Question: I'm going to Europe this summer. I will buy a Eurail pass, so I don't care what major city I land in. I just want the cheapest fare. But some search engines allow you to see only one city at a time. I have now filled out five different city alerts for price notifications, and my mailbox is filling up fast. What's available?
Answer: The low-fare-anywhere strategy is a smart one. Airfares to the Big Three — London, Paris and Rome — are $1,404, $1,341 and $1,429, respectively, in the summer high season, according to Kayak.com, less than last year but high enough to put the ouch into buying airfare.
Blame fuel costs and demand, among other factors, for the pain in your wallet. You can see what's happening at the pump ($4.13 a gallon early last week in Los Angeles, up 12 cents from a year ago), and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics tells you about demand: Eighty-two percent of seats on international flights were taken in 2013, up from 75% in 2003.
This site allows you to input your departure city and select a broad set of dates (summer 2014, for instance) and choose, say, Europe or the Caribbean or any other region and find comparisons.
Last week, the lowest fares were to Scandinavian cities — Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen. Airfare to Munich, Germany and Zurich also showed up as significantly less than to London. (Moscow was the least expensive in this search, but does not show up on Eurail's list of destinations.)
Kayak representative Maria Katime also recommended looking at Lisbon. "Of the top 50 most-searched European destinations, Lisbon saw the biggest decrease in airfare (down 13% from last year to $1,026)," she said in an email. "Hotel rates in Lisbon also decreased 41% year-over-year to $118."
"Ultimately, they are an incredible tool for daydreamers and armchair travelers," he said in an email. "For those of us who love maps … it's a way to say, 'Where could I go for this much money?' For those of us with a fixed budget, it can determine travel plans."
Sometimes secondary airports (flying into, say, Manchester, England, instead of London's Heathrow or Gatwick) can be cheaper, he said, but added that "it's not always cheaper to fly to the smaller airports, simply because the sheer volume of flights into a place like Heathrow or CDG [Paris] often gives you more price options."
Also check Farecompare (www.farecompare.com/maps), where the maps will have you salivating over low-fare possibilities (and then sends you to various search engines that may not have that exact fare), and the mapless Cheapflights.com, which lets you search broadly even though that's not immediately apparent. "Flexible travel dates?" it asks on the Cheapflights home page. Clicking on that takes you to what looks like an ordinary booking engine, but after inputting your departure airport, you can type in Europe and a slew of cities pops up.
The good news for travelers is that the dollar is stronger against the euro than it was five years ago. Rates for June 17 of this year show that $20 would net you about 14.76 euros; on June 17, 2009, you would have bagged only 13.80 euros.
But travelers who seek value and the occasional splurge still must be mindful that nothing is free — except the beautiful views, the fabulous people and the heady experience of being outside the U.S.-centric bubble that envelops us when we spend too much time at home.