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The latest on cheap flights in Europe

SmarterTravel

U.S. and Canadian websites are great for locating airfare deals from North America to just about anywhere in the world. They’re not as good, however, for flights to North America from overseas, and poor for flights from one foreign country to another.

One reader looking for help recently asked, “I want to see all the cities in Europe that fly to Athens. No search engine I’ve found lets one put in a ‘to’ without a ‘from.’ Or, conversely, if I am in Athens and I want to fly out, what is the cheapest city to fly to in Europe? In my case, I’m leasing a car that needs to be dropped off somewhere in France, and I want to find the cheapest flight to Athens. But since there are many cities and towns in France with airports, I could be at it all night to find the best deal! I could also drop the car off in a city in another country (for an additional fee, which could be offset by a cheap flight). Do you have any suggestions?”

I do. Earlier this year, I answered a question about low-fare flights within Europe, and cited several online information sources. In this update, I’ll take a closer look at just how the system works, with our reader’s question as an example.

Local sources

First, let’s get one thing straight: If you’re looking for low-fare flights from any foreign country, your best sources of information are local in the country where the trip starts. Whether websites or local discount agencies, those locals have access to more options than you’ll ever find starting from home.

Someone on the scene. The easiest way to get at all of the options is to enlist the help of someone who lives in the originating area. In much of the world, local discount agencies post displays of the best fare deals they have to offer. In Athens, for example, I remember passing countless agencies with long lists of airfare deals posted in their storefront offices; I’ve observed the same scene in other parts of the world. These days, many of those agencies also operate websites.

Local agencies are important because they have access to both kinds of deals you might want to explore—low-fare airlines and locally discounted fares on the big lines. And a real agent in an office could answer, off the cuff, a question that is cumbersome to answer online, “which cities in or near France have the lowest airfares from here?”

Finding a local agency. If you don’t know anyone on the spot who can help you, you can search for local agencies by Googling something like “travel agencies in Athens (or wherever)” or “discount airfares from Greece.” A search of our reader’s question located two such agencies in Athens:

  • Airtickets.gr is a local agency’s website that showed some sample fares. The page with those samples, however, is in Greek. Destination cities (many in Western Europe) and fares were easily readable, but the list headings were in Greek only, and the site’s “English” version didn’t show the examples.
  • The site for another agency, Dolphin Hellas Travel & Tourism, showed no examples, but it requested online or email questions about specific trips.

But these two agencies represent only a fraction of the local agencies that feature cheap air tickets. Unfortunately, they’re hard to locate, even with a good search engine. The main problem in dealing with a local discount agency long-distance is that many of them are not interested in selling inexpensive short-haul tickets, or if they are, they add a stiff fee.

Websites

In my earlier answer, I noted several websites that specialize in locating intra-European low-fare airlines: CH-Aviation, flybudget.com, flycheapo.com, and SkyScanner. (There’s also WhichBudget, which I didn’t mention before). Although specific menus differ a bit, all five allow you to search for low-fare trips starting either in a single city or an entire country, flying to some other single city or entire country.

In our reader’s case, I entered flights from Athens to France, and all those sites identify Paris as the only destination to which a low-fare line flies from Athens—specifically, easyJet, to Paris/Orly. All five sites provide direct links to the airline(s) found in the search. Flybudget.com and SkyScanner also return the lowest available fare; the others do not. Had I wanted, I could have made similar requests for trips to nearby countries, including Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland, or trips in the opposite direction.

The earlier report also listed two sites for fixed-price “airpass” tickets inside Europe. Europe by Air shows $99 trips from Athens to Brussels and $129 trips to several cities in Italy and Germany. Euroflightpass.com shows the same flights and prices.

The oneworld alliance (American, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, JAL, LAN, Malev, Qantas, and Royal Jordanian) provides an online interactive map. Enter “Athens,” and the map displays all alliance routes to/from that city.

As far as I can tell, options available through the three different types of sites do not duplicate much:

  • The low-fare sites report only on low-fare lines, not on list-price or discount fares on the giant lines.
  • The air-pass sites list different sets of flights—usually negotiated rates on smaller airlines.
  • The alliance website links you to member airlines, where you find only list-price fares.

Overall, then, you have to check all three approaches, and even then, you probably won’t get all the discount deals available from local agencies.

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