— Money Matters

Flights to Europe have never been cheaper — here's how to get the best deals

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Until very recently, a summertime vacation in Europe required big bucks. For years, a peak season flight across the Atlantic Ocean could be considered “cheap” if it wasn’t much over $1,000. Exchange rates made Americans feel extra poor once they landed; a decade ago, each $1 was worth a measly 63 euro cents.

All that has changed, however—and just in time for the 2017 summer season. The U.S. dollar has strengthened significantly against both the euro and pound; $1 is now worth 94 euro cents, and the cost of a week for two in Paris is now $3,523, down more than $1,000 from last year. Meanwhile, the transatlantic flight market has been utterly upended, to the point that airfare to Europe is the cheapest it’s been since the bleak post-9/11 doldrums, or perhaps ever. Recent promotional fares have been as low as $65 from Hartford, Conn., to Edinburgh or $149 from Los Angeles to Barcelona, but even everyday airfares have sunk to well within reach.

Here’s why Europe flight prices have cratered—and why, if you haven’t started making your summertime travel plans, now is the time.

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Reason #1: Fuel costs have soared

“Cheap fuel is by far the most important factor” in the sharp decline of airfare to Europe, says Seth Kaplan, managing partner of the industry newsletter Airline Weekly. Beyond the general cost of owning or leasing aircraft, the largest expense for the low-fare airlines is fuel. So the huge drop in prices over the past few years is what’s made the current golden era for low-cost Europe flights possible. “In inflation-adjusted terms, it’s about as cheap as it’s ever been,” Kaplan says.

That’s been a game-changer. During the mid-’00s, fuel prices spiked and airlines added fuel surcharges onto flight prices to pass the costs on to passengers. Until fairly recently, these surcharges averaged $450 round trip on transatlantic flights, and taxes and fees tacked on another $165 or so, according to FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney. “So you’re in the low $600s even before charging for airfare,” Seaney says.

Nowadays, fuel surcharges are all but gone, and travelers can find round trips to Europe in the summer for less than $600, or even under $500. In other words, total flight prices today can cost less than what the airlines used to charge just for taxes and surcharges.

Reason #2: There’s way more competition

There’s a secondary effect of declining fuel costs: The lower prices have allowed established airlines to boost transatlantic routes and encouraged low-cost upstarts to get into the game. Both Norwegian Air and Iceland-based WOW Air have jumped into the transatlantic market in recent years and expanded rapidly, with new routes from the U.S. and special introductory fares under $100 seemingly announced every few weeks. Norwegian, in particular, uses the exceptionally fuel-efficient 787 Dreamliner on transatlantic routes, and passes along the cost savings to passengers in the form of cheaper airfare.

Larger carriers like Aer Lingus and Icelandair are likewise bumping up U.S. routes and advertising flight deals left and right. Even British Airways is expanding service, with new flights this year connecting London to New Orleans, Oakland, Calif., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. And Level, a low-fare corporate sibling to British Airways, launches this summer, offering flights from California to Spain for as little as $149 too.

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While the biggest airfare declines are generally for destinations frequented by the low-cost competitors, prices are cheaper almost anywhere you want to go in Europe. Data from Kayak.com shows that median airfare from the U.S. to 20 major European airports is down at least 20% this spring and summer compared with 2016 fares, with much bigger declines in flight search results for cities like Barcelona (down 31%), Paris (35%), Amsterdam (36%), and Zurich (43%). The flight search app Hopper reports similar data, with average European airfare prices down 18% for the summer of 2017, following a decrease of about 14% between summer 2015 and 2016.

“Because the low-cost carriers exist, they’ve driven down prices for all airlines, all over Europe,” Kaplan explains.

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