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Europe's Online Travel Deals

Cheap Flights in Europe Online
Photo courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door

As any Web-savvy traveler knows, the Internet is packed with travel deals. It can make good financial sense to go online to research and book hotels and flights, the two biggest expenses of your trip. But, as with anything, there are potential pitfalls too.

Hotel-Hunting Online

Recently, while updating my guidebooks, I heard a recurring frustration from hoteliers. A bigger portion of their business has been coming from multi-hotel Web sites, which charge hoteliers a substantial fee.

Expedia is a powerhouse in this field. Hotels report that Expedia takes a 30 percent commission from the hotels and charges the traveler a 10 percent booking fee. So for a $100 room, the traveler pays $110 and the hotel gets $70. Obviously, hotels (dealing with the very high costs of business, employing people, and paying local taxes) need to jack up their rates to make up for the 30 percent loss.

The hotelier at my favorite hotel in Amsterdam said that when he travels, he (as an insider) uses a simple trick. He visits Expedia and finds a hotel he likes. Knowing that hotel will net 70 percent of the room rate listed, he then contacts that hotel directly and offers 75 percent of the rate listed on the Web. He gets that $100 room for $75 rather than the $110 that Expedia customers would pay, and the hotel, which would be satisfied with $70, actually gets $75. Everybody (except Expedia) wins.

Remember that the Web can be a great source of supplemental information, and booking through a hotel's own Web site can save a lot of hassle. But hotels tied in with booking agencies on the Web offer high rates (called "rack rates") because they lose a cut to the agency. You're more likely to get the net rate if you book direct.

One last warning: Any hotel can look good on the Web. Consider everything an advertisement, not a review. Nondescript hotels spend big bucks to look good in cyberspace.

Discount Flights 101

Today, thanks to deregulation, EU reforms, and the takeoff of aggressive no-frills airlines, airfares within Europe are cheaper than ever before. Even a few of the major carriers offer discounts (or air passes) for flights within Europe to their transatlantic customers. Once you've finalized your itinerary, check with your travel agent (or the airlines' Web sites) to compare the cost of flying with rail and car travel. You might be surprised.

For most trips, a railpass is still going to cost a lot less than flying (and flights purchased in Europe are payable in expensive euros). But if you're short on time or have long distances to cover, flying is the way to go.

Budget airlines offer the cheapest fares within Europe. While travel agents can book some of these inexpensive flights for you, it's best to do it yourself (since you need to make choices on flight times while you're booking). Reserve your flight on the Web or by phone, using your credit card to pay. To get the lowest fares, book long in advance. Cheap seats sell out fast, leaving the pricier seats for latecomers.

Virgin Express (merged with Bussels Airlines) offers flights starting at around $100 between London, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona, and more (www.brusselsairlines.com). If you're flying into or out of London, consider bmi british midland (so cheap they're lowercase). Even without a comprehensive search, if your timing is right, you can stumble across some incredible, it-must-be-a-typo promotional deals: A tour guide on my staff booked a flight from London to Amsterdam for just $10 on easyJet (www.easyjet.com). Ryanair flies from Frankfurt to Pisa for as little as $12 (www.ryanair.com). Even after you add taxes and airport fees, these flights are an eye-popping value.

For more information on inexpensive airfares for flights originating within the U.K., visit www.cheapflights.co.uk, or search for a variety of budget European airlines on www.skyscanner.com, or www.whichbudget.com.

European airlines such as Lufthansa, Air France, Alitalia, SAS, KLM, and British Air offer competitive fares. There's a catch: often you must buy your transatlantic flight from the airline in order to take advantage of its intra-Europe budget fares. But it can be worth an extra $100 for an overseas flight in order to save on flights within Europe. In some cases, you purchase an "air pass" (for $300-$400), 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. Check with your travel agent for details.

Some flight passes are valid on several different airlines. The most flexible is the Europe by Air pass, offering flights between 150 European cities in 30 countries. Each coupon for a nonstop flight costs $99 plus tax. But if you make a connection through one of Europe by Air's many hubs, you pay double for each flight to and from the hub (www.europebyair.com).

What's the Catch?

With cheaper airfares come pitfalls. These budget tickets are usually non-refundable and non-changeable. They're strict, too: when the ticket says to board 30 minutes in advance and your watch is two minutes slow, you may be turned away. Some airlines take only online bookings, so it can be hard to track down a person to talk to if problems arise (like lost or delayed luggage, pack light to avoid checking your bags on budget flights). Remember to check baggage restrictions. For instance, popular Ryanair charges $7 for every kilo (two pounds) over 15 kilos. If you're packing an extra 15 kilos, a dirt-cheap $10 flight skyrockets to $100.

You'll find the best deals flying out of an airline's hub. But keep in mind that budget flights sometimes use obscure airports. For example, Ryanair's England hub is Stansted Airport, the farthest of London's airports from the city center. Ryanair's flights to Frankfurt actually take you to Hahn, 62 miles away, and their service to Copenhagen, Denmark lands you in a different (though nearby) country: Sweden. These are still safe and legal airstrips, but it can take money and time to reach them by public transportation.

For most of my traveling life, I never would have considered flying point-to-point within Europe if it simply wasn't affordable. Budget airlines and the Web have changed all that.

And while I still recommend calling direct to book hotels, I have to admit that when it comes to arranging for a quick last-minute flight, that kind of thinking is, well, so last millennium.

RICK STEVES, www.ricksteves.com, is the host of the public television series Rick Steves' Europe and the author of 30 European travel guidebooks, all published by Avalon Travel Publishing. For more on how to travel cheaply (and well), check out Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door, filled with money-saving travel tips.