With peak season airfares to Europe hitting the stratosphere, many of you are asking if any low-fare airlines offer some real price competition. The answer is that, at least so far, the offerings are meager, indeed: very limited routes and underwhelming fare breaks. As of mid-March, only four low-fare airlines have planned transatlantic flights from the United States this summer. I checked fares for a two-week round-trip starting mid-June:
- Air Berlin has been flying the Atlantic for many years, originally as LTU, now merged into one of the continent's leading low-fare lines. It flies seasonally from Los Angeles, Ft. Myers, Miami, New York, San Francisco, and Vancouver, British Columbia nonstop to Dusseldorf, where it offers a wide range of local connections throughout Europe. The lowest round-trip fare combinations I could find were $580 from New York and $940 from the West Coast, with limited date options at those lowest fares. For the most part, you'd pay $100 to $200 more to get dates you want. Air Berlin throws in connections to some other European cities at no extra cost: The round-trip from the West Coast to Zurich, for example, is actually less than to Dusseldorf, due to lower taxes and fees. These are decent fares: Expedia's best quote for New York-Frankfurt is $727 on a really lousy connection, $997 for nonstops. Air Berlin flies A330s with minimal legroom. It also offers a good business class, but, as usual, for more than double the economy price.
- Iceland Express is a new line that will fly from Newark to Reykjavik, then connect to several popular destinations. It is pitching "London for $275 each way," but the best London prices I could find for late June started at $785 round-trip. It flies 737s—a very uncomfortable plane for an overnight flight. Flights to Reykjavik will operate three days a week. Big-line nonstops to London for that time start at about $900.
- Meridiana Fly is another merger product, having absorbed EuroFly. It flies from New York nonstop to Naples and Palermo. The best round-trip price to Naples for my test period is $1,168. By comparison, big-line nonstops from New York to Rome start at $1,193. Meridiana flies A330s—I can't find a seating plan, but I suspect economy seats are nine across rather than the usual eight, meaning ultra narrow. You might catch this line if you really want to go to Naples or especially Palermo, but if your main aim is to get to Italy, stick with the big lines.
- Sun Country, a domestic low-fare line, will fly from its Minneapolis base to London/Stansted once weekly during the summer. Because the line's 737s can't make the trip nonstop, they'll make pit stops at Gander, Newfoundland, in both directions. The round-trip fare for my test period is $936. Big-line Minneapolis nonstops start at around $1,370, with one-stops available for $1,280 on Icelandair, via Reykjavik stop.
Sun Country's promotion is interesting. As an old-timer, I remember the days when almost all transatlantic flights refueled at Gander or Goose Bay, Labrador—many at Shannon, Ireland, too. An early line to fly nonstop even advertised, "No Goose, no Gander." My first crossing on a PanAm 707-120 stopped at Gander.
More significant, however, is Sun Country's pitch for Stansted as a great airport to connect onward into the Continent because of its many low-fare flights on EasyJet and Ryanair. Maybe, but what Sun Country doesn't mention is that breaking your ticket at Stansted means paying the onerous British airfare duties on both outbound flights—$18 on the flight to the Continent and a whopping $91 for the return to the United States—fees that could easily erase any price advantage on just the airfares. Plus, there's claiming your bag and going through check-in and security again. For London, it could be a good deal, but for onward connections, no thanks.
Have you ever flown with any of these airlines, or do you plan to in the future? How do you fly to Europe on the cheap? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below.
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)