If you are debating a trip across the big blue Atlantic this summer, now’s the time to make your decision.
Rising demand and higher fuel costs are pushing transatlantic economy airfares to record levels, there are deals to be found in business class and hotel rates are all over the map. With the current exchange rate, Europe continues to be expensive for Americans, and the United States will be a welcome bargain for Europeans.
Today, I'll take a look at airfare, since that's going to be the determining factor in most travellers' decision to go or not. Later this week, I'll focus on finding affordable hotels on both sides of the Atlantic and examine how exchange rates, foreign transaction fees and other costs will affect the trip's bottom line.
What's a good price?
According to Expedia, fares for summer trips between the United States and Europe are already trending 7% to 10% higher than this time last year. As demand and fuel costs rise simultaneously, average transatlantic fares will be in the $1,500 range this summer, so any roundtrip economy class ticket in the $1,000 range is a very good deal. Peak season fares (from July to August) between popular cities (such as New York, London, Paris or Rome) will crack the $2,000 barrier – and could run higher if you wait until June to book.
Airlines are still offering transatlantic "sale" fares in the $1,000 range if you can travel between now and mid-June. After that, fares spike to peak levels through late August. Demand for transatlantic travel remains surprisingly high through early September as business travellers return to their frequent schedules and leisure travellers make their way home from summer vacations. Finally, in late September and through much of October, fares drop significantly.
Travellers with flexible summer travel plans should keep an eye on airline and online travel agency websites for deals when demand wavers during May, early June and the last week or two of August, when schools start up again. Last-minute fare shoppers should start checking sites one or two weeks before they want to travel. Bargains could be more plentiful if high gasoline prices or world events begin to significantly affect the delicate global economic recovery. The result could be an unexpected drop in demand for discretionary purchases such as vacations and ultimately a decline in fares.
Travellers are more likely to find comparatively lower fares or last-minute deals on routes where airlines have recently added significant capacity. For example, Lufthansa and Air France are adding Airbus A380 flights to San Francisco from their respective hubs in Frankfurt (in May) and Paris (in June). Also in June, Lufthansa launches A380 flights between Frankfurt and Miami. These double-decker jumbos have 30% more seats than a 747; adding that kind of capacity is bound to lower prices (as well as increase availability for frequent flyer award seats). Delta and Air France are doubling the number of roundtrip flights they offer between Atlanta and Paris (for a total of four daily.) With Delta now flying to Reykjavík from New York and Boston, and Icelandair expanding into Washington DC, capacity has increased and fares have plunged below $1,000 for spring and summer roundtrip flights. Fares are also trending lower between the United States and countries with daunting economic issues, such as Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain.
Business class deals
Business travel demand decreases during summer months, as frequent travellers take time off and conventions wind down, but airlines still have plenty of roomy lie-flat business class seats to fill. (New A380s have 80 to 90 business class seats each!) As a result, airlines are resorting to discounting to keep them filled. Rules and timing vary (most require more than 50 days advance purchase), but flexible travellers can nab one of those nice seats for $2,500 to $3,500 throughout the summer months, which is a nice discount off standard business class fares that run in the $6,000 to $9,000 range. For example, OpenSkies, the all business class airline that flies from Paris (Orly) to/from Newark and Washington DC (Dulles) is currently offering a summer deal of about $1,800 roundtrip for those who book by 12 May and travel between 10 July and 10 September. United's summer business class promotional fares run about $3,000 roundtrip between Europe and western US cities and $2,500 from eastern US cities for trips between 28 June and 2 September.
Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel.