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6 Tricks to Traveling Across Europe on the Cheap
Experts share clever tips for cutting costs on your European getaway this winter.
Flying into Spain – and airports in destinations like Denmark, Sweden and Germany – can save you money when traveling to Europe.(Getty Images)
With affordable hotels, low-cost carriers and an advantageous exchange rate, Europe is a great place for the frugal traveler this winter. No matter the reason you want to visit – be it the iconic sights of the City of Light, the snowy peaks of the Alps or simply the lack of tourists at this time of year – Europe offers plenty of enticements for winter-weary travelers on a tight budget. But while finding a compelling reason to hop across the pond isn't difficult, securing the best bargains is another story entirely. With that in mind, we gathered strategies from seasoned travel experts to help you save hundreds of dollars on your European getaway.
If You See a Sale, Act Quickly
When it comes to securing bargain flights overseas, your best bet is shopping around early on. Prices will naturally dip in winter, but securing your flight eight to 10 weeks ahead of your departure date is generally a smart rule of thumb to up your chances of getting the best value, says Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo. Still, if you've procrastinated on booking this year, you're not out of luck: "During the winter season, the prevalence of last-minute deals will certainly be greatest," Saglie says, noting that November through March is when prices bottom out for airfares and hotels across Europe. The catch, of course, is you have to be ready to pounce, as these promotions are randomly distributed, short-lived and geared toward quick-acting travelers, he explains, highlighting sluggish seasons such as February and March as popular times for 24- to 48-hour fare sales to pop up.
If you have some time before your trip, set up fare alerts, says Clem Bason, CEO of goSeek. Since pricing fluctuates, it's a good idea to get a sense of how the fares are moving before you book, he adds. Bason also recommends turning to trusted apps such as Skyscanner, which sources fares across Europe, making comparing flights and setting up airfare alerts a cinch.
According to Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com, an annual airfare study conducted by CheapAir analyzed more than 1.5 billion flight prices and found that, on average, the best time to purchase a flight to Europe to get the lowest rate is 276 days ahead of your departure date. But there's a silver lining: "The off-season, combined with the falling price of oil and increased competition on many international routes to Europe, means that there are now many lower fares," he says. Still, he cautions that to land the best deals, your best bet is avoiding the holiday rush, when limited availability and high demand make prices climb. "Great sales to Europe in the winter do come up from time to time," he adds, noting that the key is being flexible in your search and being willing to travel to where you can nab the best value. "Right now in early December we're showing round trip flights available to Dublin from New York for $612, Boston to London for under $600 and Los Angeles to Dublin or Istanbul for right around $600," he adds.
Compare Low-Cost Carriers
A clever way to find the cheapest fares overseas is searching for budget airline tickets and promotions. With a growing number of low-cost carriers offering European-bound flights, there's increased competition, Saglie says. "Low-frill, budget airlines are making flights across the Atlantic a lot more affordable," he explains, pointing to the rock-bottom prices available on carriers such as Norwegian Air Shuttle and WOW Air.
Bason also suggests looking at flights from Norwegian for great steals, especially if you're planning a spur-of-the-moment getaway. "They have super cheap rates even up to the last minute, even in winter," he says, though he cautions that you'll have to have the flexibility to fly on certain days and they do impose other restrictions such as baggage fees. Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, points to Norwegian as particularly enticing, with one-way tickets at deeply discounted rates. Currently, the price for a one-way ticket from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport to Paris-Orly Airport on Dec. 6 is listed at $288, while a one-way ticket to Copenhagen on Dec. 11 is priced at $226. But remember, you'll want to pack light, since you will have to pay extra for checked bags – plus shell out more for in-flight meals.
And once you arrive, flying to multiple cities across Europe on low-cost carriers can be a great way to save money, Klee says. "Airlines like easyJet and Ryanair will often offer bargain-basement prices to get you from point A to point B once you are on the continent," he explains, cautioning that it's important to be smart about connections. "When cobbling together an itinerary using a low-cost air carrier, it might behoove you to allow an extra cushion of time between flights – in case you have to trek from one end of the airport to another or schlep you and all your bags to another terminal."
Venture Away From City Centers
Staying in Europe's less-frequented corners can not only yield the best room rates, it's also a great way to tap into the local culture, Saglie says. In some areas, you'll find prices under $100 a night, he explains. Saglie also suggests scouting out last-minute deals for business-friendly properties across cities such as Madrid and London that are looking to fill rooms, especially during the winter season and on weekends.
Another simple way to keep your budget on track is looking for alternative lodging options such as vacation rentals overseas. "You've got to check Airbnb and vacation rentals in major European cities now," Bason says. For vetting options, Bason recommends Tripping.com, which he describes as the Kayak of vacation rentals, thanks to its comprehensive property inventory across Europe and beyond.
Don't Dismiss Package Deals
"The airlines, especially international carriers, will often discount on package rates," Bason says. A clever trick for saving a bundle on your airfare and hotel costs is using Expedia's package product, he says. "When you put it all together, sometimes you can get really deep discounts on all your travel expenses," he says, noting that there are no restrictions for modifying or canceling your reservation, so you can take your time to compare discounts after you book to ensure you get the lowest price. And if you find a better deal two days prior to your check-in date, you'll get refunded the price difference.
If you find a package deal that appeals to you, grab it, Saglie suggests. Using tour packages to secure extra tickets to top attractions can also be a strategic way to slash costs. City passes, for example, can be a major bonus for visitors looking to save on sightseeing landmarks and attractions as well as transportation costs, he says.
Evaluate All Options
"Europe can be such a great bargain during the winter season," Saglie says. With a high number of airport choices within each country, travelers can sift through all the airport options in a destination to save time and money. While he cautions that sometimes the availability is greater in bigger hubs, it's a smart idea to look at one-way flights from other destinations, also known as open-jaw tickets, to pinpoint the best deals. For example, you could catch a flight from the U.S. to London and return home on a flight from Milan, he explains. The caveat, of course, is you have to reach your departure destination to fly home, but if your plans are flexible and you want to explore multiple destinations across Europe, these tickets can be a smart way to save on low-cost carriers flying overseas.
And if you're interested in flying to multiple cities during your time abroad, check out all fares available with budget airlines such as Air Berlin and Ryanair. Because they run so many flights each day, it's easy to snag a deal at the last minute, Bason says.
Avoid Popular Airports
Instead of flying into in-demand destinations like London, Paris and Rome, you can save some cash by going to less-frequented destinations, Seaney says. And if you have your heart set on visiting an expensive European destination, another trick is flying into a secondary hub with less foot traffic. "You can easily fly into Dublin, for example, for half the price of London," he explains. Destinations like Denmark, Sweden, Spain and Germany are often cheaper to fly into, he adds, pointing out that the current economic climate in Europe has created a "discounting free-for-all." Saglie also highlights that because there are many countries that are "in the midst of coming out of austerity measures that have been put in place," there are an abundance of places where savvy travelers can score big savings this year, including Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain.
"There's these other giant hubs that are secondary that people don't think of as much," Bason says. "Amsterdam and Zurich come to mind," he adds. He also highlights Oslo, Barcelona, Budapest and Copenhagen as top wallet-friendly destinations for those looking to land a great deal this winter.
According to Klee, "if you're looking for destinations where you can really stretch your dollars on the ground, you can't really go wrong with places like Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic, where the local currencies are very favorable to the USD." He points out that you can fly from New York's JFK to Moscow for less than $500 in January and that Turkey is offering steeply discounted prices, with airfare fluctuating between $600 and $700 in December.