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Cheap Flights to Europe

Flying to Europe is a great travel bargain—for the well-informed. But these days it’s almost a full-time job to keep up with the constantly changing airline industry. That’s why my travel agent is my vital ally. I don’t have time to sort through the frustrating confusion of fares on websites and generally too-good-to-be-true ads that fill the Sunday newspaper.

Rather than grabbing the cheapest ticket to Europe, consider your agent’s recommendation for the best combination of reliability, economy, and flexibility for your trip. Only your agent, not an airline representative, will remind you that leaving two days earlier would get you in on the end of the slow season—and save you $100. But even though I stick with my agent, some travelers save money by booking their own stand-by flights

Check student travel agencies

Even if you’re not a student, check student travel agencies. These offer budget fares to non-students as well. Any city with a university probably has such an agency. Try the biggy: STA Travel, www.statravel.com).

Consider flying “open-jaw.”

When planning your itinerary, consider the efficiency of flying “open-jaw”—into one city and out another. I used to fly into Amsterdam, travel to Istanbul, and fly back out of Amsterdam. I rejected the open-jaw plan (because flying home from Istanbul cost $200 more than returning from Amsterdam), and paid $200 to ride the train for two days back to Amsterdam to catch my “cheap” return flight. Now I know the economy of flying open-jaw. The fare is figured simply by taking half of the roundtrip fare for each of the ports.

Look into consolidator tickets

Consolidator tickets are another money-saving option. Made available through wholesalers, these tickets are generally cheaper than airline fares (though fare wars can make an airline’s prices unbeatable). Have your agent check both. Wholesalers (or consolidators) negotiate with airlines to get deeply discounted fares on a huge block of tickets. But most wholesalers don’t deal directly with the public. Instead, they offer these tickets to your travel agent, who then marks them up and still sells you a cheaper flight to Europe than the airline can. With consolidator tickets you usually have seven to 10 days in which to pay after booking, and credit cards are becoming more acceptable (a fee of 4 percent or so is charged for payment in plastic). Consolidator tickets often waive the normal advance purchase and minimum and maximum stay requirements that come with other budget tickets. But consolidator tickets are cheap because they come with disadvantages: They are “nonendorsable,” meaning that no other airline is required to honor that ticket if your airline is unable to get you home (in reality, this is rarely a problem). And sometimes you may not get frequent-flier miles.

There’s always stand-by. Travelers flexible enough to fly stand-by may consider Air-Tech (www.airtech.com), which offers unsold seats at bargain prices. However, a short list of departures cities in the U.S. and an equally limited number of European destinations make arranging these flights tricky. And in the summer prepare to be bumped—two or three times.

If you’ve gotten a great deal on a flight, it’s probably nonchangeable and nonrefundable. Some deals offer changes on the return dates for a penalty. If you need to change your return date in Europe, contact your airline’s European office. I’ve found airlines are more lenient if you go to their office in person with a good reason for your need to change the return date.

If you must get home early, go to the airport. If you’re at the airport two days before your ticket says you can go home and seats are available, regardless of the rules, the airline may let you fly home early; they gain a happy customer and two more days to try to sell an empty seat; besides, it’s the easiest way to get rid of you.

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