.

Homeric Tours' home base is Greece, and this packager offers some pretty prices to the Greek capital of Athens aboard its charter airline, World Airways. Flights for Athens leave New York's JFK Airport on Thursdays and Saturdays, with returns on Friday and Sunday. Rates start as low as $559 round-trip if you depart before June 13, up to $849 in the mid-summer. For reservations, go online to or call 800/223-5570.

Netherlands native Martinair regularly flies from Amsterdam to Florida before continuing on to the Caribbean. You can pick up a flight on the return route from Orlando (three days a week) or Miami (five days a week) to Amsterdam starting at $598 round-trip if you fly by June 15, up to $840 in the heart of summer. Find out more by calling 800/MARTINAIR.

LTU International Airways, a small German carrier based in Dusseldorf, offers five connections from North America (three in Florida) to its hub airport. For flights departing by June 15, rates to Dusseldorf start at $638 from Miami, Ft. Myers, or Orlando (up to $818 from June 16 to August 31). From Los Angeles, rates begin at $798 up through June 17, going up to $998 for the rest of the summer. The peak season price (June 18 to August 31) for Toronto to Dusseldorf is $1,090. LTU also has connecting flights from Dusseldorf to Munich and Frankfurt, sometimes at no extra charge. Call 866/266-5588.

Known primarily as a discount packager to Hawaii and Mexico, SunTrips also arranges charter flights from the San Francisco area (where there is a large Portuguese community) to the Azores, a historic island chain located a few hours off the coast of Portugal. Flights to the Azores aboard SunTrips charter carrier RyanAir are seasonal, departing Oakland on Wednesdays, returning Thursdays, June through September. Prices range between $639 to $1,148, depending on when you leave and how long you stay. It is not unheard of to pay $799 plus tax for a round-trip in the middle of July. From Oakland, the plane may make one refueling stop in Montreal before flying direct into the Azores. To find out more, call SunTrips at 800/786-4357.

If that fare to the Azores is still an eyesore, check out the Azores Express, a carrier that frequently offers great deals to the volcanic islands (we saw as low as $399 roundtrip from Boston for trips in the Oct-Dec and Jan-Mar ranges). Problem is, the airline flies only on Tuesdays and Fridays and charges $75 in taxes-there's always a catch.

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