Heading to Europe? November through March is best for discount airfare
Saving for a dream vacation in Europe, or just want to spend a week eating croissants in Paris? The good news is that it can be done without breaking the bank. Budget-friendly European travel is within reach. The key is low-cost airfare. The easiest way to achieve this is to travel late fall through early spring (low season) when prices dip. Savvy travelers also can find discount flights to Europe year-round by practicing a few travel hacks, including flying budget airlines to smaller cities and taking advantage of a bevy of travel apps to streamline the search process.
Prices vary dramatically based on time of year
For those who haven't been to Europe in the summer, it's like Times Square on every corner in every big city and small town on the continent. That is to say, it's crowded, and few discounts are to be had on airfare, hotels, meals or excursions. Instead of bumping into your neighbors at the Eiffel Tower in August, save that trip to Paris for fall or spring. In general, November through March is the cheapest time to fly from the United States to Europe. For example, a round-trip ticket from New York to Amsterdam can be found for as little as $450 in February. In July, that same route costs between $1,200 to $1,500. One caveat: Christmas and New Year's holiday airfare can be just as costly as peak summer prices. In general, if kids are on school break, it's not a cheap week to take to the skies.
Discount airlines offer low prices year-round
However, you should always read the fine print. With an increased number of discount airlines making transatlantic crossings, travelers can book flights starting at $99 each way from the East Coast on carriers such as Norwegian Air, Primera Air or WOW. Departures from West Coast cities, including Los Angeles, feature promotional flights starting $200 each way.
While advertised specials start at $99 for flash sales, more typical prices average $200 each way for East Coast departures and closer to $400 each way for West Coast flights. It's important to note advertised prices don't typically include checked luggage, food or the ability to choose a seat. Some require passengers to print their own tickets at home or face a hefty surcharge. It's important to do the math to see if the final cost is cheaper than a major airline.
Consider flying into a smaller city
Historically, flights to large cities were cheaper than going to a nearby smaller city. That's changed (think the Southwest Airlines model in the U.S.), and flights to less-frequented airports can be a better deal than flying directly into a capital city. For example, a flight from New York to Paris on major carriers such as United, Air France or KLM in March averages $1,200 to $1,400. Instead, consider a flight from New York to Brussels, transferring to Paris via train. Why? Because those same airlines offer rates averaging $800 on the Brussels flight. Typically, trains connecting Western European cities are fast, on time, and relatively inexpensive. Just be sure to reserve the train in advance, as fares increase when tickets are purchased the day of travel.
Travel apps make finding discounts easy
Have a specific location in mind? Hopper tells you when airfare is lowest and gives recommendations for best times to book. It also offers predictions if prices are likely to fall in the future. Use the handy "watch" feature and receive an alert when desired routes go down in price.
Google Flights does more than search ticket prices. Type in a specific date and destination, and it displays the cheapest flights. If travel dates are flexible, the app shows when travel is cheapest. In addition, it calculates when fares are likely to drop for that destination, or, conversely, if they are expected to rise. For the adventurous, the app can recommend a cheap destination via the "Explore" feature.
Skyscanner searches more than 1,000 airline and travel sites to find cheap flights, hotels and car rentals. It includes discount carriers that are typically left out of Expedia or Travelocity listings. Use the flight search functionality for a chart of prices and dates. There's also an alert feature to monitor prices on favorite routes.
Don't forget to sign up for email announcements, especially from budget carriers that offer flash sales. By the time the rest of the world sees the promotion on Twitter, those bargain airfares may be sold out!