Europe on the cheap
you’re planning a trip to Europe this summer, get ready for
the cold, hard truth: Air fare can cost $1,000 or more.
You can take a deep breath, pay the full ticket price and join the
invading hordes. Or save money (and reduce stress) by traveling earlier.
Round-trip flights from the U.S. to Europe are significantly cheaper
in April and May than in the height of summer. And by using the Internet
to book one-way flights on discount carriers, you can fly to multiple
European cities for peanuts.
For example, several airlines offer nonstop service between Chicago
and Paris. (This is a recent sampling; be sure to check because fares
change.) Departing May 15 and returning May 31, both American and
United offered a $1,090 fare, the lowest I found. (Two months later,
July 15, the lowest fares jumped to $1,490 and $1,550 respectively.)
After booking your transatlantic segment, focus on creating an overseas
itinerary. Ireland-based Ryanair (www.ryanair.com), Europe’s
largest discount airline, boasts 605 routes in 26 European countries.
Through a network of 23 hubs—including Dublin, London, Stockholm,
Frankfurt, Milan, Rome and Madrid—50 million annual passengers
connect to almost any destination in Europe.
If Ryanair can’t get you where you want to go, or if the price
is unsuitable, or the departure time not quite right, more than two
dozen travel.latimes.com/destinations/europe Europe-based
competitors are waiting in the wings.
EasyJet (www.easyjet.com), Europe’s second largest discount
courier, handles more than 35 million passengers annually and sells
95% of their seats online. As is the case with low-cost carriers
Air Berlin (www.airberlin.com), SkyEurope (www.skyeurope.com), Vueling
(www.vueling.com), and Sterling (www.sterling.dk), hefty Internet
bookings lower operational costs, which allows for lower fares. (For
a listing of 26 airlines and their routes, go to www.euroflights.info.
To find low fares between European cities, visit www.momondo.com.)
Let’s say you’ve booked the May 15 American Airlines
flight from Chicago to Paris. Because you’ll arrive weeks before
the busy summer season, crowds at the Louvre will be considerably
smaller. Shopping in trendy Saint-Germain-des-Près won’t
be as hectic.
After 4 days in Paris, jet to Barcelona on May 20. By purchasing
a ticket far in advance on Ryanair, the one-way fare, including taxes
and fees, is only 22 euros ($32).
Three days later, fly from Barcelona to Milan. The one-way fare on
Ryanair is only $38. From there, head northeast to Prague. EasyJet
transports you on May 26 for a measly $47.
On May 30, having visited 4 European cities in 2 weeks, jump on the
$45 SkyEurope flight back to Paris. (Total price for the 4 one-way
flights around Europe: $162. Not bad, considering the woeful dollar-to-euro
exchange rate.) You’ll spend the night in the City of Light
and board your return flight to Chicago the following morning.
There is a downside to discount air travel. Because airlines rely
heavily on their Web sites to provide customer service, getting help
on the phone—sometimes even finding the appropriate contact
number—can be difficult.
In many cases, airlines fly into or out of secondary airports. In
Paris, for example, Ryanair operates out of Beauvais Airport, 50
miles north of the city. Likewise, the “Barcelona” airport
is actually 60 miles away near Girona, Spain.
You’ll pay $37 to change a Ryanair online reservation, $66
for changes made at the airport or by telephone. At easyJet, passengers
who book online pay $8 for each checked bag listed. The fee jumps
to $16 for bags checked last-minute at the airport.
Having flown Ryanair on multiple occasions, twice with SkyEurope,
and once each on Myair (an Italian upstart) and Virgin Express (now
Brussels Airlines), I can say from experience that you usually get
what you pay for.
Because Ryanair passengers don’t receive seat assignments,
the boarding process begins like the New York City Marathon. After
elbowing your way to a seat, you realize the seats do not recline.
To take advantage of a dirt cheap Virgin Express fare from Rome to
Barcelona (a distance of 500 miles), I had to fly 850 miles north
to Brussels, wait 2 hours, and fly 750 miles south to Barcelona.
During the Christmas holidays, I took a cut-rate Myair flight from
Paris to Venice. The flight was late, going and coming. I shrugged
it off because Air France and Alitalia were charging 3 times as much.
SkyEurope proved to be a pleasant surprise. I was given a seat assignment
on a gleaming new Boeing 737 from Paris to Prague. The flight attendants
were friendly and impeccably groomed; the service smooth and efficient.
Even with the ticky-tack charges, the jostling crowds and inconvenient
airports, you can’t beat a $32 flight from Barcelona to Milan.
Thanks to the Internet and a new generation of low-cost carriers,
Europe has never been so easy (or inexpensive) to navigate.