I’ll never forget booking my first flight to Europe: five years ago, my best friend and I sat down, opened up the Expedia webpage, and bought a round-trip flight from Minneapolis to Dublin for a 3-week trip the summer after my high school graduation. It was just about 3 months in advance. Price tag? $1024. No surprises, we had a great trip! But so much has changed since I traveled in the summer of 2011. One of the biggest changes is how I book my flights now.
I’ve flown between the US and Europe several times in the last few years. If you live on the East Coast, price costs won’t be that bad. If don’t live on one of the coasts, price costs can be astronomical. I still consider anything less than $1000 round-trip a good price for a trip to Europe (especially during the summer high season or over Christmas). But things are changing! Air travel is changing, budget airlines that offer no-frills cheap fares are gaining momentum, there are more ways to score a good deal. Airfare is one of the biggest expenses for US travelers on a trip to Europe! So here are 10 tried-and-tested tips to help you cut costs and book cheap flights from the US to Europe:
1. Like the Thrifty Traveler page on Facebook (or sign up for their email list)
I don’t really mention other blogs, but I will promote this one to the ends of the earth. They post absolutely INSANE flight deals that can save you a ridiculous amount of money. I recently saw a flight for Minneapolis to Amsterdam for $310. NO. JOKE. Thrifty Traveler is based in the Twin Cities, so I feel like there’s more options for flights out of MSP airport than there otherwise would be. The only catch is that the availability is sometimes limited, and that the price deals don’t last long. But as they say on their page, you can get a full refund up to 24 hours after purchase through Priceline, so book now and figure it out later! This blog is an incredible travel resource that everyone should know about. (P.S. They also have great flight deals for domestic US flights, and loads of cheap fares to Asia.) You can find their Facebook page here and the blog here. You’re welcome!
2. Get smart with credit card points
The best cheap way to fly to Europe? Don’t pay at all! I don’t consider myself a points hacker by any means, but at the beginning of this year I decided I needed to get smart with my spending and start getting more rewards. I’m a huge fan of the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card (you can read my full review here), although I’ve heard that the new Chase Sapphire Reserve is an even better deal. Score deals and build up points and you might just have enough to get you to Europe for free! (Or at the very least, cheap!) Probably the best resource on the internet for points hacking and travel credit cards is The Points Guy. (They also post flight deals!) But if you want more information about the Chase Sapphire Preferred, get in touch and let me refer you so I get extra points as well! 🙂
3. Use a price comparison website like Skyscanner
It’s hard for me to remember what I did before I found Skyscanner. Basically, Skyscanner is a big search engine that finds fares from all corners of the internet and puts them all in one place. You can then purchase your tickets (usually through a third party website—rarely are the official airlines the cheapest option) at the lowest fare available. One of Skyscanner’s nicest features (or most tempting) is that you can search for flights to “Everywhere,” and it’ll pop up with the cheapest flights to cities and countries across the world. I swear by Skyscanner, but Kayak is another very similar price compare website.
4. ALWAYS use a private browser when searching for flights
I don’t know much about the tech side of things, but I do know that unless you’re searching in a private browser, websites can remember your searches and will then regularly jack the price up for flights if you’ve searched for them before. So you need to use a private browser when you’re searching on Skyscanner, Kayak, etc. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. It’s not hard to do! In Firefox, Chrome, Safari, whatever, just go to “File” and click on “New Private Window” or similar. Your private browser doesn’t remember your search history, so websites can’t increase the prices on you based on your previous searches.
5. Consider an Iceland stopover
There has been a MASSIVE uptick in Americans visiting Iceland in the past year or two. Iceland is becoming a hotspot tourist destination, with magical landscapes, volcanoes, and waterfalls to keep you busy. I think part of this is because Iceland’s national carrier, Icelandair, is nailing their marketing campaign by promoting Iceland stopovers as part of a European travel itinerary. They often offer 1-10 day stopovers in Iceland for no extra charge, or for something incredibly cheap like $10 more. This way, you can visit Iceland at the start or end of your trip (supporting their economy and tourism industry) without giving up your original destination. Icelandair flies to airports all across Europe, so it’s easy to fly with them from the US to Iceland, have a few days in Iceland, jet across to your destination, and then fly back via Reykjavik to the US.
Icelandair also lets you check 2 bags for free! But there are a few downsides of Icelandair: no free meals on their flights, and they lost my bags when I flew over to England a few weeks ago—my flight was delayed leaving Minneapolis, so while I just barely made my connecting flight, my bags didn’t. For that reason I’d suggest an Iceland stopover at the beginning of your trip.
6. Try to fly into a cheaper airport
Not all European airports are equal. Avoid flying into London Heathrow (United Kingdom), Paris Charles de Gaulle (France), and Rome Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci airport, Italy) if at all possible. Look into flights to Dublin (Ireland), Madrid/Barcelona (Spain), Warsaw (Poland), Milan (Italy), and Istanbul (Turkey). Many Scandinavian airports (such as Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm) also offer good fares from the US. I would ordinarily put Moscow at the top of this list, as there are often incredibly cheap flights there, but you will have to pay a lot more in order to get a Russian tourist visa. For me personally, I have found that flying round-trip to Dublin (which has lower airport taxes) is usually $150-200 cheaper than flying into London—I then get a cheap budget airline flight (see below!) over to England. And I’ll never miss the chance to spend some time in Ireland!
7. Compare prices for two one-way tickets
Chances are, if you’re flying all the way to Europe you’ll be visiting more than one country. If you’re traveling a great distance geographically (say from West to East, or vice versa), compare prices for buying two one-way tickets. It might be cheaper to buy two separate tickets, one from your first destination and one from your last, rather than making your way back to your original starting point and doubling back. While this has never turned out to be the best deal for me, it could save you money on airfare!
8. Remember you can fly very cheaply on European budget airlines back to your original destination for a round-trip ticket
Even if you don’t get find a good deal on two one-way tickets, you can fly cheaply in Europe on budget airlines—so your round-trip ticket might not be all that bad if you’re going great distances. European’s budget airlines can save you an extraordinary amount of money—I once flew with Ryanair from Stockholm to Warsaw for $9 (!!!)—but checked bags will always cost extra, you generally need to check-in and print your boarding pass before arriving at the airport, and hand luggage is usually strictly regulated. All in all though, it might not be too expensive to double back to your first destination for your return flight back home.
9. Book as far in advance as possible
Some people will swear by last-minute flight deals, but I am definitely not one of them. Generally speaking for flights from the US to Europe, it’s never too soon to buy them. I try to start looking for deals at least 3 months in advance (sometimes more), especially over Christmas and the summer high season. But definitely aim to book your ticket 6-8 weeks ahead of your trip.
10. Be flexible with dates
If it’s possible, try to avoid flying on weekends (easier said than done, I know). Flying mid-week is usually cheaper, so try not to fly Friday-Sunday. Being flexible with your trip dates (bumping your trip back a week, or moving it up a week before) can sometimes save you tons of money too.
Over to you! What are your tips for booking flights to Europe? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!