The Reichstag in Berlin, a destination to consider. (Richard Derk )
After fuel prices sent airfares skyrocketing last summer, you may have sworn off travel to Europe. We can't predict whether summer 2013 fares will shoot up; looking at a sample now tells us they're not cheap — at least, not in comparison with winter fares. The rule of thumb holds true: If you want to stuff a few extra dollars in your stocking, go in the off-season.
Because the weather isn't optimal and there are few school holidays, winter is typically the cheapest time to head to Europe, excluding the holidays. The "cheap" season lasts until about mid-March, when fares begin to creep back up.
Using Kayak.com, we checked round-trip nonstop fares from Los Angeles International Airport to London's Heathrow and Paris' Charles de Gaulle for three random dates. (Because airfares are volatile, these may no longer be available.) For a Jan. 15-22 trip, the lowest fare for nonstop service from LAX to London was $877 on several airlines. If you fly May 7 and return May 14 you'll pay as little as $919. And August? Be prepared to pony up $1,268 for an Aug. 6-13 trip.
The same is true for Paris. Go Jan. 15-22 and you'll pay as little as $1,016 for a nonstop to Charles de Gaulle airport. That fare increases to at least $1,194 for a May 15-22 stay and at least $1,603 for an Aug. 6-13 nonstop.
Those dates were chosen at random but with this in mind: Sundays through Thursdays generally are the least expensive days to depart for Europe, and Mondays through Thursdays are the cheapest days to return. A notable exception is England, where Mondays through Wednesdays are the cheapest days for both departures and returns. Weekend surcharges can be as much as $40 higher each way.
A few cities have continued to have good summer prices throughout the year, so if you're flexible about destinations, consider Berlin; Dublin, Ireland; or Istanbul, Turkey. When we checked recently — and this is a headline — round-trip Berlin fares for that Aug. 6-13 vacation showed up as low as $809 on United (two stops) and $812 and $813 for one stop (Lufthansa and United, respectively). That's only a couple of hundred dollars more than recent fares to New York and Washington, D.C.
Summer fares to Dublin were running less than $1,100 for one-stop service. For Istanbul, they were $1,029. The moral of this story: Think outside of the London/Paris box and leave no urban airport stone unturned.
Before all of the airlines became so fee-happy, you could buy a ticket in advance and change with little or no penalty. But nowadays, you may pay as much as $250 to change an international flight. If your airfare drops, you probably won't want to think about seeking a refund unless it drops by more than the cost of your change fee.
Traveling to Europe during the last two weeks of May and the first couple of weeks of June? Sales happen, but often not until April, so it may be worth waiting to buy tickets. If you want to see Europe in peak July or August, consider buying no later than February. Peak fares probably won't drop, but they could go up.
One exception may be package deals. Often, those fares are locked in so you are protected — fare wise — if you buy in advance. Same is true of hotel rates, which often are guaranteed months before. Gate1 Travel, for instance, offers a March 8 departure on its Affordable Britain package that includes round-trip airfare from LAX; transfers; hotels in London, Bristol and Chester in England and Edinburgh, Scotland (and the transportation between those cities); and some tours and meals. The price begins at $2.067 a person, based on double occupancy.
If group tours aren't your thing, remember that you may avail yourself of the prices but are not required to participate in the group tours.