Getting to Europe Cheap From US – Your destination rolls through your thoughts like a richly colored banner. You know where you’re headed, and your mind is reeling with all the sights, scenes, and excitement you expect to experience. You have just one more fine point to figure out before you connect with those places you’re imagining: how to get there.
Airline options are far from limited. To check out the offerings, you can tap a travel agent for assistance, call flight reservation desks on your own, or cruise the Internet for the best deals. Also, you can choose to set out on your European explorations with or without a professional guide. Before you get down to the business of booking a flight, take time to wing your way through this chapter.
Getting to Europe – Seeking a Travel Agent’s Advice
Word of mouth goes a long way toward finding a qualified, reliable travel agent. If the brother of the friend of your Aunt Tillie’s dog groomer speaks highly of his travel expert’s treatment, stay tuned to clues about the level of service. Finding a cheap deal on airfare, accommodations, and a rental car is the least an agent can do. A more helpful agent goes the extra mile to give you vacation value by weighing comfort with the expense.
Great agents can give advice on several travel issues, including how much time to spend in a particular destination and how to choose an economical and practical flight plan. They can also make reservations for competitively priced rental cars and find deals at better hotels.
To help your travel agent help you, do a little research before you sit down to talk; picking up this book is a great start. Have a general idea of where you want to stay and what you want to do by reading up on locations. If you have access to the Internet, check prices on the Web to get a ballpark to feel for prices (see “Booking your flight online” later in this chapter for shopping ideas).
When you have enough information in hand, pack up your notes and trot off to the travel agency. Agents rely on a variety of resources, so your arrangements are likely to cost less than if you seal the deal by yourself. Plus, your agent can suggest alternatives if your first choice of hotels is unavailable and issue airline tickets and hotel vouchers.
The travel industry is built on commissions. When you book a vacation, your agent earns a paycheck from the airline, hotel, or tour company with which you’re doing business. Be on the lookout for unscrupulous travel agents who are bent on coaxing you to go for the plan that brings them the most bucks in commissions.
Some airlines and resorts started waving good-bye to agents’ commissions several years ago. Customers now have to make specific mention of certain hotels or airlines if they’re interested in booking; otherwise, the agent may not bring them up as options.
Exploring Package-Tour Possibilities
For lots of destinations, package tours can be a smart way to go. In many cases, a package tour that includes airfare, hotel, and transportation to and from the airport costs less than the hotel alone on a tour you book yourself. That’s because packages are sold in bulk to tour operators, who resell them to the public. It’s kind of like buying your vacation at a buy-in-bulk store — except the tour operator is the one who buys the 1,000-count box of garbage bags and resells them ten at a time at a cost that undercuts the local supermarket.
When dealing with packagers, keep in mind that differences exist among the available options — differences that may significantly affect your travel experience. Set side by side, one combo may top another in any of the following ways:
- The better class of hotels.
- Same hotels for lower prices. Accommodations and travel days (days of departure and return) may be limited or flexible.
- Escorted and independent packages available — not one or the other only.
- Option to add on just a few excursions or escorted day trips (also at discounted prices) without booking an entirely escorted tour.
Some packagers specialize in overpriced, international chain hotels. Spending time shopping around can yield rewards; don’t hesitate to compare deals and details before you fork over your funds.
Hunting down the deals
You can find a tour package on your own. In fact, the information is right under your nose: Start by looking for packagers’ advertisements in the travel section of your local Sunday paper. Also check national travel magazines such as Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, Travel + Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, and Condé Nast Traveler.
Reputable packagers include these standouts:
- Go-Today.com ( 425-487-9632; go-today.com)
- com (www.offpeaktraveler.com)
- Euro Vacations ( 877-471-3876; eurovacations.com)
- American Express Vacations ( 800-346-3607; www.americanexpress.com/travel)
- Liberty Travel ( 888-271-1584; libertytravel.com)
Airlines themselves often package their flights together with accommodations. When you check out the airline choices, look for one that offers both frequent service to your airport and frequent-flier miles.
The following airlines offer tour packages:
- American Airlines Vacations ( 800-321-2121; http://aav6. aavacations.com)
- Continental Airlines Vacations ( 888-898-9255; www.cool vacations.com)
- Delta Vacations ( 800-872-7786; deltavacations.com)
- Northwest Airlines World Vacations ( 800-800-1504; www. nwaworldvacations.com) United Vacations ( 888-854-3899; unitedvacations.com)
- US Airways Vacations ( 800-455-0123; www.usairwaysvacations.com)
Most European airlines offer competitive packages as well (see the appendix for their Web sites and toll-free numbers).
Several big online travel agencies — Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Site59, and Lastminute.com — also do a brisk business in packages. If you’re unsure about the pedigree of a smaller packager, check with the Better Business Bureau in the city where the company is based, or go online to www.bbb.org. If a packager won’t tell you where it’s based, don’t book with them.
The biggest hotel chains and resorts also offer packages. If you already know where you want to stay, call the hotel or resort and ask about land/air packages.
Joining an Escorted Tour to Europe
Many people love escorted tours. The tour company takes care of all the details and tells you what to expect at each leg of your journey. You know your costs upfront, and you don’t get many surprises. Escorted tours can take you to see the maximum number of sights in the minimum amount of time with the least amount of hassle.
If you decide to go with an escorted tour, I strongly recommend purchasing travel insurance, especially if the tour operator asks to you pay upfront. But don’t buy insurance from the tour operator! If the tour operator doesn’t fulfill its obligation to provide you with the vacation you paid for, there’s no reason to think that it will fulfill its insurance obligations, either. Get travel insurance through an independent agency. (I tell you more about the ins and outs of travel insurance in Chapter 9.).
When choosing an escorted tour, along with finding out whether you have to put down a deposit and when the final payment is due, ask a few simple questions before you buy:
- What is the cancellation policy? Can the tour operator cancel the trip if it doesn’t get enough people? How late can you cancel if you’re unable to go? Do you get a refund if you cancel? What if the tour operator cancels?
- How jam-packed is the schedule? Does the tour schedule try to fit 25 hours into a 24-hour day, or does it give you ample time to relax by the pool or shop? If getting up at 7 a.m. every day and not returning to your hotel until 6 or 7 p.m. sounds like a grind, certain escorted tours may not be for you.
- Can you opt-out of certain activities? Does the tour allow picking and choosing activities; or does the bus leave once a day, and you’re out of luck if you’re not on board?
- How large is the group? The smaller the group, the less time you spend waiting for people to get on and off the bus. Tour operators may be evasive about this, because they may not know the exact size of the group until everybody has made reservations, but they should be able to give you a rough estimate.
- Is there a minimum group size? Some tours have a minimum group size and may cancel the tour if they don’t book enough people. If a quota exists, find out what it is and how close they are to reaching it. Again, tour operators may be evasive in their answers, but the information may help you select a tour that’s sure to happen.
- What exactly is included? Don’t assume anything. You may have to pay to get yourself to and from the airport. A box lunch may be included in an excursion but drinks may be extra. Beer may be included but not wine. Are all your meals planned in advance? Can you choose your entree at dinner, or does everybody get the same chicken cutlet?
Making Your Own Arrangements
So you want to plan the trip on your own? This section tells you all you need to know to research and book the perfect flight.
Booking your flight to Europe
With the introduction of codesharing — one carrier selling flights as its own on another carrier — customers now enjoy more travel options and an easier time making flight arrangements. Chances are, you can call your favorite airline and come up with a plan that flies you from just about anywhere in the United States to just about anywhere in Europe.
Listed in the Appendix are the phone numbers and Web sites for all the major U.S. and European airlines that offer direct flights from North America to Europe. In these days of airline alliances, widespread codesharing, and carrier consolidation, it barely seems to matter which airline you call to make your booking. Chances are, their interlocking partnerships will ensure you can flit from your hometown to your European destination on any combination of carriers, foreign or domestic, and any one of them can arrange this for you.
You may have to travel first to a U.S. hub, such as New York, in order to pick up a direct flight to your destination and to reach smaller European cities you’ll probably be routed through a major European hub such as Paris or Frankfurt.
Shopping for the best airfare
Competition among the major U.S. airlines is unlike that of any other industry. Every airline offers virtually the same product (basically, a coach seat is a . . .), yet prices can vary by hundreds of dollars.
Business travelers who need the flexibility to buy their tickets at the last minute and change their itineraries at a moment’s notice — and who want to get home before the weekend — pay (or at least their companies pay) the premium rate, known as the full fare. But if you can book your ticket far in advance, stay over Saturday night, and are willing to travel midweek (Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday), you can qualify for the least expensive price — usually a fraction of the full fare. On most flights, even the shortest hops within the United States, the full fare is close to $1,000 or more, but a 7- or 14-day advance-purchase ticket may cost less than half of that amount. Obviously, planning ahead pays.
The airlines also periodically hold sales in which they lower the prices on their most popular routes. These fares have advance-purchase requirements and date-of-travel restrictions, but you can’t beat the prices. As you plan your vacation, keep your eyes open for these sales, which tend to take place in seasons of low travel volume — for Europe that’s generally September 15 through June 14.
You almost never see a sale around the peak summer-vacation months of July and August, or around Thanksgiving or Christmas, when many people fly regardless of the fare they have to pay — though this is obviously less true if you can get a direct flight to Europe from your home airport (most folks travel domestically for the holidays). Often, flying into Europe’s major cities (usually London and Paris) brings the price of a ticket down. Also, look into purchasing an open-jaw plane ticket, one that allows you to fly into one European city and depart from another — say, flying into London but out of Madrid on your way home. Open-jaw tickets can sometimes be a more expensive option — although usually no more than half the price of a round-trip ticket to London plus half the round-trip Madrid fare — but it’s a wonderful way to keep your itinerary flexible, and you don’t have to backtrack to the first city on your trip.
Consolidators, also known as bucket shops, are great sources for international tickets. Start by looking in Sunday newspaper travel sections; U.S. travelers should focus on the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Miami Herald. For less-developed destinations, small travel agents who cater to immigrant communities in large cities often have the best deals.
Bucket-shop tickets are usually nonrefundable or rigged with stiff cancellation penalties, often as high as 50 to 75 percent of the ticket price, and some put you on charter airlines with questionable safety records.
Some reliable consolidators include the following:
- AutoEurope ( 888-223-5555; autoeurope.com)
- Cheap Tickets ( 800-377-1000; cheaptickets.com)
- STA Travel ( 800-781-4040; statravel.com)
- com ( 866-210-3289; www.lowestfare.com)
- ELTExpress ( 800-TRAV-800; flights.com)
- Air Tickets Direct ( 800-778-3447; www.airtickets direct.com)
Booking your flight online – Getting to Europe
The “big three” online travel agencies, Expedia (www.expedia.com), Travelocity (www.travelocity.com), and Orbitz (www.orbitz.com) sell most of the air tickets bought on the Internet. (Canadian travelers should try www.expedia.ca and www.travelocity.ca; U.K. residents can go for expedia.co.uk and opodo.co.uk.). Each has different business deals with the airlines and may offer different fares on the same flights, so shopping around is wise. Expedia and Travelocity will also send you an e-mail notification when a cheap fare becomes available to your favorite destination.
Of the smaller travel agency Web sites, SideStep (www.sidestep.com) receives good reviews from users. It’s a browser add-on (PCs only) that purports to “search 140 sites at once,” but in reality only beats competitors’ fares as often as other sites do. Also check out Cheapflights.com — a fantastic meta-search engine that will give you the going rate for any destination from the airline sites, the booking engines like Expedia, and the major consolidators.
Great last-minute deals are available through free weekly e-mail services provided directly by the airlines. Most of these deals are announced on Tuesday or Wednesday and must be purchased online. Most are only valid for travel that weekend, but some can be booked weeks or months in advance. Sign up for weekly e-mail alerts at airline Web sites or check mega-sites, such as Smarter Living (www.smarterliving.com), that compile comprehensive lists of last-minute specials. For last-minute trips, www.site59.com in the U.S. and www.lastminute.com in Europe often have better deals than the major-label sites.
If you’re willing to give up some control over your flight details, use an opaque fare service like Priceline (www.priceline.com) or Hotwire (www.hotwire.com). Both offer rock-bottom prices in exchange for travel on a “mystery airline” at a mysterious time of day, often with a mysterious change of planes en route. The mystery airlines are all major, well-known carriers — and the possibility of being sent from Philadelphia to Chicago via Tampa is remote. But your chances of getting a 6 a.m. or 11 p.m. flight are pretty high. Hotwire tells you flight prices before you buy; Priceline usually has better deals than Hotwire, but you have to play their “name our price” game. Note: In 2004, Priceline added non-opaque service to its roster. You can still bid on opaque fares, but you now also have the option to pick exact flights, times, and airlines from a list of offers — most of which are comparable to the prices you’ll find on sites like Expedia and Travelocity. For more information on the ins and outs of Priceline, look for a copy of Priceline.com For Dummies, by Sascha Segan (published by Wiley).