Flying to Europe? Go soon to save

THE BALTIMORE SUN

More flights, lower fares. That was the promise of the "open skies" agreement, which, at the end of this month, will allow more airlines to fly between the U.S. and Europe.

The reality: more flights, mixed fares. If you plan to fly to Europe in the next couple of months, you'll find some good prices. But summer fares so far are running more than $1,000 round trip from BWI Marshall Airport to London and more than $1,400 to Paris or Rome, with taxes and fees.

What's a traveler to do? Go before June, if you can, when trans-Atlantic flights cost hundreds less. And be patient: Sales on summer flights may start soon, if the past is any indicator.

"If you're smart, you'll find bargains," said Tom Parsons, chief executive of the Best Fares.com travel Web site.

Here are five keys to saving on European flights:

Shop spring sales / / This year's deals are beating last year's, several experts say.

"Right now, you've got some bargain-basement deals for Europe in April and May," Parsons said.

Round-trip airfares to Paris from major U.S. cities in spring have been going for as little as $498 plus taxes and fees.

Get savvy about open skies / / Last year, the U.S. and the European Union agreed to loosen restrictions on the trans-Atlantic air market, allowing U.S. and European carriers to fly nonstop from any city in the U.S. to anywhere in the EU.

That means trans-Atlantic fliers are getting more choices as airlines add routes from U.S. cities. Overall, airlines have scheduled 8 percent more flights between the U.S. and Europe from April through June than in the same period last year, according to the Airline Planning Group and eSkyGuide, which publishes flight information.

More choice does not always bring lower prices. That's partly because trans-Atlantic flights continue to be popular, said Stanley Gyoshev, co-founder of Lessno.com, a bargain-fares Web site. And with high fuel costs and the weak U.S. dollar, there's not much room for fares to fall, he added.

Still, discounts happen, if you know when and where to look.

Watch for new routes / / When an airline adds service, it usually offers low fares at first. Air France in February held a two-day sale with round trips for $262 plus taxes and fees on its new Los Angeles-London route. Competitors often match introductory fares, which may be so low that it may be cheaper to fly to Europe through a newly added U.S. gateway than to fly from your home city.

Fly to London first / / Heathrow is Europe's biggest hub, and with open skies, competition is heating up there the fastest. In April, airlines will fly 21 percent more seats between the U.S. and Heathrow than in April last year, according to the Airline Planning Group and eSkyGuide.

So rather than fly to Paris or Rome, which often command hundreds more for nonstop flights, you may save by flying to London and connecting to those cities.

Compare code-shares / / Under "code-share agreements," which are common in the industry, airlines sell tickets on each others' flights. And they don't always charge the same fares. The difference can amount to hundreds of dollars on a trans-Atlantic flight.

"Look at every fare," Parsons advised.

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Jane Engle writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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