An Online Primer for Budget Exploration
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The flight may be your biggest single cost. Fortunately, it's much easier these days to research flights (as long as you have Internet access). Book as far ahead as possible, and flexibility with dates can save money. Summer is the high season for flights to Europe (roughly mid-April to mid-September) and London, Amsterdam and Frankfurt are among the cheaper cities to fly into. Major daily newspapers (especially those with a Sunday travel section) often list charter fares and other deals. To make your search easier, we have compiled some of the better-known travel fare sites on our farefinder page.
Charter groups and consolidators (a.k.a. "bucket shops") often have good bargains but there are some hassles: you have to pay in advance but only get your ticket a few days before the flight, there are heavy penalties for cancellation, and flight days may get bumped a day or two in either direction. You have to be flexible to save money.
Expect these agencies to be a bit disorganized. Although most of these are ultimately reliable, be careful; do not deal with someone you do not trust. In return for the effort, you can sometimes save hundreds of dollars off regular fares. Look at their websites, call the toll-free numbers, and get their quotes and a sense of their competence. Have a look at the Charterflights Guide website at http://www.charterflightsguide.com/ for a list. Also try the airlines directly. (Budget carriers like Virgin Atlantic and Iceland Air are well known.) I got an extremely cheap airfare once directly from an airline, which was not advertised and which no travel agents seemed to know about.
Another strategy for North Americans is to book with an organization called Airhitch. You give them a five-day window to a number of destinations, and they book you a ticket as close as they can. Obviously you might not get your first choice but they are worth trying: http://www.airhitch.org/. If you are flexible, they may be your best bet for a dirt cheap flight.
If you have even more flexibility and less luggage, the cheapest flights are often with air courier companies. This involves a broker that books a seat for you at a drastically reduced cost: the big catch is that you can only take carry-on luggage, since they have used your baggage allotment for time-sensitive air freight such as overnight business documents. You may also not be able to book on exactly the days you wish to fly, and there is often a specific short-term return date. There are several air courier companies, often specializing in particular geographic regions. Most charge a small enrollment fee, but the savings can be amazing.
Several websites offer lists of air couriers; try http://www.couriertravel.org/gcthome.asp or http://www.courierlist.com/. There are also a couple books dedicated solely to the topic of finding cheap airfare. One classic published in 1989 is "The Airline Passenger's Guerilla Handbook". It's now quite dated but the principles therein are still useful. Used copies can be found online. From 1998 is the "Discount Airfare--The Insider's Guide". There are also books which spell out the ins and outs of courier travel. Look for "The Insider's Guide to Air Courier Bargains" (third edition, 1995) or the "Courier Air Travel Handbook" (eighth edition, 1999).
Assemble all the flight information and in the end make the reservation that makes you the happiest, whether it is the cheapest or not. This is when you psychologically hit "commit" mode and your heart begins to beat a bit faster, because there is no turning back. You are going to Europe, baby.
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