Cheap travel to Europe
April 8, 2005 6:52 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to vacation in Europe from California with my girlfriend in a year or so. It seems as though our biggest expense is going to be plane tickets. How can I reduce this expense?

•Approximate length of stay: 3-6 weeks
•Location: I imagine the difficult/pricey part is actually getting to that continent. Is that the case? If not, we'd like to spend some time in Nice and Vienna.
•Time of departure: Bent around college schedule, unfortunately, placing us square in peak travel times: Winter break, summer break.
posted by sirion to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Getting there is the expensive part, yes. Find the cheapest fare you can get just to get close (tip: Aer Lingus often produces astounding summer fares to Dublin; get a good domestic fare to NY or Chicago and hop from there). Then look into the discount airlines (RyanAir is one of them) to hop to where you want to go. Just give yourself lots of padding, timewise, because the European discount airlines fly out of regional airports rather than international, and RyanAir in particular is notorious for sticking to schedule.

IcelandAir also often offers great European fares with a stopover in Rekjavik. You're travelling a lot longer, but, hey, when else are you going to get to Iceland for a day?

If you're both students, look into student travel agencies. No matter what route you take, accept that your best fares are going to happen 3-5 weeks before departure. Have your passports ready and be willing to fly by the seat of your pants a little* and you can get good deals even at peak travel times.

*This is my advice to you young and/or still-in-school whippersnappers, from my advanced age of 33. My husband and I are now too employed to take whim vacations, even though I know from my younger travel experiences that it's the unexpected that makes the best experience. Be flexible while you can.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:05 PM on April 8, 2005

I've pricelined all my overseas airfare. As long as you have a day or two's flexibility in departure/arrival, you should be able to get sub 500.00 airfare if you buy a couple of months in advance.
posted by pieoverdone at 8:51 PM on April 8, 2005

I second the recommendation for Aer Lingus - I've gotten sub-$400 fares round-trip from Los Angeles - Dublin before using their web specials.

Waiting until closer to travel time is usually wise - if airlines haven't filled up their seats, they'll drop prices. Also, check sites like Smarter Living - they'll notify you of fare sales, fare wars (where one airline drops fares to a certian market and others battle to be just a teensy bit lower), etc.

As an example, I just priced out a round-trip from Los Angeles - Dublin in May and got a fare that was under $500 round-trip. It's been that price since mid-February. All of my travel within Europe will be done by cheap airlines (RyanAir, BMIbaby, etc.) or rail.
posted by bedhead at 10:01 PM on April 8, 2005

Response by poster: Does having two people help at all in terms of airfare?

posted by sirion at 11:10 PM on April 8, 2005

Response by poster: Lyn- About that 3-5 weeks you cite as the time to get the best deals: What course of action does one take at that point? Just search around at the websites of these cheaper airlines?
posted by sirion at 11:15 PM on April 8, 2005

Since you've got a year to look for tickets, monitor the forums regularly for mistake fares (airlines post these regularly, and they usually last a day or two before someone notices.) The clever folks there just uncovered a mistake fare from Los Angeles to Fiji for $0 (~$100 after taxes) last week.
posted by ori at 11:52 PM on April 8, 2005

You can try flying as an air courier. Basically what you do is register to be a mule for international courier companies. You pack everything into your carry-on allowance, and they use your luggage allowance to ship freight overnight. Because profit margins are so high on freight, they heavily subdize your flight. Sometimes you even fly for free. The catch is that you are essentially flying on standby, so you need to be quite flexible with your schedule. This is best suited to backpackers or seasoned opportunists. Don't worry, this is entirely legitimate -- I believe the courier companies must be bonded under Interpol regulations.
posted by randomstriker at 1:12 AM on April 9, 2005

BTW, it's often said that travelling together is a make-or-break experience for relationships. That certainly was my experience (lost my fiance due to the stresses involved). I am not suggesting you not travel together, rather that you guys prepare yourselves somehow so that you have a higher chance of coming out of it together. How you would do that, I have not much of an idea.
posted by randomstriker at 1:16 AM on April 9, 2005

I'll second icelandair. Sure it's a long flight but hey, Rekyavik! When I was a poor starving art student in NYC this is how I managed to get home during the breaks. :)
posted by dabitch at 3:40 AM on April 9, 2005

The summer will be the most expensive time. If you wait until the last minute you have a non-zero chance of not being able to get anything cheap at all. I don't recommend that unless you don't care whether you go or not.
posted by grouse at 3:44 AM on April 9, 2005

don't focus just on getting to europe. travel around europe is quite expensive too (land and air), so if you go to dublin to save a few dollars, be sure you factor in the price of getting from dublin to nice. it can sound nice in theory, but as you run together more and more low-price limited-availability trips, it gets harder and harder to find suitable timing.

look at booking train tickets well in advance. they don't get cheaper at the last minute and (imho) are a great way to travel round europe. also look at student deals for train travel if you're travelling a lot.

it's worth signing up as frequent flyers to get the miles, if available. if you're leaving college in a year or so and get a job that includes travelling, you'll wish you had (frequent flyer miles are the airline's way of bribing employees to fly with them when the employer pays). (maybe americans fly all over anyway? sorry if this is obvious)

finally, commiserations to randomstriker (maybe it was for the best, right?)! after 10 (11?) years living together we can still find new ways to argue while on holiday...
posted by andrew cooke at 5:34 AM on April 9, 2005

ps of course, if you get train tickets in advance, or book hotel/hostel places, then you can't wait for flights at "any date".
posted by andrew cooke at 5:35 AM on April 9, 2005

As far as finding those fares when the time comes, set yourself up a gmail account and sign up for everybody's email alerts - do the big boys (Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz), the airlines that hub in your nearest international airport, and the cheap sites (I've lost track of who's good and bad in that arena, maybe some people here can help). Sign up for those airlines' frequent flyer memberships, too. When you start getting alerts for routes you want at prices you like, go to the sites and start playing with dates - take advantage of the flexible schedule displays so you can see what actual days are looking best. Keep in mind that many sale fares require a return within 30 days of departure; 6 weeks is going to be more expensive than 3-4.

Of course, there's no telling if fares will drop after you buy, so it's best to just decide "we will buy at X price" and just do it. My benchmarks for "cheap" in the summer, from Dallas, is below $500.

Read up on the purchase requirements if you're going to buy a rail pass. Eurail passes need to be bought here before you leave. I think they're also a bit spendier if you include the UK, so you may want to focus on flying into Frankfurt or Paris, which are your next likely cheapest hubs. (OTOH, like someone else said, if you can get a cheap enough flight to London or Dublin it may be worth it). Those Icelandair deals usually include a number of final destination cities, so once again that's worth watching.

Also, it is generally extremely expensive to fly into one city and out of another, so you'll need to plan your trip in a circuit so you get back to where you started, or get somewhere where you can fly one way (RyanAir, again) back to your departing airport.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:06 AM on April 9, 2005

I highly recommend cancellation insurance. You can be protected against fines if you miss a flight or decide to stay an extra few days.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:07 AM on April 9, 2005

Oh, and The Airfare Report does a whole lot of sale footwork so you don't have to. They've recently broadened their focus beyond New York, so don't let the URL fool you.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:10 AM on April 9, 2005

it is generally extremely expensive to fly into one city and out of another

my last trip to europe, i found that to be not the case. flying to the uk and returning from berlin was a few dollars cheaper than flying in and out of the uk. however, this was just a low price scheduled flight (lan chile), not a special deal.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:22 AM on April 9, 2005

How to find cheap airfares via Fatwallet. Also check out
posted by LarryC at 7:59 AM on April 9, 2005

Lyn, that site is great--thanks!

All the basic rules apply--go off-season, fly midweek, and land in an airport well served by the budget European airlines. (check EasyJet and Ryanair's sites, for instance). And try all the sites that search multiple airlines--Expedia, SideStep, Priceline, etc. And try for hotels if you know your dates.

Trains are wonderful throughout western Europe--you'll meet and talk to people, and enjoy the scenery. Hotels are easy and cheaper than here. I wouldn't worry too much about that part, if you travelling offseason. When i do a big trip i try to plan it in a circle (as Lyn says)--it works out easier. Think about where you want to go, plan a length of time for each place, and go. I've found Eurail overpriced as a rule--it's easier just to get second-class tickets a few days before, at the train station. Or even online, if you know for sure what days you're traveling where. (often as i arrive in a city, i'll buy tickets to the next place right at the station first thing)

It all really depends on how flexible your planning is.

You might actually want to try booking the trip this winter, when all the absolutely lowest prices are around. You can only book for within a year i think anyway.
posted by amberglow at 10:23 AM on April 9, 2005

I flew via a consolidator called Air Hitch a few years ago for $269 RT, and it was flexible (open jaws) - i.e., we flew into London, backpacked across Europe and left from Athens. Great & date-flexible, you just called them a few days before you were ready to go. Worked very well.
posted by luriete at 11:12 PM on April 10, 2005

When is it generally cheapest to buy tickets - really early, really late or some time a few months or weeks before?
posted by jb at 1:06 AM on April 11, 2005

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