When it comes to leisure travel, Europe is the most frequently visited region in the world, according to the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO); in fact, it hosts just under half of 1.32 billion international tourist arrivals, says that organization's 2019 European Union Tourism Trends Report. While it’s possible to travel around Europe on a shoestring, getting there eats up a big chunk of the travel budget. The good news is that there are times of the year—and even days of the week—when flying costs less.
- The late fall and winter months—from mid to late October through mid to late March—are often the cheapest time to fly to Europe (though fares can spike in December).
- It’s often cheaper to fly to Europe mid-week, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, in particular.
- Sometimes it's most economical to fly from the U.S. to London, the busiest route, then take discount airlines to Continental cities.
Pick an off-Peak Season
Like most leisure-travel destinations, Europe has peak travel seasons—when airfares are at their highest—and off-peak ones, when it’s possible to find better deals on airfare (and, possibly, on your other vacation expenses as well). The summer season, which runs from late May or early June through the end of August, is when many families are available to travel. As a result, it's the most expensive time to visit Europe.
The busiest air travel route between the United States and Europe is New York to London (yes, we know Britain's not technically in Europe or—as of Feb. 1. 2020—the European Union, but most Americans lump it together with other places across the pond). As of February 2020, a search on Kayak.com for round-trip tickets out of New York to London's Heathrow Airport (LHR) shows fares for a seven-day trip climbing steadily from May on, jumping from a low of $387 in mid-May to $700 in July and early August. They then begin to drift downward to around $400 by early September. Of course, airfare prices fluctuate constantly, and you may not be able to reproduce these results when you shop for tickets, but this is the general trend.
The late fall and winter months—from mid to late October through mid/late March—are often the cheapest time to fly. Cold weather, of course, is partly to blame, but a winter vacation to Europe has its benefits. In addition to the cheaper airfare, Europe has some of the best ski and snowboard resorts in the world (Méribel, Zermatt, and St. Anton am Arlberg, to name a few). Leave the ski resorts, and you can experience Europe’s other top attractions without the company of thousands of other tourists.
December is the exception, of course. Families are reuniting or traveling together for the holidays, so you can expect to pay a premium for flights at that time of year.
Pick Your Days
Trying to save money by traveling on a certain day of the week can be hit-or-miss-with flights to Europe. It’s often cheaper to fly mid-week, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, in particular, but sometimes you can get the same mid-week fare on a Saturday. The length of your stay can make a big difference in price. Plan on a Saturday night stay-over to get the best fares.
If you can be flexible, you may be able to save money by adjusting your departure and return dates. Google Flights, as well as some other online airfare aggregators (including Kayak and Travelocity), have flexible travel date searches, so you can see fares for a specific date and see fares for the surrounding dates.
Using Kayak’s flexible date search and the same JFK to London plan, we found that a 10-day trip departing on May 11, 2020 (a Monday) would cost starting around $327. Wait until Friday, May 15, and the minimum jumps to $388. And beware holiday weekends. April fares spike to $502+ on April 9, the Thursday before Easter. Earlier and later in the week, they're in the $350 to $360 range.
How Far in Advance?
Plan ahead, but not way far ahead. If you wait till the last minute, fares tend to be high, but they can also be high if you book too far in advance. Because airfares to Europe fluctuate so much (often, it seems, quite randomly), it can be helpful to sign up for price alerts that send email or text fare updates for routes that you specify.
The Bottom Line
You will probably pay the most if you fly to Europe during the summer when everybody else wants to go. You can find cheaper rates by flying during the winter (except for December) and by having flexible dates. Fares to London are sometimes among the lowest fares to Europe.
Once you cross the Atlantic, you can book flights from the U. K. on discount airlines like EasyJet and Ryanair to hop from city to city or purchase a Eurail pass, a ticket that lets you travel by train throughout 33 countries in Europe.