If you're headed for Europe this summer, CheapAir.com says, "Buy as soon as you can." That's based on actual ticket prices in CheapAir's database for this year and last, and it contradicts some earlier findings about buying long-haul international trips around three months in advance. Although CheapAir's posted report doesn't say so, would-be visitors to Europe may well face sticker shock at the peak-season prices.
But you have to view this recommendation in perspective. The differences between fares in May and fares in July may be only $100 or so, and that amount may not be large enough to sway you if you really want to visit in peak season. Although CheapAir doesn't say so, avoiding destination high prices and crowds may be more important than fare differences as the prime motive to travel off season.
-- Be Flexible on Travel Days is one of the oldest such tips and, of course, it's old because it's right. Fares do vary day-to-day, and that's one of the reasons that so many search engines -- oddly, not including CheapAir -- offer a "my dates are flexible" search option. Some of the better ones give you a full month of dates. In general, weekday fares are a bit better than weekends, but a quick check of a few key routes shows not much consistency. And a new study from Hopper says that day-to-day variations are narrowing to near-trivial levels.
-- Consider Alternate Airports is another golden oldie. From the United States, says CheapAir, try to fly to/from a major hub, where fares are lower than at outlying airports, even if that means a longer drive to the airport. Many search engines offer a "search alternate airports" option. Overseas, CheapAir suggests checking out the possibility of preferring a low-fare city. It points out that an average low fare to Dublin, at $1,183, is $150 to $300 less than flying to Brussels, London, Frankfurt or Paris. But you should keep this, too, in perspective: If you really want to see Venice before it sinks, flying from the U.S. to Dublin, then to Venice, would add another full day of travel, each way, plus stiff airfare, even on a low-fare line. After all, your time is worth something, too.
-- Go Early, Go Late is yet another hoary tip, but it begs the question. By definition, flying before or after the peak-peak season is less expensive -- in destination costs as well as airfare. But midsummer is the peak season, in part because of personal vacation limitations. Clearly, if you have no constraints of work or school schedules, going off season is a no-brainer.
-- Fly Into One City, Out Another sometimes makes sense if you want to visit two relatively distant European areas. With an "open-jaw" ticket, you can do that, usually for the sum of the half-round-trip rates, and avoid doubling back to your arrival airport. One suggestion CheapAir doesn't add is to avoid returning from the UK, if that's an option, to avoid the notorious "air passenger duty" that adds at least $170 to each ticket.
CheapAir missed out on another suggestion: Consider a connection. When you check fares from, say, Chicago to Paris, you find the cheapest nonstop in mid-July is $1,499 round trip, but you can cut that to $1,269 if you're willing to stop and connect at Dublin on Aer Lingus. But the cheapest connections often involve long connecting times -- maybe even overnight.
Another recommendation is to make sure you check on code-share flights. That cheapest Chicago-Paris trip I mentioned earlier is on a flight operated by American but ticketed on Finnair or Iberia as code-shared flights. Of course, a third-party search engine such as CheapAir automatically reveals code-share prices, but you'd never find that deal on American's own site.
My overall take: Yes, the CheapAir suggestions make sense. But don't compromise your ideal itinerary too far just to cut the cost a few bucks.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)
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