How to Buy Tickets to Europe, Cheap: 2011 Edition

National Lampoon's European VacationIf you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, then you already know I bought my tickets to Slovakia yesterday evening. I’d been watching ticket prices for the past two months, and I finally found a deal worth snapping up. When you find these deals, you have to act quickly. Yesterday evening was a six hour marathon of planning departure dates, coordinating times, checking various airfares, and reading a bunch of fine print. But after all that, I got a wicked good deal on the flight. Read on to find out how.

Step one of getting a good airfare to Europe is to be able to realize what a good airfare is. You need to know how much the tickets cost for the time you want to fly, or else you’ll have no idea if you’re getting a steal or the airline’s stealing from you. So I start by looking at prices for the ideal airports: in this case, Portland to Bratislava. Right now, that prices is $1600 for the travel dates Denisa and I wanted.

Of course, I suppose it would help for you to know what search tool to use when looking for European flights. My old reliable these days is Kayak. It’s versatile, easy to use, and it searches a ton of sites, all at once. Of course, I don’t typically BUY the ticket through Kayak, but I’m not buying anything at this point–I’m just exploring price options. Kayak usually does a good job of including taxes and fees in with their listed price–that’s not always a given with many airfare search engines, and it makes accurately comparing prices a real beast. Nothing’s worse than feeling like you’ve found The Ticket, only to discover that there’s a $250 booking fee, gas fee, tax, airport security fee, etc. So stick to Kayak, and try to resist the siren’s song of other sites. They’re just trying to trick you.

Another important note is that if you’re going to fly to Europe, going in the summer is a Bad Choice. In fact, it’s pretty much the Worst Choice. Fall would be great. Late winter is also good. Spring is okay. Summer? Very bad. How bad? Try 2-3 times as much. If I were looking for this flight in fall, my expectations of a good fare would be dramatically different. Hence the need to know a ballpark figure for how much tickets at that time are going to cost. (Kayak also has a feature where it will show you what the ticket prices have been doing for the past few months–going up, going down–based on purchase date and travel dates. Very handy for historical research.)

Anyway. I’d done all that legwork ahead of time, and I knew that a few months ago, the tickets were around $1200. Now they were up to $1600. Unrest in Libya and the Middle East is a beast when it comes to plane tickets. Bottom line: ticket prices were going up. There’s always a chance they’ll come down up until about a month before you’re leaving, but it’s risky to wait too long. A month before your departure date, ticket prices spike up. So buying early is good. But not too early–I usually shoot for about 3-4 months out. I could probably wait for 2 months out, too–but I get too nervous, and I’ve usually found a good price by then, anyway.

$1600 for a family of four comes to $6400, and that was officially too much. So now that I have a baseline, the goal becomes getting that ticket for as cheap as possible. The first step is the easy one: find alternate airports. Not a whole lot of people fly in or out of Portland or Bratislava. Lots of people fly in and out of Boston and Vienna. Boston is an extra two hours from Portland. Vienna’s an extra hour or so. So it will mean longer travel times, more hassle, but potential big savings. In my case, it brought the price down to $1300/ticket. $5200 total. That’s a savings of $1200, just for a bit more hassle. If it were a short trip, maybe it’s not worth it. For a long trip, I think it’s a no-brainer.

But still: $5200? That’s expensive. And we can go lower. The trick with Europe is that they have really cheap airfares for flying from one European city to another. They nickel and dime you to death on baggage fees and other ticky tack stuff, but if you’re willing to fly spartan, then it can save you money. The trick is getting to Europe. Kayak has this excellent tool called Buzz. You put in your departure airport, the month you plan to travel, and the continent you’re flying to, and Kayak shows you the cheapest fares to cities in that area. You’re not guaranteed to get those cheap prices–but it gives you an idea of what deals there are to where. In my case, I discovered that Iceland Express was doing a sale to London right now for $650 and up per ticket. Searching for the specific dates, and I found tickets for $800/person.

That’s a pretty darn good price. But it’s far from a lock. See, getting to London won’t do me much good if I can’t get a flight from London to my ultimate destination (Vienna). And not just from London: from the right airport in London. (If you really want to save money, you can try to switch airports, but do you really want to do that to yourself? It’s a personal call. If you’re single, maybe. If you have small children . . . not so much.) So I moved on to the next phase: searching for fares from London to Vienna.

At this point, BE VERY CAUTIOUS. Your safety net is gone. You need to make sure your layover will be enough to give you wiggle room. You don’t want to have a flight delay make it so you miss your connection. Since you’re not booking through all the way on the same airline, the airlines don’t need to feel sorry for you and change tickets to ensure you make your destination. So be careful.

In this case, I found a budget airline that flew from the right airport at the right time (4 hour layover in London) for $200/person (including their baggage fees and other fee garbage). So now I’m down to $1000/ticket, $4000 total. Overall savings of $2400. Things are looking up. But when you’re deep in the throes of cheap airfare searching, you don’t just stop there, my friends.

You keep pressing forward.

At this point, $1000 a ticket was an okay price. I could live with it, but it’s a huge hassle, and I wasn’t sure there wouldn’t be something better coming along in the next few weeks. But this is where I busted out my ace in the hole: children airfares. Some (not all) European airlines will give you a discount on international fares if you’re a child (3-11). They’ll give an even better discount if you’re an infant (0-2). I have no infants in my house anymore, but I do have the kidlets. Kayak won’t show you these discounts: you have to leave and start poking around the individual airline sites to find them.

Iceland Express does the discounts. To a tune of $500/child, including taxes and fees. A bit of quick calculation later, and I found myself looking at the total cost of $3400. Divide that by four, and it averages out to $850/person. Total savings: $3000.

We have a winner. Since we were flying through London, I gave us a five day layover on the way back, because hey–free trip to London. And since we’re flying into Vienna, why not have a short stay there on the way out? I’ll be getting all of that, and still be paying less than I would for a Portland to Bratislava flight. Much less. Oh–and Denisa’s $3600 dental bill? It’ll be more like $850 tops in Slovakia. So yes, we’ll be paying a fair bit this summer for vacations and dentists, but we’ll be paying much less than I thought we would.

I am very pleased. Six hours of search time, $3000 saved. That means my search effort earned me about $500/hour. #winning

Anyway–there you have it. If you have any questions, ask away. I’m happy to give advice.

2 Comments

  • By Hilary, April 6, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

    Wow, that’s some serious money saved.
    If I ever get the chance to leave this fair country I will have to call you.
    Chances are slim at this point. :)

  • By Bryce's Ramblings, April 6, 2011 @ 5:56 pm

    So Drew’s “trip” to Ireland wasn’t a job search in disguise?

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