Getting a Great Fare on Eurfirst Trip to Europe

Revised June 27, 2020

There is still airline service between the US and Europe, though the number of flights and the cost of tickets will evolve with government policies related to Covid-19. A recent search of airfares between SFO and Paris (CDG), showed prices about a month out ranging from $700 to $850 in economy on budget airlines while fares with traditional carriers (United, American) were almost $1300. With fewer people being allowed to enter the EU from the US, there were no direct flights listed from San Francisco to Paris, as there had been in the past. For now, it will take longer and cost more to get to Europe, but as tourism restrictions end, the choices for the journey are likely to expand.

For those who fly now, the rules for travel will be much different.

Intra-Europe air travel is being modified to be safer for passengers:

  • Documentation may be required by the country you are visiting to verify that you are not ill with Covid-19 and provide details of your ESSENTIAL travel plans, if you arrive from a country with restricted travel rights
  • Passengers will be discouraged from coming to the airport if they are sick; airlines may screen passengers for fever when they get to the airport
  • Masks are required from arrival at the airport through the flight and until out the door at your destination airport; passengers are encouraged to bring extra masks and to change their mask every 4 hours while the airlines will have supplies to safely dispose of used masks
  • Carry-ons are limited to reduce the interaction between passengers and airport/airline personnel (it may also reduce the amount of coronavirus that can be introduced into the airplane cabin during flight)

Before the drastic changes in the industry brought on by Covid-19, there were many choices for air travel to Europe. What you paid was based on:

  • When you are going
  • How long you are staying
  • Where you are going
  • Whether you arrive and depart from the same airport
  • How many other tourists are travelling during that season
  • How you buy your tickets
  • Whether you can be flexible on departure and return
  • Whether you can fly on a non-refundable ticket
  • Whether you are a student and can qualify for those discounts

In recent years, it was easy to find a bargain flight to Europe. Many low cost carriers had entered the market, making it possible to grab discount seats heading across the Atlantic. But many discount carriers left the market long before the pandemic; the drastic drop in the air travel has grounded planes and pilots but it is likely that governments will do what they can to promote tourism and air travel when conditions suggest it is safe. This site will follow the news and pricing trends to identify when prices get competitive. Until then, here are general tips to consider when pricing your air tickets.

  • If you live near more than one major airport, search for flights from all the ones that are easily accessible. Carriers expanding into new markets may offer better prices than you'll find at the closest airports in your region. And sometimes, if you book a MULTIPLE CITIES trip, landing in one city and flying home from another, you may find that you save more money by starting at one airport and getting home at another; for example, you might fly from JFK to London, and then return from Frankfurt to the Newark Airport.
  • Your trip to Europe is a good time to use frequent flyer miles to upgrade to the next level of service. Check with the program to see what levels of upgrade are available. You are trading other possible airline trips for comfort on the flight over. Whether that makes sense depends on the your size, your need for sleep, deals being offered by the carriers, and how likely you are to use the miles if you don't use them for the upgrade.
  • Start your search for airfares at an online travel site. I start with Kayak and Orbitz, sometimes Cheapo-Air, but don't have any significant loyalty to any of the options because I can't say that one is consistantly better than the other. I search them all until I find a price that feels fair; but if all the prices are the same, I use Orbitz because of its rewards program and the quality of their customer service. Once you know the general price for a trip, check with the airlines to see if they are offering better prices. Occasionally they are. These queries share information with travel companies unless you have limited your cookies or are browsing "incognito."; I sometimes do my searches on a different device (or a library computer when they are available) so that the companies won't use my interest to increase the fares they show me.
  • Your initial search will give you a general idea of the price of the tickets. Be sure to use a date that is close to the date that you would like because prices reach their highest in the summer and are the lowest during the dark days of winter. You may also want to sign up for alerts that notify you if the price of tickets drops.
  • Generally, you will save money if you leave and return midweek. This is one of the ways the people with flexible travel options can get lower fares.
  • If you have that option, you may save money on airfare by traveling in the spring or fall when fewer tourists are crossing the Atlantic. Even better prices are available in the winter season but the short days, limited hours at tourist attractions and cold temperatures make it a less pleasant time to visit. If you are committed to a specific season, you may still save money if you have some flexibility in your plans. Summer travelers will get a better deal if they can start their trip in late May or early June rather than mid-June. You may also want to see if you get a better price if you book a trip that returns after September 14, which will typically be less expensive than prime summer travel.
  • Usually you will pay more if you stay in Europe for more than a month. The pre-covid fares were based on a return trip scheduled within 31 days and you paid significantly more if you stayed over a month during the summer.
  • If you are going to more than one major city in Europe, you may find that you can save money if you opt for one major city rather than another. For example, if you are going to England and Ireland, you may find that it is cheaper to fly into Dublin than London--we started a trip in Liverpool and saved $500 per ticket by flying to Dublin and then heading to Liverpool on RyanAir; we returned from Edinburgh to Dublin also using the budget carrier for a 45-minute, $20 flight. Depending on the number of people flying with you, there may find substantial savings between arrival airports. If you are asking a travel site to track air fares, sign up for more than one arrival location if possible.
  • PACKAGE TRIPS: If you only have limited time, you many consider a package that includes the cost of hotel rooms. We found that booking airfare and rooms early made it possible to stay in nicer hotels than we could have afforded if we booked them separately. It is important to note, however, that many airline travel packages require that you book all of your nights of lodging with them to get the break on the ticket price. That is fine if you are flying to Paris, London or Berlin for a week but if you plan to go wandering throughout Europe, these packages may not meet your needs. Orbitz lets you book rooms for only part of your trip so that if you are heading on to othe cities, you can just book your first night or two (or the night before departure home).

The airline industry will go through many changes as we deal with the pandemic. Many people who flew often will wonder whether it is safe to fly at all and stay off planes until there is an effective vaccine.Heading to the airport will expose us to numerous possible points of infection until we have accurate Covid-19 tests that can deliver results in a few hours and passengers can be screened before they arrive at the airport for their flight. (Lufthansa offers passengers a test that can be processed in under 4 hours, with results delivered to the flier when they arrive at their destination.) Long transatlantic flights will always be riskier than short, domestic flights, more passengers together for a longer time. It will take some time for the international travel market to rebound to the numbers it saw in 2018 or 2019. But the planes most airlines use were designed and purchase to serve a strong global economy with millions of people eager to see the world; the available planes; their profits came from packing more and more passengers into tinier seats and mixing in the right number of business travelers paying much more for the comfortable seats. Economic considerations and the convenience of online meetings will reduce the amount of fliers with briefcases; and the rest of us may have fewer vacation dollars and lingering fears of flying that keep many of the world's planes on the ground, even as people are given permission to move around the planet. It will take agile corporate management, probability supported by governments that value their tourism industry, to return the airlines to profitability. That may mean the best travel experiences in decades will come in the next year or two to those who have the foresight to plan a trip as the world reopens but before we are back to "normal" or whatever new version of normalcy returns.