Spending

Now is the time to score 'cheap, last-minute fares' to Europe, experts say: Here's how to take advantage

"Normally, summer is the most expensive time to fly to Europe. ... Summer 2021 is an anomaly."

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The European Union recently added the U.S. to its safe travel list, and Americans are now free to resume the trans-Atlantic trips they largely halted during the pandemic. Yet so far, they're not exactly beating down the doors. Despite prognostications of a post-pandemic travel surge, only about a quarter of Americans say they'll travel more than usual in 2021, according to a recent survey from Bankrate. About a third say they'll travel as much as normal, while another third say they won't travel at all.

The end of European travel bans smack in the middle of the peak summer season, combined with many Americans' continued reluctance to board an international flight, has created a unique opportunity, says Scott Keyes, founder of travel newsletter Scott's Cheap Flights. "Normally, summer is the most expensive time to fly to Europe, and cheap, last-minute fares are unheard of," he says. "Summer 2021 is an anomaly."

Keyes says he's consistently seeing round-trip European airfares in the $300 to $600 range, even searching just a week or two before the departure date. Read on to find out why, and how you can best take advantage.  

'Right now, all the best deals are to Europe'

Under normal circumstances, summer is the most expensive time to travel to Europe, and you have to book well in advance to have a shot at scoring a deal on airfare. "In years past, you'd have to book six weeks or more in advance before prices would start to go up exponentially," says Brian Kelly, founder and CEO of The Points Guy.

A few factors have changed the calculus this summer. For one, even as the world recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, concerns over the virus and its variants are keeping more travelers than usual at home, says Keyes: "Even among vaccinated Americans, you still have a huge group that would usually be willing to travel abroad who are staying domestic this year."

Uncertainty over Europe's reopening rules in the spring also kept butts out of airline seats, he says. "If you're a big family, you're not booking a trip to Europe next week. You needed to have time to prep," he says. "Those families are the ones who are by and large responsible for making those summer seats expensive, and they just didn't have the certainty they needed to have made those plans months ago."

Finally, airlines looking to sell seats can't rely on business travelers, who tend to snap up expensive last-minute seats on the company dime, adds Kelly. "Business travel is picking up domestically, but internationally, it's still really small," he says. "With airlines having launched new routes, they've got to incentivize people with low prices."

"You can get amazing deals," he adds. "And right now, all the best deals are to Europe."

How to score the best deals on airfare

You can't just type in your favorite destination and preferred dates, hit enter, and expect every flight you see to be cheap, says Keyes. "But if you're willing to be flexible, deals even a week out are much more prevalent than they used to be."

Building flexibility into your schedule starts with using a search tool, such as Google Flights, to search for multiple dates and multiple airports. "It still pays to travel on different days," says Kelly. "The more flexible you are, the better fare you'll get."

You can also bring your costs down if you're willing to spend a bigger chunk of your vacation in transit, say, by choosing itineraries with more connections or longer layovers. "Nontraditional routings may make your trip less convenient, but the savings can be compelling, if you have the time," says Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group. "It's all a matter of what your time is worth to you."

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Book with rules and restrictions in mind

While Europe is open to Americans on the whole, requirements for testing, offering proof of vaccination, and quarantining can vary from place to place — and sometimes, week to week. Be sure to do your research on travel restrictions and foreign entry requirements for anywhere you may be flying, says Kelly.

"The more connections you have, the more problems you could potentially run into," he says. "You could take off from JFK, and by the time you land, the rules could have changed." For example, he says, the E.U. has yet to add the U.K. to the safe travel list, which means you may have to quarantine in Rome if you took a layover in London.

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If you're worried that pandemic-related issues may crop up at your desired destination, booking with points gives you the most financial flexibility, says Kelly.

And finding award tickets now is easier than ever. "In the 11 years I've been doing this, I've never seen more saver availability, whether it's coach or business class," he says. "And if you book through a loyalty program and you cancel, you'll likely get your miles and money back, instead of a bunch of vouchers."

Plus, there's a treat beyond cheap airfare: reduced crowds in destinations that are normally packed. "It's such a unique time to visit, to be able to be in Europe in the summer without the crowds," he says. "It's a really rare window of opportunity."

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