Trip Doctor: How to Find Affordable European Flights for Summer

Q: Is there such a thing as an affordable European flight this summer? If so, how can I find one? —Catherine Mills, Westport, Conn.

A: Remember when flying to Europe was, at most, a $600 commitment? These days, that’s often just the baseline cost of a transatlantic ticket. According to Rick Seaney, cofounder and CEO of Farecompare, the average airfare to Europe includes about $450 in surcharges (including fuel) and $160 in taxes and fees. Tack on what the carrier itself charges, and it’s no wonder you can find yourself paying more than $1,000 for an economy-class ticket. But you can still fly for less. You just need to know the tricks.

Pay attention to shoulder seasons. Summer flights, hands down, are the most expensive. But if you look around the edges of summer—early June; the last week of August—you’ll find better fares. They’re even more affordable in early May and mid-October. Of course, winter fares are still lowest, and they stay that way from mid-November until mid-March (excluding the winter holidays).

Know when to book. Kayak’s analytic team looked at customers’ recent searches and found international airfares were at their lowest 34 days before departure, according to spokesperson Maria Katime. Expedia’s analysts found the best prices between one and three months out. That said, hitting this sweet spot yields only minimal savings (roughly 4 percent, according to Kayak). But don’t wait until the last minute; airfares rise dramatically a week before departure.

Fly on off days. Many carriers tack a surcharge (between $30 to $50 each way) onto tickets departing on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. Kayak’s analysts found that international flights departing on a Tuesday and returning on a Wednesday cost 21 percent less than the average weeklong trip. And always be sure there’s a Saturday stay in your itinerary: airlines still penalize people for staying less than a week.

Choose your airport and airline carefully. Your destination makes a big difference. Heathrow has some of the highest mandatory taxes in Europe, while Dublin and Shannon airports have among the lowest. When it comes to carriers, Expedia found that Icelandair and Ireland’s Aer Lingus had the lowest average transatlantic airfares last year. Spain’s Iberia, Portugal’s TAP, and Air Berlin also charged lower-than-average fares.

Look for sales. Fare drops can happen anytime during the year. Stay on top of them by signing up for alerts with your preferred carrier and online services such as Airfarewatchdog and Farecompare.

Buy a package. Make up for a high airfare with a discounted room. Hotels drop rates dramatically when they’re bundled with airfare. On Travelocity, for example, we found a round-trip ticket from New York to Paris in early June packaged with seven nights at the Waldorf Trocadero for 26 percent less (a savings of $986) than the total for the same elements booked separately.

Use your points. It’s easier to find award tickets on international flights than on domestic ones, says Gary Leff, founder of BookYourAward. One tip: many airline websites do not include searches for all frequent-flier partners, so try multiple sites (or call multiple phone agents).

Price Check: A month-by-month guide to U.S.-to-Europe airfares

Jan. to mid-March: $

Mid-March to early May: $$

Early May to mid-June: $$$

Mid June to late Aug.: $$$$

Late Aug. to mid-Oct.: $$$

Mid-Oct. to late Dec.: $$

Late Dec.: $$$$

Have a travel dilemma? Need some tips and remedies? Send your questions to news editor Amy Farley at Follow @tltripdoctor on Twitter.

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