UPDATED FOR 2017
Whether you’re an expat in Germany looking for a bargain flight for a visit to North America, or a tourist looking for a good deal on a flight to Europe, there are tricks and tactics you need to know in order to save money and have a good trip. Your cheap air ticket options are increasing, especially if you consider new airlines, departure cities and destinations. Flexibility in dates also can save you a lot of money, even with legacy airlines.
If you have never considered New Orleans, Pittsburgh, or Providence before, those US cities will offer non-stop flights to Frankfurt in 2017, at rates much lower than legacy airlines. If you add newer airlines such as Edelweiss, Norwegian, and WOW to your plans, you can fly internationally to or from many cities for less. Of course, there can be catches, so read more below.
Flying across the Atlantic has never been particularly cheap, but the cost of a round-trip air ticket between North America and Europe now has risen to new heights. In high season, in the summer months, the economy-class fare from the US east coast to Frankfurt (FRA) can set travelers back from $1500 to $2000, and even more for flights from West Coast airports. That’s why many travelers are learning to consider an alternative to the usual major carriers: discount international airlines.
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A new crop of budget intercontinental airlines has applied the Southwest Airlines model for money-saving domestic flights to international air travel. They attract travelers with bargain fares that are usually below those of major carriers, and in some cases as much as $1000 cheaper per round-trip ticket. These budget carriers (Billigflieger in German) use a variety of tactics that allow them to still make a profit while saving their passengers money.
Discount International Airlines
I have long been aware of the budget international airlines. I even flew business class on a Condor one-way flight from Las Vegas to Frankfurt in September 2007, saving myself a lot of money. (See photo below.) But since then more low-cost carriers have begun flying between North America and Europe. I was reminded about that recently after reading this WSJ article by Scott McCartney: A New Trick for Cheap Flights to Europe. That post inspired me to write about the same topic, but concentrate on flying between Germany and North America.
Discount carriers use a variety of tactics to cut their costs and offer cheaper fares than the major airlines. For one thing, they cram more rows and seats into the same planes that the majors use. (Condor’s fleet includes Boeing 767-300ER, Boeing 757-300, Airbus A320-200, and Airbus A321-200 aircraft.) While American and United have 209 to 214 seats in their 767s, Condor has 259. To accomplish that, Condor squeezes coach passengers into 30-inch rows, compared to 31-inch rows on the major airlines.
Things are better in Condor’s business class, but rather than the fully horizontal, flat beds featured on most major international airlines, Condor’s biz class features slightly tilted lie-flat beds. But, depending on the route, a Condor business class ticket can cost only slightly more than economy on some competing airlines.
Another practice used by discount carriers is to fly out of smaller, lesser-known airports with little competition from major international carriers. For example, although Condor flies to Germany from Anchorage, Baltimore, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, New York (JFK), Seattle, and Toronto, it also has flights from Austin, Texas; Calgary, Halifax, Fort Lauderdale, Providence, R.I., and Vancouver, B.C. (See more on Condor’s world map.)
In addition to its primary airports with nonstop flights, Condor has many North American gateway cities with connecting flights at a special low rate. For example, from my hometown of Reno, Nevada, Condor offers its Frankfurt flight for $1,386.98 roundtrip (26 August-2 September) with a connecting flight on Alaska Airlines between Reno and Seattle. If you fly directly from Seattle (SEA), the fare only drops to $1219.98 roundtrip for the same dates, meaning the Reno-Seattle leg only costs $167.00 extra roundtrip. (Air fares can change daily or even hourly. Your results may vary up or down.) But is that really a big bargain? Let’s compare. [Note: These fares and connections have not yet been updated for 2017.]
Lufthansa, the major German airline, charges $2601 for their SEA-FRA roundtrip on the same dates, so Condor beats that by quite a bit. However, when I checked flights on American Airlines for the same dates from RNO to FRA (via Dallas/DFW), the fare was only $1360, slightly cheaper than the RNO-SEA-FRA Condor fare. Not only that, but I would earn miles on American.
Business Class Fares
But when you compare business class, the price difference is much greater. While American charges up to a whopping $8134 for a business class ticket (7x the economy rate), Condor’s $2500 biz ticket (2x economy) is less than half the cost of American’s. (But you may be able to use miles/points for an upgrade on American.)
Low-cost Airlines in Europe
Once you’re in Europe, you have more budget flying options. The European versions of Southwest Airlines include Ryanair, easyJet, Germanwings, Niki, Thomas Cook, and Wizz Air. But be forewarned! Unlike Southwest, the European low-cost carriers charge extra for bags, food and just about everything. Flying Ryanair out of Lübeck, Germany to London Gatwick a few years ago, my wife and I learned a hard lesson about baggage allowances. We were returning from a European trip during which we had added to our luggage weight. We ended up paying more in overweight fees than the cost of the ticket itself. And that was after I pleaded with the agent to give us a break, which she did.
Mileage Plans: Earning Miles or Using Miles
Air Berlin is Germany’s second largest airline, after Lufthansa, but it sometimes offers discount fares. Air Berlin is part of the oneworld mileage alliance, meaning when you fly Air Berlin (Top Bonus mileage), you can use or earn miles on these other international carriers: American Airlines, British Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Qantas, and a few more.
Air Canada, Lufthansa (MileagePlus), Swiss, United (MileagePlus) and 24 other airlines are members of the Star Alliance.
Delta Airlines shares its Skymiles program with Aeromexico, Air France, Alitalia, KLM, and Virgin Atlantic, among others. (Always verify the rules and whether or not you can use or earn miles on an associated carrier.)
Key points about low-cost flights between North America and Germany/Europe:
- They are often seasonal (June to September or October)
- They are not daily – usually two or three flights per week. Be flexible with your dates if possible. Flying on a Thursday can be cheaper than a Monday. If a discount carrier only has flights twice a week, you need to know on which two days they fly.
- They fly out of smaller airports or less-obvious international airports (Anchorage, Las Vegas, Seattle, Fort Lauderdale, Halifax, etc.). Take a look at a map of Europe! You may find smaller bargain airports near the more costly big airports.
- Getting through US Customs or German Zoll may be a more lengthy process than at larger airports (fewer personnel).
- You may never have heard of the airline (Condor, Eurowings, Norwegian, Icelandair…)
- There may be unexpected extra fees for luggage, meals, and other things that are usually included on major international airlines.
- Discount airlines are often good for one-way flights that tend to be overpriced, expensive on major airlines.
- Timing is everything: Both when you book and when you fly matter.
- Budget carriers don’t always have the lowest fare! Don’t miss special fares on the major airlines! They can be very good deals.
- The cheapest flight is not always the best deal. Consider various long-term factors, including whether you can earn mileage or not.
- Avoid setting up tight transfer connections. Allow enough time for delayed flights. Consider a stopover.
- Some European airports are cheaper to fly to than others. FRA is cheaper than LHR, GAT is cheaper than LHR.
Discount airlines with flights between North America and Europe:
- Air Berlin – With flights between the US/Canada and Germany (Berlin, Düsseldorf, Munich), Air Berlin is not always that cheap, but bargains can be found.
- Air Canada rouge – Flights between Canada and Europe (mostly London/Gatwick and UK, and southern Europe from Toronto), although no direct flights to Germany
- Air Transat – Routes between six Canadian cities and European destinations. No Germany flights, but AT does fly to Basel-Mulhouse (near Freiburg, where Switzerland, France and Germany meet) from Montreal (YUL, Aug.-Oct.). Note: All prices are indicated in Canadian dollars ($CAD).
- Condor – Besides flights between North America and Germany, Condor also flies to southern European vacation destinations.
- Edelweiss – This new low-fare division of Swiss Airlines offers flights between Zurich and North America in 2017.
- Eurowings – In March 2016 this low-cost division of Lufthansa plans to inaugurate flights between Fort Lauderdale (FLL) and Germany, but this new long-haul route has yet to be finalized.
- Icelandair – Offers low-cost stop-overs in Iceland (Reykjavik, KEF) on the way to or from Europe.
- Norwegian Air Shuttle – Cheap, bare-bones fares to Scandinavia and London from Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland, and Orlando. But you do get complimentary in-flight entertainment and free onboard Wi-Fi. Norwegian will be the first airline to take delivery of Boeing’s new 737 MAX aircraft (in June 2017).
- WOW air – Another Icelandic carrier, cheaper than Icelandair (but watch out for the extra charges). Flies from Boston, D.C. and Pittsburgh via Iceland (KEF) to Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Dublin, London, Paris and other European cities.
- XL Airways France – Flies to Paris from Miami, New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Not Just Discount Airlines
In your search for a good deal across the Atlantic, don’t just look at the discount carriers listed above. Even the major airlines offer special bargain fares from time to time. The trick is to find them before they’re gone. Here’s how you can do that:
- Airline Websites – American and some other airlines offer their best fares on their own websites. The airlines sites also announce special offers and discount fares.
- Email Alerts – Sign up with the airline(s) with which you have your mileage plan for alerts about low-cost fares. All the major airlines send out email newsletters with special low-fare offers that are available only for a short time, for certain flights within a limited time frame.
- Use Air Fare Websites – Below you’ll find some links to sites that keep track of cheap air fare offers.
- AirFareWatchdog.com – Air fare guru George Hobica tells you to think outside the box. He also posts new deals for all the airlines.
- TheFlightDeal.com also posts new deals for all the airlines on Twitter and Facebook.
- Priceline can often find a low fare, but it can also come up with some bizarre flight itineraries. Double check! Does not cover all discount airlines.
- CheapoAir.com – Not always truly “cheapo.” Compare.
- iFly.com – Information, booking, and other air travel help.
Note that some so-called discount sites may not always offer the cheapest fares, and they may not even include some airlines (Condor, Southwest, etc.). Be careful to carefully check your flight itinerary before you purchase a ticket. A discount fare that I found recently on Priceline for a flight from Los Angeles to Frankfurt routed me via Moscow on Aeroflot. To avoid that, select the “nonstop” option – unless you want to save money by flying out of your way.
That said, you can save money by not flying nonstop. For example on Priceline, for an LAX-FRA roundtrip flight (Aug. 27-Sept. 17), the nonstop fare on Lufthansa/United is $1882.20. But flying via Chicago on American and Air Berlin was about $520 cheaper: $1363.10. The question is whether the extra flying time is worth the savings.
When all is said and done, for your next long-haul flight you have to decide what is more valuable to you: your time, your comfort, or your money. The emphasis is up to you. But at least you have options.
Gute Reise! Have a good trip!