Fares: The Price Will Be Right (Eventually)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Talk to just about any travel expert, and you'll hear about inexpensive airfares to Europe this summer. So where are all these cheap seats hiding?

Across-the-board deep discounts for travel across the Atlantic in July and August have not materialized. But signs strongly point to a gradual softening of fares.

"If you're paying more than $1,000, you're paying too much," said Rick Seaney, chief executive of Farecompare.com and author of popular travel blog Rickseaney.com.

Several recently launched sales indicate that fares to Europe are moving lower, although most still hover around $1,000. Rather than offer sales that extend through August, most airlines have taken a more cautious approach, reducing fares for travel through May or into mid-June.

"It's creeping down," Seaney said. "Slowly but surely, they're extending dates."

A few airlines have broken the ice with summer sales. Aer Lingus, for example, is offering round-trip fares from Dulles to Dublin as low as $586, including taxes, for travel through August, although the cheapest seats are almost sold out.

Continental is the first legacy carrier to extend its sale fares into summer. Although most of its best deals are out of its Newark hub, the airline is offering attractive fares on connecting flights out of Washington area airports. For example, its fare for travel in July on nonstop flights from Newark to Stockholm is $874, including taxes; from Dulles, the fare is only $14 more. Other legacy airlines are matching Continental's sale in some markets, but not all. Fares to Stockholm, for example, are at least $100 more on other carriers.

With summer fare trends still not set in stone, ensuring you don't wind up paying hundreds more than the guy in the next seat has become a challenge. Our advice?

-- Stay informed. Sign up for general sale notifications on Web sites such as http://www.travelzoo.com and http://www.independenttraveler.com. Sign up to receive sale alerts on specific routes at multiple Web sites, including http://www.kayak.com, http://www.farecast.com, http://www.farecompare.com and http://www.priceline.com.

-- Be willing to connect, and even to endure long layovers, instead of flying nonstop. The nonstop fare from Dulles to Paris for July flights was recently $1,416 round trip, for example, while one-stop flights with three-hour layovers started at $875.

-- Consider a package. Tour operators and airlines have been offering good summer deals to Europe that include air and hotel. Ask a travel agent to help, or go to the various airline sites for details on their packages.

-- Fly in May or June instead of the height of summer. United, for example, has a sale to cities across Europe for travel through June 17; fare from Dulles to Paris starts at just $562 round trip, including taxes.

-- If you're going to a destination in Europe that doesn't offer much competition on flights from the United States, consider flying into London or another large city and then taking a discount European carrier, such as Ryanair or EasyJet, to your final destination. But take into consideration that you will probably have to switch airports to connect.

-- Shop around. Airline Web sites don't always offer the cheapest flights. Sites such as http://www.vayama.com, http://www.orbitz.com, http://www.expedia.com and http://www.travelocity.com sometimes have better fares.

-- Watch and wait, but don't hesitate. When a sale hits, buy, especially if your travel dates are not flexible.

-- Carol Sottili

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