Cheap Flights in Europe
Airfares within Europe have plunged due to European Union reforms and deregulation. New no-frills airlines are taking off. And some well-established airlines offer discounts on flights within Europe to their transatlantic passengers. As a result, flying is now a realistic option for budget travelers.
So before buying a long distance European train ticket, drop by a travel agency (either at home or in Europe) to check out budget airfares. Some round-trip fares are cheaper than one-way, but you won't be told unless you ask.
Plane or Train?
While airfares have dropped, a railpass is still usually cheaper than a flight. However, if you're short on time or have long distances to cover within Europe, consider flying. By a quick flight you can easily visit two countries far apart from each other. For cities close together, the train is more practical. From London to Paris, the Eurostar Chunnel Train can be faster than flying because the train zips you directly from downtown to downtown. While the actual flight between the cities takes less time than the train, it takes more time to check in and to get between downtown and the airports.
For the Eurostar crossing (one way) between London and Paris in 2000 the best value is the second class Leisure ticket. The Full Fare tickets are pricier but include a meal and are fully refundable even after departure. Discounts in first or second class are available to railpass holders, youths under 26, and children under 12 (about half the fare of your ticket).
Budget airlines offer one-way fares within Europe. Bigger savings are possible if you fly round trip.
Brussels Airlines is a Belgian company with very low rates. In the British Isles, Brussels Airlines flies from Stansted and Gatwick in London to Shannon, Ireland and Brussels. From its hub in Brussels you can connect cheaply to Barcelona, Madrid, Nice, Copenhagen, Rome, or Milan. Book by phone with credit card and pick up the ticket at the airport an hour before your flight (one way is half the roundtrip).
Ryanair is a creative Irish airline with more complicated but potentially even cheaper fares. They fly mostly from London's Stansted airport to Dublin, Glasgow, Frankfurt, Lyon, Stockholm, Oslo, Venice, and Turin. They tend to sell out a couple weeks in advance.
European airlines such as Lufthansa, Air France, Alitalia, SAS, KLM, and British Air also offer competitive fares. There's a catch: You must often buy your transatlantic flight from the airline in order to take advantage of intra-European budget fares. But the saving on flights within the continent can be worth an extra $100 for an overseas flight. In some cases, you purchase an "air pass"—a set of three or more flight coupons, each good for one nonstop flight. Be aware that with any air pass a flight will "cost" two coupons if you need two connecting flights to reach your destination (for instance, if you're flying on SAS from Paris to Rome, you'll transfer at SAS's hub, Copenhagen—adding up to two flights and costing two coupons). Check with your travel agent for details.
RICK STEVES is the host of the PBS series Rick Steves' Europe and the author of 30 European travel guidebooks, including Europe Through the Back Door, all published by Avalon Travel Publishing.