As weather gets hot, so do the tickets

However, bargains to Europe can still be found with a little digging

Strategies

March 20, 2005|By Susan Stellin | Susan Stellin,New York Times News Service

Airlines have been offering rock-bottom fares for travel to Europe this winter, with prices dropping below $300 for flights to destinations like Paris, London or Rome. But, of course, more people choose to travel to Europe when it's warm enough to sit at an outdoor cafe or stroll through a piazza enjoying a cone of gelato.

And when the mercury rises, so do airfares.

In late February, you could still buy a round-trip ticket from New York to London for travel in March or April for just under $400, or a ticket from Boston to Paris for about $50 more. But change to June, July or August and the lowest fares on those routes increase to $700 to $800; more, if you're picky about your airline or dates.

So if you're determined to cross the Atlantic this summer, it may take some strategic searching to snare some of the lower fares in the peak season price range. The good news? If you're willing to splurge on business class, some of those advance-purchase fares are (relatively) a bargain.

Travel sellers say people started making their summer travel plans early this year, so many of the least expensive seats have already sold out.

"The cheaper fares are pretty much gone at this point or they will be soon," said Kathie Gonzalez of CheapTickets.com, a Web site where the cheapest flight from New York to Milan leaving June 18 and returning June 25 was $874 in late February (on Delta). For that same Delta itinerary, Travelocity, Expedia and Kayak.com all displayed roughly the same price.

Neil Martin, a consultant who does research for the European Travel Commission (visiteurope. com), said that's about what travelers can expect to pay in June, July and August. "As long as you can find an $800 fare sometime in the summer, we think that could be considered an attractive fare," Martin said.

You may be able to save a bit by flying in the midweek, usually cheaper than flying on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. And there's generally more competition on flights to London, Amsterdam and Dublin, Martin said, so you may find better fares on those routes.

Since Aer Lingus, the Irish airline, dropped its prices last fall, it has gained a reputation as the low-fare trans-Atlantic carrier, so its fares are worth checking if you're flying to Dublin or London or are willing to continue to your destination with a discount carrier flying within Europe.

As for waiting for a last-minute sale, that could be a risky strategy this year, since demand has risen and the airlines have fewer empty seats to discount at the 11th hour.

"There's always going to be some last-minute inventory, but in order to make that work for their vacations, people need to be flexible," said Kari Swartz, a spokesman for Expedia. "So it's a gamble."

Ticket consolidator

Another option is to buy your ticket from a consolidator, a travel seller that negotiates contracts with the airlines to sell tickets below the lowest published price. (Many travel agencies also sell consolidator fares.) Although prices for consolidator tickets aren't always the lowest available, and the tickets have some drawbacks like higher change fees, and they don't always qualify for frequent-flier miles, they're worth investigating if the published fares you're finding elsewhere are high.

Some consolidators advertise in newspapers and travel publications. Chad Hartline, a manager with AirlineConsolidator.com in Chattanooga, Tenn., said most of its customers found the company through Internet searches. In late February, the agency's price for a ticket from New York to London from June 18 to June 25 was $769, on British Airways, illustrating that even with consolidator tickets, the early bird gets the bargain.

"We get X number of seats at a certain price," Hartline said. "Once those are gone, they're gone, and then we have to go up to the next highest price."

If you're planning to stay in one city, buying a package may also save you money. For instance, CheapTickets.com has a seven-night package for travel from New York to Paris for $1,282 including Air France flights and accommodations at the Holiday Inn. Prices for similar packages to Rome, London, Amsterdam or Frankfurt are about $1,125 to $1,400 -- though with packages, prices may creep up if you're not flexible about dates or you choose a different hotel.

Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity and most airlines offer packages these days.

You may also find it worth paying extra for business class, since the cost of a bigger, reclining seat has become more affordable if you plan ahead. With a 50-day advance purchase, the lowest round-trip business class fares across the Atlantic are $1,500 to $2,000, said Michael Bennett, publisher of FirstClassFlyer.com, which tracks prices and amenities at the front of the plane.

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