One of the least expensive ways to fly to Europe, if you're willing to endure considerable uncertainty, is through an organization called Airhitch.
As the name suggests, the operation moves you in the general direction you're going but not necessarily to your specific destination. In other words, you might want to go to London but wind up in Amsterdam or Brussels. Getting to your desired destination is then up to you.
Airhitch, which recently opened an office in Los Angeles, (the company is based in New York) claims that the great majority of its flights go to airports within a 300-mile radius of Brussels. The main airports involved are London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, Geneva, Madrid, Milan, Munich, Paris, Rome and Zurich.
At the Last Minute
Airhitch works as a kind of last-minute clearinghouse for distress air merchandise. Your flight to Europe could be on a scheduled airline or charter airline.
The cost, regardless of the European destination, is $269 from Los Angeles and other West Coast gateways (San Francisco and Seattle). You pay a $25 registration fee, which is applied to your fare, and give Airhitch a five-day departure-date range, including the most preferred date in this period, and your top three European destinations in terms of preference. In effect, you're put on a waiting list for flights during this period, so those who are at the head of the list get priority. You receive a voucher for an unspecified flight.
About three days before the beginning of this five-day period you call Airhitch to find out what flights are likely to be available during that date range and your chances of getting aboard. You're also told when and where to check in to catch the flight you want. However, there is no guarantee you'll actually get that flight.
If the Gamble Pays Off
If a seat is available, you pay the difference in your fare, $244, and board the jet. Payment can be on Diners Club or Carte Blanche by credit card; otherwise, by cash including traveler's checks. If your flight doesn't work out, you can try for the next flight during your time range. Should you not be able to get on any flight during this period, you can get a refund of your registration fee.
On the other hand, if you turn down a flight (say you want to wait for another flight that brings you to your actual destination or closer), your $25 registration fee is non-refundable and you may be assessed a surcharge (usually no more than $25) on any subsequent flight you accept. You also lose your place in line.
Return flights from Europe to the United States can be arranged in the same fashion through Airhitch-affiliated service centers in London and Hamburg. However, arrangements can be made by mail with flights from several European gateways.
Contact Airhitch, Ambassador Hotel, 3400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90010, phone (213) 383-3002.