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Spring fling to Europe: For a fare to remember

March 04, 2007|Elliott Hester | Special to The Times

IF Europe's on your vacation wish list this summer, be prepared. A ticket at the height of the season could set you back $1,000 or more.

You can pay full freight and make the most of it, or mitigate the financial sticker shock by going earlier.

Round-trip flights from Los Angeles to London are considerably cheaper in April and May than in the height of summer. And by using the Internet to book one-way flights on discount carriers, you can fly to several European cities and return to London in time to catch your plane back to Los Angeles.

Several airlines offer nonstop service between Los Angeles and London. (This is a recent sampling; be sure to check because fares change.) Departing May 12 and returning May 26, for example, American Airlines offered a $690 fare, the lowest I found. The second lowest: $804 on Virgin Atlantic. (A month later, on June 12, American's fare jumped to $1,117. The least expensive nonstop fare was $1,097 on Air New Zealand.)

Once the transatlantic segment is booked, focus on your overseas itinerary. Ireland-based Ryanair (www.ryanair.com), Europe's largest discount airline, boasts 454 routes among 24 European countries. From Stansted, Gatwick and Luton, all in the London area, Ryanair provides service to 13 major hubs, including Dublin, Ireland; Stockholm; Brussels; Frankfurt, Germany; Milan; Rome; and Madrid. From these hubs, you can connect to almost any destination in Europe.

If Ryanair can't get you where you want to go, or the price or departure time doesn't suit you, 26 Europe-based competitors are waiting in the wings, including Easyjet, Monarch, Air Berlin, Virgin Express, Condor and Sterling. Need a cheap fare from London to Zagreb, Croatia? Fly the Polish airline Wizz Air (www.wizzair.com). Searching for a low-cost flight from Amsterdam to Prague? SkyEurope (www.skyeurope.com) is probably your best bet. For a listing, see www.euroflights.info.

Let's say you've booked the American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to London on May 12. Because you'll arrive mid-May, weeks before the busy summer travel season, the crowds at Buckingham Palace will be considerably smaller. Shopping at Harrods won't be as hectic.

After spending a few days in London, perhaps you'd like to visit Barcelona, Spain. On May 16 on Easyjet, the one-way price is $62, including taxes and fees. Three days later, on May 19, hop a flight to Milan. With taxes and fees, the one-way fare on Ryanair is $22. From there, why not visit Paris? On May 21, Ryanair flies from Milan to Paris for $24. Stay in Paris four nights and return to London on May 25.

Discount carriers are conspicuously absent from the Paris-London route. But a quick search reveals a $75 one-way fare on British Airways.

If the thought of so much flying makes you dizzy, climb aboard the Eurostar instead. In two hours and 40 minutes, the high-speed train will take you from central Paris to central London for as little as $89 one way.

On May 26, having spent the final night of your vacation in the city where it began, hop aboard your return flight.

There is a downside to discount air travel. In many cases, the airlines fly into or out of secondary airports. For example, Easyjet flies from Gatwick Airport (30 miles from central London) to Barcelona. From Barcelona, though, it's a one-hour bus to the airport in Girona, Spain, from which Ryanair operates. From there, the Ryanair flight to "Milan" lands 30 miles to the northwest, in Bergamo, Italy.

Most discount airlines also impose strict regulations that can make ticket changes difficult and expensive. To change a flight at Ryanair, the standard fee is $32 if the change is made online. Making the change at the airport or by telephone costs $58.

When making arrangements online, Ryanair passengers must pay $6.75 for every checked bag ($13.50 if done by phone). Parents are charged $13.50 to travel with a child in the lap, whether the booking is made online or by phone.

But even with the ticky-tack charges, you can't beat a $22 flight from Barcelona to Milan. If you travel light and don't make any itinerary changes, flying on Ryanair can be a budget traveler's dream come true.

I know this firsthand. During the busy Christmas holiday season, I paid $204 for a round-trip MyAir flight from Paris to Venice. The service was as good as any competitor's. Of course, if I hadn't had my heart set on Venice, I could have flown to Prague, Czech Republic, for as little as $62. C'est la vie!

Bestselling author Elliott Hester lives in Paris. Contact him at megoglobal@hotmail.com or visit www.elliotthester.com.

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