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Help a travel n00b.
April 8, 2011 7:26 PM   Subscribe

Flying to San Francisco to Berlin, returning to SF from Milan in the summer. When, where, and how should I go about buying plane tickets?

So I'm a poor college student going off to Europe for the first time and am totally clueless as to how to the international airline industry works. When to buy and where to look? I'm going to Berlin in mid-July and am expected to fly back from Milan to SFO in mid-August.

I've been looking at Kayak.com and the prices it's coming up with are >$1000. Are there any tricks to purchasing tickets? Would round-trip (going back to Berlin from Milan) be cheaper? I'd have to pay for ground transportation from Berlin to Milan, though.

Also not certain when I should be back in San Francisco yet. Flexibility in changing dates would be a plus. I might have to come back a little earlier than expected.

I don't care when I leave the US to go to Berlin, however.

Thanks for any suggestions!
posted by myntu to Travel & Transportation (5 answers total)
 
Honestly, I have no idea about your itinerary, but if you're a student (hey fellow poor college student!) have you looked at StudentUniverse? It's been consistently the cheapest price for me for several trips now, and they sometimes have pretty good sales ($50 off for spring break, for example).
posted by Papagayo at 8:49 PM on April 8, 2011


I flew non-roundtrip to Europe by booking through Kayak and didn't feel too ripped off. Both halves of my trip were through Virgin, though, and it was within a week.
posted by maryr at 8:54 PM on April 8, 2011


Let me just make sure I have this right - you want to go from SFO-BER-MXP-SFO, right?

I've done mismatched routings before. In general it's a lot cheaper to do RT between the same airports - when you mismatch airports, you may fall into the "business traveler" pricing scheme.

Flexibility in changing dates is pretty much impossible. Expect to pay fees ($100) and crazy re-ticket charges ($100-$1000). You could in theory try to fly stand-by, but with new lower capacity, you might have to wait flight after flight to get a seat, and then you'll be stranded somewhere else.

My recommendation is to reserve a few hours on a Wednesday night (not fri/sat/sun/mon) and be a robot: plugging in all the possible combinations of dates and cities into Kayak AND Orbitz (it's got a really good flight matching engine).

Are there cities NEAR milan and berlin that you can fly into out of? Can you find your way to Rome perhaps?

Seriously - build an excel spreadsheet and start plugging in all these combinations:

7/1 SFO BER 8/1 BER SFO
7/1 SFO BER 8/1 MXP SFO
7/1 SFO BER 8/1 FCO SFO
7/1 SFO BER 8/1 BER SJC
7/1 SFO BER 8/1 MXP SJC
7/1 SFO BER 8/1 FCO SJC
7/1 SFO BER 8/1 BER OAK
7/1 SFO BER 8/1 MXP OAK
7/1 SFO BER 8/1 FCO OAK
7/1 SJC BER 8/1 BER SFO

So on and so forth. Eventually you'll see some pricing trends and be able to rule out certain airport combinations. (Like OAK probably.)

The more time and energy and organization you put into this, the better your outcome will be.

I'm not a student, so I'm not familiar with student discounts. (I doubt there are any anymore. The airline industry has become so incredibly stingy. Maybe foreign based airlines still have deals.)
posted by veryblue1 at 9:01 PM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am not a student, but I am an experienced traveler. Paying over $1000 for a round-trip ticket from SF to Berlin sounds about right to me. And you are doing more than just a simple round-trip ticket.

One thing I would note, I have found that sometimes, a round-trip ticket to one destination and one or two one-way tickets - can be cheaper than a round-trip with multiple destinations.

You might check, round trip to and from berlin, and one way Florence to berlin.
posted by Flood at 4:32 AM on April 9, 2011


Seriously - build an excel spreadsheet and start plugging in all these combinations:

ITA, which is the engine many sites use, has their own search site, with +/- two days and every airport within 300 mile capabilities on "open jaw" (i.e. fly A-B, C-A) and multicity pairs, so one search can do all of the suggested origin/destination pairs and many more. ITA's cheapest pair within 300 miles were SFO-Wroclaw and Basel-SFO, which you would never check manually. Kayak has +/- 3 days, but only your choice of 4 cities within 200 miles. Going to the 300 mile range adds major hubs Frankfurt, Munich and Rome into your choice set.

Another option is a roundtrip to a middle point; Munich and Frankfurt (for example) are both within 300mi of Berlin and Milan. This adds ground transportation both ways, but it may save you on flights and could provide a little sightseeing before or after. The German train website, bahn.de, has ground transport schedules so you can see if that end can be made to work and at what cost (luckily, there are often student discounts on the rails).

In general, you'll probably find that a little flexibility on dates is more helpful than geographic flexibility, especially since San Francisco, Berlin and Milan are all airline hubs/focus cities. But a thousand bucks from the West coast isn't a terrible fare. Also, while fares typically get more expensive the closer you get to the travel date, that's mostly during the last month or so; there may yet be a price war you can take advantage of. Search early, search often.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:36 AM on April 10, 2011


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