Travel slowly, staying in vacation rentals (villas, farms, cottages, apartments)
Booking a Flight to Europe
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These are my notes for booking your flights. I am not a travel expert, but I have flown a lot and have been booking my own flights online for the last ten years.
Planning Your Flights
Before booking your flight, carefully plan your trip. Consider booking your accommodation first (especially if you are staying in vacation rentals) before you book your flights because this may determine your dates or arrival/departure destinations.
Flying from North America
Depending on where you live, you may have to change planes within North America to get a flight to Europe. For example, we live near Albuquerque, New Mexico. To fly to Europe on Delta, we first fly to Cincinnati or Atlanta and then get a non-stop flight to Europe. To fly to Europe on British Airways, we fly to Denver, Phoenix or Dallas and then get a non-stop to London. From the east coast, you have your choice of non-stops to many European destinations. From the west cost, you can also fly direct to Europe.
When booking your flights, look carefully at the routing, flight times and airport waiting times. You may find a flight that is $100 cheaper, but if it involves an extra change of planes and several hours waiting between flights, it may not be worth it to you. When I am planning a trip, I spend several hours on different sites comparing routing and flight times as well as prices. >> Continued below.
Timing Your Arrival
Most flights from North America to Europe are overnight flights leaving around 7pm and arriving early morning the next day (from 7am to 9am). Because of the time change, your body clock will think it is about 1am (it is six hours later in Italy from the east coast of the US) and may present you with a case of jet-lag (a combination of not having a full night's sleep and dealing with the time change).
Some airlines offer daytime flights from the east coast of the US and Canada. If you live on the east coast, it is worth looking into these. You arrive in Europe in the early evening and avoid sleeping on a plane full of strangers and maybe overcome the jetlag (you don't miss a night of sleep). If flying from the middle of the country or the west coast, these are not as convenient (you would have to overnight on the east coast before flying on to Europe).
British Airways offers some later flights from Phoenix and Denver (leaving around 8pm) that arrive in London after noon (10 or 11 hour flight). This means that you get a bit more sleep and by the time you reach your first hotel/vacation rental, it is already check-in time.
Timing Your Departure
Most flights back to North America from Europe leave in the morning and arrive on the east coast in the afternoon. Remember you have to get to the airport two hours before the flight for an international flight and it may take an hour or more to get to the airport, so a early morning flight might be difficult to make. One good thing about the return flight is that it is a daytime flight and you will not be sleeping, but if you have to connect from the east coast to another flight, it will be getting late on your body clock then, so try to pick a flight that gets you back to your home airport in the early evening.
Changing Planes Within Europe
Most major airlines fly non-stop from North America into a limited number of European destinations. Flights to Italy fly into Rome or Milan, flights to France fly into Paris, flights to Switzerland fly into Zurich or Geneva, flights to England fly into London. If your final destination is not one of these major cities, you may have to change planes in Europe and fly onto a smaller town. You can arrange this when booking your flight from North America. Frankfurt in Germany is a major European hub for changing planes.
Note: If changing planes in London, England take note of the airports at which you arrive and depart. Sometimes you must change airports (e.g. from Heathrow to Gatwick) to change planes. This means you have to take a bus between airports (I am not sure if you have to take your luggage with you, but will find out and update this).
Flying In and Out of Different Cities/Countries (open jaw)
Consider "open jaw" plane tickets to Europe, even if you are going to just one country. These days, open jaw tickets are always more expensive than one destination round trip tickets and you save money by not having to back-track on your trip. For example, fly into Zurich, Switzerland, spend a week there, spend a week in Italy, fly home from Rome. Or, fly into Florence, Italy, spend a few nights there, a week in a villa in Tuscany, then a few nights in Rome and fly home from Rome.
Note: If renting a car in one country and dropping it off in another, there is usually a drop off fee and this can be high. Compare it with the expense of driving back to the pick up country and flying home from there. It might be worth it, time and money-wise, to pay the drop off fee. Or you may want to rent in one country, return the car, take a train to the next country, pickup a car. There usually is no extra fee for picking up and dropping off in different locations in the same country, but check with the car rental company.
Classes of Service (Coach, Business, First, etc.)
Airlines flying to Europe vary in the classes of service they offer, but most offer coach and First Class. Delta offers two classes of service: coach and Business Elite. British Airways offers four classes of service: coach, premium coach, business class, first class.
The quality of Business/First Class to Europe varies between airlines but is usually more comfortable than within North America. The price difference between coach and Business/First Class can be huge (e.g. $500 for coach, $5,000 for first class). You may find sales for first class or you can use airline miles to upgrade.
Seats and Space and Comfort
Many times you can do your seat selection when booking your flight. I look for seats as close to the front as possible and in rows of two seats only (you don't always find this). Check www.seatguru.com for information on seats on most airlines. This site tells you the exact seat size (you will be surprised at how this changes between airlines).
Booking Your Flight
I always book my flights either online or by phone with the airline. If I am using airline miles to upgrade, I always do this by phone. Before booking, I use one or more travel sites to compare prices on the flights I am looking at. If it is less expensive on these sites, than on the airline site, I book through the travel site (Expedia, Orbitz, etc.).
Flight Consolidators can give you very low prices for flights (AutoEurope offers this), but you may not be able to choose which airline you will use and you cannot always collect miles for the flight (but sometimes you can).
If you are not used to booking your flights, consider using a travel consultant to book the flights for you.
Using Airline Miles for Free Tickets or to Upgrade
Airline miles can be used for free tickets or to upgrade to business/first class. You can collect airline miles by belonging to an airline club (each airline has one, some are grouped together) or by collecting them on a charge card.
There seems to be three different ways you can collect airline miles on a charge card: using a charge card affiliated with one airline (e.g. Delta) and you get 1 mile per dollar charged (miles automatically go into your airline account); using a charge card that collects airline miles and then you book your flight through the charge card company; AMEX which allows you to collect airline miles and then you can decide which airline account you want to put them into.
I belong to several airline clubs (Delta SkyMiles, British Airways Executive Club, etc.) and collect miles through airline charge cards and AMEX. Most airlines give you double miles for the price of the ticket if purchased with their credit card. There are many tricks to collecting and using miles and I do not know many of them. I try to collect what miles I can and use them occasionally for free tickets, but mostly to upgrade.
Upgrading to Business/First Class
This is my obsession. I am pleased to say that we have not flown coach to Europe in nearly ten years, but we have paid in money and convenience. For many years we flew with Delta and collected miles. We used the miles to upgrade when booking. Delta limits the number of upgradeable tickets on each flight, so you have to book early and be flexible in routing and dates to get the upgrades. You also have to purchase a more expensive ticket to upgrade from (it is not full fare, but it is not the cheapest rate available). I have heard that American lets you upgrade from a less expensive ticket. Each airline differs, but most only allow you to book tickets using miles to upgrade 330 days before the flight. Many people book then to get their preferred dates.
Recently I started flying British Airways because most of our trips are to England and they have direct flights from Denver, Phoenix and Dallas. When using miles to upgrade, they could only book the portion of the flight on British Airways, so I had to book separate flights on American Airways to get from Dallas to Albuquerque. But, since they are partner airlines, I will be able to check our luggage straight through.
Air Travel within Europe
In recent years, many low cost, no frills airlines have sprung up in Europe. You can book tickets over the Internet and fly cheaply around Europe. A few things to watch out for:
www.slowtrav.com/resources/: Resources for booking European travel
www.slowtrav.com/europe/travel_consultants.asp: Travel Consultants
www.tsa.gov: US Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration. Current information of regulations regarding travel. Information about luggage.
www.webflyer.com: Web Flyer, the Frequent Flyer authority.
www.flyertalk.com: Forums for frequent flyers.
www.seatguru.com: Seat Guru, your enlightened guide to airline seating - a brilliant website! Look up your airline and type of plane and find out exactly what the seat size is.
Book Your Flight Online
www.travelocity.com: Travelocity, an online travel agency. You can look up flight prices and schedules.
www.expedia.com: Microsoft Expedia, an online travel agency. You can look up flight prices and schedules.
www.orbitz.com: Orbitz, an online travel agency. You can look up flight prices and schedules.
www.sidestep.com: Sidestep, the Traveler's Search Engine that finds airline tickets, cheap airline tickets, cheap airfare, discount hotels, car rentals, travel deals, hotel reservations from multiple sites.
www.qixo.com: Search engine for many different online booking sources (either directly through the airlines' websites or through online ticket agencies) and shows you who's offering what.
Flights Within Europe
www.europebyair.com: For air travel within Europe
www.flybmi.com: Cheap flights to England and discounted Dublin flights offered by British Midlands Airlines (BMI)
www.whichbudget.com: Search for budget travel in Europe
www.easyjet.com: EasyJet, flights from Bristol in the west, and other airports
www.ryanair.com: Ryanair, very inexpensive if you book ahead
www.virgin-express.com: Virgin Express
www.aerfares.net: Find the Lowest Fares from 24 Airlines
www.flybe.com: British European
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