A Guide to Finding the Lowest Fares to Europe

Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

Air fares to Europe this summer won't be any higher than they were in 1986--and in some instances they will be a little lower.

That's what happens when the bottom falls out of the market, as it did for transatlantic carriers last year. Barring a new outbreak of terrorism in key destinations, the carriers are looking for better results this time around, and they don't want to scare away any of the anticipated traffic by pricing themselves out of the game.

As always at this time of year, fares have been set--but not in concrete. One thing the airlines have learned in the last five or six years is that flexibility can mean the difference between success or failure.

So the round-trip peak-month fares noted here should not be taken as the last word. Market conditions may dictate changes.

If you book a seat early enough, you will be offered the benefits of any later price reduction and, what's more important, if you're already ticketed you won't have to pay extra if fares go up.

So don't delay. Apart from protecting your fare, you'll also give yourself a better chance of getting the dates you want if you don't leave booking until the last minute.

Flights Could Be Full

If transatlantic traffic returns to normal levels this summer, a lot of flights could be full. Latecomers may find themselves left with departures that don't fit their needs.

The lowest scheduled fares to Europe, and the most popular with vacationers, will be advance-purchase excursions (apex). Example: Los Angeles-London, $799; Los Angeles-Frankfurt, $967.

These fares come with restrictions, so check with the airlines or with a travel agent. Generally, in the European market, you have to buy 21 days in advance.

If you are not in a position to make up your mind that far in advance, you can always buy an economy-class ticket to London for $1,326 or Frankfurt for $1,423. The only thing that separates economy, surely the world's most underused international air fare--from the apex is that it is unrestricted; you can buy today, fly today.

Or maybe you want a little more leg room, perhaps a higher quality meal and service. Try business class, which goes under a variety of names, depending on the carrier.

Although Frankfurt is farther than London, the business-class fare to the German city is cheaper, $2,338, as opposed to $2,997 to London. If you're wondering why it costs $659 more to fly to a closer destination, take the question up with the British aviation authorities who keep a pretty tight grip on their prices. While you're at it, you might ask them why first-class to London will cost $4,609 and to Frankfurt only $4,162.

The same fare categories apply to virtually every other European destination . . . Paris, Rome, Zurich, Amsterdam and the rest. In each case, although the levels will differ, the apex fare will represent the best scheduled airline value.

Restrictions Apply

There are also apex fares in other parts of the world, again with restrictions, including an advance purchase requirement of seven days (Hong Kong, $1,200) to 30 days (Tokyo, $927).

Between Los Angeles and Tokyo, a first-class ticket costs $3,124, business class $1,602 and economy $1,410. You can buy a first-class seat to Hong Kong for $3,626, but business and economy cost the same, $1,664. Business and economy are similarly priced on most transpacific air routes except those to Japan.

Again, each market pairing has its own quirks, so be careful what you're buying.

Sydney, Australia, puts a 14-day requirement on its apex fare of $1,046. Los Angeles-Sydney economy costs $2,285, business $2,900 and first-class $4,617.

Another excursion with a 14-day stipulation is one to some parts of South America. Los Angeles to Buenos Aires costs $1,199. In that market, economy costs $1,824, business $2,294 and first-class $4,348.

These are the four basic fare types. In certain markets you'll find occasional student/youth fares, seniors fares, group fares and so on. There are too many to keep track of without a computer, so when you get around to making your plans, seek some help.

The other option for European travel this summer is charters. Once highly restricted and unreliable, charters have undergone a metamorphosis since the start of this decade.

Whereas it used to be that charter flights might not leave on schedule and might not be nonstop as advertised, now you can rely on the major operators to deliver as promised . . . in about the same proportion as you can the scheduled carriers. Charters have become virtually no more and no less reliable than scheduled flights.

Did you know, for instance, that your money is safer when you book a charter flight than it is when you book scheduled? When you make a reservation on a charter now, you pay directly into an escrow account which the operator cannot touch until after the travel has been completed.

The scheduled airlines can't claim that much. If a charter company goes sour, your money is safe; if a scheduled carrier collapses, you may have a problem recovering your money.

Many Charters to Europe

Europe, because of its strong ethnic ties with the United States, is a big charter market. Concentrations of flights are again set this summer from Los Angeles to London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and others, and the savings off scheduled fares are significant.

Los Angeles to Amsterdam round-trip, with DER Travel, a German company with North American headquarters here and a 10-year track record in the market, costs $748 in the peak season. By booking by April 15, and paying in full within seven days, you can lock yourself into a $648 fare. DER calls this its non-refundable QuickSaver fare.

It's also capacity controlled, which means not every seat is going to be offered at $648.

That company's Frankfurt flights are available at $809 round trip.

Besides DER in the Los Angeles charter market, another is Dollarstretcher, a subsidiary of British Airways, which specializes in L.A.-London flights.

Then there is LTU, a German company with a good reputation that flies to Frankfurt and elsewhere in its homeland. These and other charter companies can no longer be overlooked when it comes to vacation planning; the scheduled carriers long ago started to take notice.

They fly modern wide-bodies with seat configurations every bit as roomy as those of their scheduled counterparts, sometimes even better. They have become a contender for your business.

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