I am in the midst of planning another trip to Europe in September. People wonder how I can afford to go so often. I am not made out of money and I have to go on a tight budget, but it can be done. Money is one of the biggest concerns when people think about travel to Europe. "It’s too expensive" or "I can’t afford it" are some of the reasons that people don’t go (other than the ridiculous assumption that Europeans…specifically the French… don’t like Americans. But I’ll leave that for another post).
My focus when planning trips for myself, or others, is on budget. Don’t get me wrong…I have always had expensive taste. I love the finer things, but I have just learned to find wonderfully rich experiences without necessarily having to be rich to enjoy them. Believe it or not, one of the things I enjoy most is having to find things to do with a limited budget. It’s very easy to book a trip with an unlimited budget, but for me it is great deal more rewarding and challenging to work within a smaller budget.
One of the biggest, if not the biggest expense when going to Europe will be your airfare. With the gas prices being what they are and the airlines struggling….it’s hard to find the deals that used to be available. There are several things that you can do to get the best value possible.
Be flexible. If you can go anytime, you may be able to save a bundle. Just moving your travel dates by one or two days in either direction can mean lower airfare. Airline search engines like ITAsoftware, Kayak or Mobissimo allow you to search any 30 day period for the best airfare within that time frame. Travel on the dates that offer you the best fare. Generally, you will get the best rate if you travel mid-week and have a Saturday night stay. Keep in mind, these are only search engines..you still need to contact the airline directly to actually book your flight.
Should you book on line or by phone? Well. It depends. If you find a good deal on line, always call the airline directly, just to see if they can offer you anything better. Most airlines will actually charge you extra to book on the phone with a live representative vs. on-line. But, it is always worth the toll free call to check. I have had instances where I have gotten a lower rate by talking to someone at the airline directly.
Don’t travel in peak season. If you can avoid Europe in the summer…I highly recommend it! The weather tends to be very hot and if you are someone that is used to air conditioning, you may be disappointed…not every hotel has it. Lots of people travel in July and August, so airfares tend to be higher and Europe tends to be crowded! Many Europeans take their own vacations during the summer, so many places may be closed and you may not get the authentic feel of the city you were looking for. Spring and Fall are nice times to visit and if you book early enough, you should be able to find airfare within your budget.
I prefer direct flights, but if you don’t mind a connection, you could save some serious money. For my area, I know that British Airways offers flights from NYC to Paris, via London. Lufthansa flies from NYC to Rome and Venice with a connection thru Frankfurt. Do some research and find out which carriers offer these ‘legs’ and go with the least expensive option that gets you to your final destination.
Check with a consolidator. One of my favorites is 1-800-Fly-Europe. I have used them a number of times with great success. I find them extremely friendly and helpful. Each airline has a certain number of seats that it sells to consolidators, and then the consolidator sets the price for the tickets. For this reason, you can find seats cheaper than some of the airline’s sale prices. They also offer some fly and drive programs. I have used them to book air and car rental for the same trip, with ease and deep discounts.
Speaking of packages. Typically, I don’t like them. For myself and clients, I design individual trips and like to have some control over the flights and hotels that I recommend. But, if budget is your concern, some package deals are too good to pass up. Go-today and Sherman’s Travel are two sites to check. My only advice here is to read the fine print. Often times the hotel is very far from the city center, in a less than desirable area and with no public transportation in sight. This is how they keep costs down. Check some travel forums like Fodor’s or Virtualtourist for unbiased reviews on the hotel that comes with the package. Factor in your travel time to and from the city center before making your decision. Keep in mind that although an inch on a map may seem close, it can translate into 15 minutes each way on public transportation. This can mean spending an extra hour a day back and forth, not to mention the added cost of purchasing your bus or metro pass, which adds to your budget. It may or may not be worth it..it’s your call.
Let your email do all the work! Sit back and let the deals come rolling in. Sign up for every travel alert you find. Airfare Watchdog and Travelzoo are two of my favorites. They send you the best deals right to your email on a weekly basis. This option is also available directly through some of the airline carriers, especially if you are involved in their frequent flyer programs. Carriers will send you an email notifying you of their fare specials. Be aware that these are always limited time specials that sell out quickly, so if you see something you can afford, don’t wait! React quickly and you’ll reap the rewards. If you snooze…you loose!
Now that we found some airfare to fit your budget, the next step is finding a seat to fit your derriere. Hey, I didn’t promise you a comfortable seat…just a seat. I mean really, if these airplane seats get any smaller, I’ll have to spring for a ticket to bring my chiropractor along!