We travel to Europe 4-5 times annually, always in coach. It’s tempting to try and shave a few bucks off a flight by taking a less attractive schedule, or flying out of an inconvenient airport. Here are our tips on choosing flights that will allow to to arrive (and return) from your vacation as rested as possible.
1. Consider the season, and connecting airports
If you are flying in spring and summer, you don’t need to worry about seasonality and your connecting airport. However, if you are flying in the winter, you may want to avoid flying into northern airports that could be impacted by snow and ice. If you can’t avoid that, try to give yourself a good buffer of a few hours’ time between connections. If the airline bumps you from your initial flight, you will still have the potential of getting a later flight and making your connection.
2. Think about drive time to your initial airport
A lot of travelers are tempted to drive to nearby cities to get a cheaper flight from there. We do this ourselves occasionally — we’ve been known to drive the 4 hours from Nashville to Atlanta to take advantage of a cheap flight sale. If you decide to do this, however, make sure you take into consideration the cost of the parking, the cost of gas, cost of a hotel, and the cost of the inconvenience – is it really worth it to you to have to drive so far to save a few bucks? Can you combine the drive with a visit to family or friends, or an errand, that might make it worthwhile? Imagine how you will feel in a few months when you take your trip – and whether or not you would pay more just to leave from home.
3. Flight times, flight times, flight times
You can often find the cheapest tickets at the most inconvenient times. They are cheap for a reason. Try to imagine what it will really be like to wake up at 3am and drive the 2 hours to the airport so you can get on that cheap 6:15 AM flight. That terrible flight schedule might be fine – or it might tarnish the last day of your trip. You might be able to make up the sleep you miss on the plane – or you might end up not being able to sleep in the sardine can they call a coach seat, and come back home sick and exhausted. Take time to think about your initial flight overseas as well. You want to arrive as early as possible on the first day, so you have a full day of sight-seeing.
4. Are you leaving from an unusual destination?
Are you staying in a place that requires unusual measures to get to the airport? In Venice, you often want to take a water bus to the airport, but those don’t leave from every stop, and they don’t go all night. If you visit the northern lakes of Italy, and you stay overnight on one of the islands, you’ll need to get a ferry to the shore before you can even start heading to the airport. If you are visiting a mountainous region in late fall, winter, or early spring, you might be delayed by frost or snow. Make sure you factor that in to choosing your flights. Nothing puts a pall on an otherwise great trip like a stressful, panicked dash to the airport.
5. No choice but a long connection?
Sometimes the longer layover is unavoidable. In this case, give yourself the longest connection possible. Head in to Chicago on the layover and eat deep dish pizza, or rent a car for a few hours and drive into Miami Beach and have a cafe cubano. Take a shuttle in to NYC and have a great slice of pizza, or take a few hours in Dublin and have a real pint of Guinness.
6. Consider “open jaw” flights
Often times you will find that a great flight deal can be found by flying in to one city and leaving from another. This has a hidden benefit – you can cover a bit more ground. For example, you can fly in to Rome and out of Milan, which would enable you to comfortably visit some small towns in Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, or even some places in the lake region. In Europe, car rental agencies will usually allow you to pick up at one location and drop off at another, as long as you remain in the same country, without the punitive fees they apply in the US.
7. Search everywhere, but book carefully
Use search engines like Kayak, Orbitz, and Skyscanner to find good flight deals. But don’t book using those sites. If you are delayed or bumped, you will have no protection. Orbitz (or whoever) will tell you to call your airline, and the airline will tell you to call your booking agent. Bottom line – you’ll be on your own. We have learned this one the hard way. The old days, when airlines cared if you were stranded, are over!
8. Consider airline fees
Budget airlines, especially those in Europe, can be tempting because of their extremely low fares. But the way they make their money is through fees. Fees for checked bags, fees if you don’t have a printed boarding pass, fees for check-in time, fees, fees, fees. Stateside, you might decide to fly one airline to NYC, then another from NYC-London. Just make sure that you know what the fees (especially for bags) will be. Every major airline offers one free bag when you fly from the US to Europe. But if you fly American Airlines from Dallas-NYC and then Delta from NYC-Berlin, you will likely get stuck paying a baggage fee if you check. And if one of your flights is cancelled and/or delayed, the other airline will not care about accommodating you.
9. A few “Don’t”s, if you can help it:
-Don’t take more than two flights. That will greatly increase your chance of getting bumped/delayed
-Don’t check a bag on the way over. (See our packing tips HERE)
-Don’t leave at the crack of dawn on the last day of your trip. Try to get the latest flight out. That way you can have a relaxing morning, and maybe even breakfast at your B&B.
-Don’t take a crappier schedule to save a small amount of money. If the schedule is inconvenient, make sure it is truly worth it. It may be worth paying a bit more if it will save you a few hours of time and aggravation, which can make or break a day.
Do you want to travel like we do – discovering small towns, out of the way sights, and great local food? Consider using our Itinerary Building Service – we’ve had dozens of happy clients who have used our service to create the most immersive and memorable trips!
Or, check out our Little Roads Europe Travel Guides – current volumes include: Emilia-Romagna: A Personal Guide to Little Known Places Foodies Will Love and Tuscany: Small-Town Itineraries for the Foodie Traveler
Get them on Amazon in beautiful full-color print format or as an e-book for Kindle!