Chapter 3: Finding Cheap Flights to Europe
Flying to Europe is expensive — in fact, it’s probably the largest expense facing many American travelers heading abroad. How can you actually find great deals on airfare to Europe? Here are some tips to help you fly the cheapo skies.
For most of us traveling from North America, the flight to Europe is our biggest budget obstacle. While it can be easy to find great bargains on hotels, it takes a bit of effort and research to uncover cheap flights across the Atlantic.
There are airfare flash sales that come and go, but those are hard to nab if you don’t act quickly. However, before you give up hope on finding a good price for your next flight, try some of the tips below.
For the tips that follow, we’ll use a sample itinerary. We’ll say that we’re based in Chicago and want to visit London, Amsterdam, and Paris. We’re looking for a flight from Chicago to London. After spending a few days in London, we plan to take the train to Amsterdam (via Lille) and wind up in Paris. Then we’ll head back to London to fly home to Chicago.
So how can we save on this flight?
1. Set up an airfare alert.
If you know the exact route that you want to fly, you should set up airfare alerts to be notified of flight deals immediately. Websites like Kayak.com and Airfarewatchdog.com will email you when they notice a deal on the route that you’re planning to fly.
In this example, we can go to these websites and create a flight alert for Chicago to London. But wait…
2. Don’t forget about “open jaw” flights.
As I mentioned in my overview of creating a trip itinerary, “open jaw” flights (into and out of different cities) can help you save time and money, as they’re often about the same price as flights into and out of the same city. Furthermore, you can save lots of money on transportation (trains, buses, ferries, etc), as you won’t need to circle back to your city of arrival. This tip can not only save you money but allows you to save time, so you can see more of Europe.
In our example above, instead of a round-trip to London, you could fly into London and home from Paris. It’s a good idea to also research the round-trip fares from London (after all, you might snag a cheap deal), but we would certainly focus on flights from Chicago -> London, and then Paris -> Chicago.
Even if that flight turned out to be a bit more expensive, chances are it would be less expensive than paying for a trip on the Eurostar (or a flight!) back from Paris to London (and probably an extra overnight in London, too).
3. Be flexible with your dates.
Flexibility is a budget traveler’s best friend (in so, so many ways!). In terms of snagging a good deal on flights, if you can bump your travel dates around a bit, you may end up saving a lot on airfare.
If you have the possibility, try pushing the trip back a week or up a week to see if you can find a deal on airfare. You might be surprised—there might be something happening (a big convention, sporting event, Madonna concert…) in one of your cities that is throwing off the airfare.
In our example, say that we find that our flight seems strangely expensive. In fact, the hotel prices also seem quite high—but only for Paris for our dates. This could indicate that Paris is booked up with some special event (such as a giant conference or the annual Fashion Weeks). If you have some flexibility, push your trip dates around and see if airfare drops. Hunt for a deal–you might just find it.
4. Avoid weekends, if possible.
Flights tend to be more popular and more expensive for weekend travelers. If you’re able to travel midweek, chances are you’ll be able to snag a better deal. Play around with your dates — you’ll probably see cheaper airfare on Tuesday and Wednesday.
5. Be flexible with your destinations or itinerary.
Conversely, you can play around with your destinations. Is there another airport nearby that you haven’t included in your search? Could you add another leg to your trip that includes a less expensive airport to fly into? Can you juggle your itinerary a bit to avoid a momentarily expensive city?
Back to our example, if Paris is booked up (and flights expensive) because of the fashion show, perhaps we could invert the trip, landing in Paris (the week before the fashion show), visiting Amsterdam and then departing from London. This would allow us to avoid not only more expensive flight costs, but higher hotel rates, as well.
You should also double-check and make sure that you’re including “all area airports” in your search. In our example, don’t just search for Heathrow (LHR) and Charles de Gaulle (CDG). Make sure to search for the city code, “LON” and “PAR”, to see all area airports. A lot of European cities, even smaller ones, have secondary airports that might be new to you.
A final option is to “hub it.” For example, say you find an incredible flight deal from Chicago to Dublin on Aer Lingus. It might be worth booking the flight to Dublin and then searching Europeans budget airlines (like Ryanair and easyJet) to get a fare from Dublin to London.
6. If at all possible, avoid the peak travel season.
We know, for many travelers, the timing of the trip has been established long in advance (often dictated by academic schedules, holidays, or growling bosses). However, if you do have a bit more flexibility and are looking for ways to save, consider pushing your trip away from peak summer months and major holidays, and into “shoulder season” or even low season.
For spring travel, instead of June, try early May or late April. Looking for a fall visit to Europe? Push your plans back from September to October to save a bit more. If you’re able to travel to Europe in the early spring or late fall, you will almost certainly be rewarded with lower airfares, shorter lines at top attractions, and lower hotel rates. (Read more about the best time to visit Europe.)
7. Book it when you see a deal.
According to a study by the airline experts at Kayak.com, the ideal time to book airfare to Europe is six months in advance. That said, these days you should snag a deal whenever you spot one!
8. Don’t forget about “budget” international airlines.
In the past few years, a number of new budget-conscious airlines have started flying between North America and Europe. These airlines have made it possible to find one-way tickets for jaw-dropping prices, and their fare calendars make it easy to browse prices over the course of a few months.
While some of these airlines have gone out of business (including Wow Air in 2019), Norwegian is a budget option that has been offering super cheap fares from North American to Europe for years. They fly non-stop from New York to London, and we’ve found some excellent deals on Norwegian in the past. Read our guide to making your trip on Norwegian more comfortable.
9. Subscribe to airline newsletters.
You can’t take advantage of fare sales if you never hear about them. I suggest signing up for airline email newsletters that fly to your area. If you’re afraid of spammy airline emails clogging up your inbox, you can unsubscribe once you’ve booked your trip!
Here’s a list of newsletters we recommend subscribing to.
10. Points, credit cards, and rewards travel.
And then there’s the world of rewards travel. Redeeming frequent flier miles for “free flights” to Europe or using miles to upgrade to business class is another matter unto itself. In fact, it’s spawned a world of experts who give advice on the best credit cards to use for miles, strategies for accumulating miles, etc.
A word of caution: Don’t put yourself in debt signing up for new credit cards in order to accumulate frequent flyer miles. Those “free” flights will end up costing you far more than paying full price.
However, done the right way, transfering credit card “points” to frequent flyer miles can help you snag free or discounted flights. If nothing else, double check that your credit card is working for you. Are you accumulating points? Check out this post I wrote a few years ago about mistakes to avoid with your frequent flyer program.
How do you keep it cheap when searching for airfare to and around Europe? Share with us in the comments section below!
Source: Euro Cheapo