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Beat high-season Europe fares with flexibility

SmarterTravel

In recent years it was possible to depart for Europe by mid-June, return whenever you wanted, and still fly on shoulder-season fares that were hundreds of dollars cheaper than regular summer fares. Not in 2005. This year, the number of Americans flying is returning to pre-2001 levels, according to the FAA, and bookings to international destinations are up significantly over last year. The travel-booking site Orbitz reports that its reservations for international travel are up 29 percent.

This trend means that travelers should not expect any major price breaks for Europe summer flights. To find affordable fares, you’ll need to be flexible and creative. Below are some strategies to consider if you haven’t booked yet.

Fly in May or early June

“For better fares to Europe, it is best to take a trip (departing and returning ) in May or early June,” says Amy Bohutinsky of Hotwire.com. Unlike the last few years, when flights departing by mid-June were still considered to be within shoulder season, you must now depart and return before then to be able to book shoulder-season tickets. “With the exception of a few carriers, high season [now] begins May 31 or June 1,” says Rob Becker of Travel CUTS, a student, youth, and budget travel agency.

Be flexible about travel dates and departure/arrival airports

Flexibility is the real key to savings on Europe fares this summer. This means being open about when you fly and considering alternate airports.

As the cost of airfare follows supply and demand, you should be able to save by traveling on less popular dates. Amy Bohutinsky says travelers seeking lower fares should try looking for flights that depart and return on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Plus, avoiding travel around holidays such as Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day will help you save.

Bohutinsky also recommends looking at flights to and from smaller secondary airports, as fares may be lower. For instance, if you live in the Bay Area, look for flights departing from San Jose and Oakland, not just San Francisco. If you traveling to London, don’t just look at flights to Heathrow, see if you can get a better deal to Luton or Stanstead. “However,” says Bohutinsky, “also make sure you do some research on transportation from the airport to your destination. Sometimes the extra transportation cost (like a cab) can offset any savings in airfare.”

Call a travel agent

In many cases, finding an affordable fare requires a lot of creativity and time. A knowledgeable travel agent may be able to do the work for you and find a flight combination that would be difficult or impossible to locate on your own. “In our experience, finding seats [on Europe summer flights] right now is very, very challenging and not the easiest to navigate online,” says Rob Becker.

Becker explains that travel agents often use tactics to find lower fares that might be hard to do on your own using online search engines. Some “tricks of the trade” include comparing fares with different connection points and combining flight segments on two or more airlines.

Find a travel agent in your area by using the search tool on the American Society of Travel Agents website.

Book a package

“[You can] save on the cost of travel by booking flights and hotels as a package rather than standalone segments,” says Katie Deines, a spokesperson for Expedia. By offering airfare and hotel under one price, travel providers do not have to reveal the exact cost of each element and therefore can offer bigger discounts.

Expedia has a tool that shows you how much you can save by booking a package rather than purchasing air and hotel individually. Using this tool to find rates for weeklong Boston-to-Paris packages in late June, we found savings of $112 to $304 per person.

Find other affordable Europe packages by browsing the deals listed in the SmarterTravel.com vacation section or by visiting the websites of providers that specialize in Europe packages such as Go-today, Gate1Travel, and EuropeASAP.

Hold off flying until the fall

If you’re not finding a spring or summer fare that’s within your budget, you may need to postpone traveling until the fall when fares drop in price again. Waiting until after Labor Day might not be such a bad thing when you consider that you’ll be able to see Europe when it’s much less crowded and that weather in early fall is often quite pleasant throughout the continent. Who knows—by then, the dollar may even have begun to recover against the euro and the pound.

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