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How to fly to Europe Biz Class for $2800 this summer, and in the future

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I'm off in June to do some speaking in Europe. I'm flying to Milan in business class from San Francisco for $2,800 on UA and Air Canada, which is about the lowest price I've ever seen for biz class to Europe in summer on the major airlines. The coach fare can be as low as $600 for those not able to splurge. Let me tell you how to use these fares, even if it's not Italy you wish to visit.

I don't know why these fares are so low. Usual business class on major airlines in runs $5K at least and can often be as much as $10K, particularly for nonstop flights. It may be special competition. Perhaps the Italian tourist board is subsidizing. Perhaps nobody wants to fly there this summer (I doubt it.) But that doesn't matter, because often there are one or two magic cities that can get you across the pond in style.

When crossing the Atlantic, you mainly want to have a business class bed seat for the section over the ocean. If you are not too poor, it can be worth it to get a real sleep, to get a chance to work, and to not be stressed before, during and after the trip. But you don't need one within Europe, and in fact most airlines in Europe don't really even off a business class -- they just charge 3x the price to give you a coach seat with nobody in the middle next to you.

So if you seek business class, it can be worth it to find the "bargain city" and fly in and out of it, then use quite cheap economy fares within Europe. Milan is a nice break as the bargain city, because it has non-stop flights to most other European locations.

Google Flight Search

The trick is to use Google Flight Search. GFS is ten times faster than all the other flight searches, and while I am sure there are other engines that find a few different bargains some of the time, there is no substitute for that super speed when it comes to getting things done.

You can ask GFS to do a search from your city to "Europe" for some dates, in business class. Here is an example.

  1. Use Google Flight search to search for Business Class return tickets to "Europe" (or the region you want to go to) for the rough dates you are interested
  2. When you get the map, tweak to only show the airline alliances you want, flight duration and stops you will tolerate.
  3. Tweak the dates if you don't find a cheap city. Then select the city
  4. Click on the calendar to see the fares on other days. Adjust airlines and other parameters.

As you can see on the map above, the prices to Milan and Budapest are ridiculously cheap compared to most other cities. The map you see is for "Oneworld" which means AA, British Airways, Iberia or Finnair, but mostly BA/Finnair if you're looking for a nonstop longhaul from SFO over the Atlantic. If you don't select an alliance, the map gets filled with cheap fares from super-discount airlines that either don't offer a bed seat, or fly via Iceland. Even if you include Star Alliance, you will see mostly the fares of Turkish airlines. Turkish is a valid choice -- their business class is superb, while their non-flight service is terrible -- but we'll talk about them later. So check all three alliances or check the ones you use. (If you don't want Turkish, shop OneWorld and SkyTeam, because The Star Alliance lines - UA, LH, AC, Swiss, etc.- are almost always going to be more than those, or competitive, anyway.)

You can check other constraints. If you check "nonstop" you will tend to get higher prices. My $2800 flight to Milan starts with the nonstop to Frankfurt, but if you want to stay in Frankfurt, you pay $5,000 or more! You might want to select "up to 1 stop" and put some caps on flight duration to not be fooled by unbearable connections at low prices.

Play around with dates (easy with GFS since it is so fast) and you will find the "magic bargain cities." Right now for SF, these seem to be Milan, Venice and Budapest. (Budapest is often cheap for unknown reasons.)

If you are flexible on your dates, you can then select the magic city to get flights just for it. Now you can play with many more parameters -- such as specific airlines. You can go to your departure date and click on the calendar (only after you pick the city) and see what days have the magic fares and which don't. You don't have to select one city -- for example you can ask for 5 cities like this and compare all the flights to all the cities, and get specific about your airlines, or to eliminate those airlines you don't want to fly.

You can also check coach -- I see that May 15, just 2 days out, is just $649, but it has gone up for June.

What if I'm too sexy for Milan?

If you just want to get "to Europe" you might consider yourself done, but you can now fairly easily check out flights from your magic discount city to your real destination, and that might help you pick which discount city you want. You can also consider trains if the distance is not too far. Rome, Nice, Venice, Zurich, Geneva, Florence and other such cities are in easy train or car reach.

Important tricks and rules

If you book an ongoing flight, that's not an official connection. It means you have to collect your luggage, re-check it and go out of security. It means that if something goes wrong with any of the flights, your airline only has a duty to get you to your bargain city, and you might be on your own getting to your real destination. If you are on a tight deadline you might decide not to do this. On the other hand, there is saving $7,000. I bought my first car for less than that.

Sometimes, if the connecting flight is on the same alliance, or even better, airline, they will turn it into a connection for you, at least let you check luggage through.

Most people do want to check luggage when going overseas. If you can pull off not doing that, you will be much more flexible about missed connections and changing plans.

One thing you can't do, even without checked luggage, is pull the "hidden city" trick. That's because almost all the airlines only sell return tickets to Europe from the USA. It's a royal pain, but their one way fares are often more than their return tickets. If I wanted to go to Frankfurt, I might want to try the hidden city trick, which means getting off the plane in Frankfurt and not going on to Milan, saving $7,000. Problem is, the airline will notice this and cancel my return ticket. And of course I can't have luggage. You can only pull the hidden city trick on your return flight, and if you do this a lot some people report airlines have cracked down, cancelling elite status etc. A few times they will not notice.

These fares are so cheap you can also do the "throw away return." That's where you need a one way so you buy a cheap return and don't use the return leg. Again, rumours are they punish people who do this a lot.

You probably have to do a return fare to the magic cheap city. Or maybe go into one cheap city and out from another. Usually when you try to do your return from another city, the price shoots up.

More extreme -- find the cheap US city

You can also do a search from a suitable European city to "USA" or "Canada" and find if any US cities are especially cheap. Then you can fly to that city and take your flight from there -- with all the risks that entails. If you really value cash more than time, you could even find the cheapest transatlantic route, and buy it, and do extra flights at both ends. That is generally too much hassle unless you don't check bags, but it might be better to do that in biz than pay the same for a nicer itinerary in cattle class.

One way fares, and Turkish and Norwegian

A few airlines do sell one-way fares for less than return, sometimes even for half. Those include Norwegian, Turkish, FrenchBee, and sometimes Aer Lingus and some of the Icelandic airlines.

You can also fly one way when booking with miles. (Usually I reserve miles for personal, non-tax-deductible travel.)

Turkish

Turkish airlines is a strange beast. Many things about them are great. They have a very nice business class (for a while, it was the nicest to Europe) with great food and service and by far the best airline lounge in Europe. They are great to fly on. They are terrible to book with, with 3 different booking systems from the dark ages that don't talk to one another. If you have to change your flight, you will regret flying Turkish, though you might save as much as $4,000 doing so.

Turkish is the only major alliance airline to offer one-way fares. Of course, the problem is that as the only one, it doesn't do you much good, since if you go out on them, you almost always have to go back on them, and only through Istanbul.

Istanbul is also quite a bit further than the regular European hubs, so expect to add 2-4 hours to your travel time. On the other hand the 13 hour travel time to Istanbul from SFO is enough time to get a full night's sleep and meals at leisure, and use their free wifi.

Norwegian

This is a discount airline, but a cut above. They have a business class. It is not a bed business class, it's nice recliner seats like US domestic business class. But it's as low as $800 one way SFO to Scandinavia, ie. about the same as the coach price on many airlines. They fly nice 787s too. They don't fly every day. As noted, they do offer one way, so you can combine Turkish with them.

I have not tried the other discount airlines. Some stories are a bit scary. If you fly via Iceland, they offer a free layover of up to a week in Iceland if that's your tourism goal. It is reportedly pretty expensive to stay there though.

I want to fly coach

These tricks can also save you some decent money in Coach. As noted, I see Milan for just $649 return. However, if Milan is not your destination, the hassle of switching to another flight with its risks and delays may not justify smaller savings. They are justified by saving $6,000 per person.

Of course, Italy is a great destination for those with time and opportunity. You might find it rewarding to spend a few days there before or after going to your "real" destination. There are very cheap discount tickets to most of Europe from Milan, though be warned that airlines like EasyJet and the like surcharge everything you want, like seat selection, baggage, early boarding etc. So that $100 ticket will probably be about $180 and you might decide to fly with the majors.

Also note that Ryan Air, aside from being a nasty airline, flies from Bergamo airport which it calls "Milan" but is very far away. This is their normal money saving technique.

Also, if you fly coach on the majors and have miles or upgrade coupons, you might be able to get an upgrade.

How can you justify even $2,800 for airfare?

Flying business class is expensive. I almost always fly it on somebody else's dime. Companies pay for it to keep employees from going nuts with travel stress. It's harder to justify for personal reasons. If you travel overseas all the time, there the logic may seem strange -- you come to insist on business class, because doing that much overseas coach travel would be a miserable life.

Still, it's not uncommon for coach fares in the summer to be $2,000 so $2,800 for business is not as much of a jump. You get a few other things flying biz class, like 2x elite miles (faster elite status) as well as the other perks of elites, like early boarding, lounges, better service when there are problems and more. Sure, nicer food and more privacy, but the real value is that bed.

Some people value airline elite miles (for status) at 10 cents a mile. I don't, but with that valuation, this Milan trip will earn me 24,000 United "PQM" elite miles for $2,800 -- a super deal.

Comments

In the old days, one went to a travel agency. There wasn't that much choice, prices didn't vary much, and they were generally higher than today. Then came online booking and, shortly later, search engines. Sounds like a good idea: let the engine find the best location. But there are several search engines, which don't always return the same results. Some allow one to compare their own results from other search engines. Then the meta search engines came: engines to search search engines. Where will it end?

Obviously, good search engines make it easy to find a cheap flight, so money has to be made elsewhere. It used to be that the final price could be significantly higher than the list price, but now, at least in some places, there are laws against his. Now it is common to have the price depend on the method of payment, through "fees" and "discounts" which apparently avoid the "display the final price" law.

There is at least one search engine where one can enter which payment possibilities one has, and it will then find the best price taking this into account.

I recently booked a flight and tried various search engines, various meta search engines (including Google Flight Search) then checked airlines directly (there were only a couple of choices). I ended up booking via the airline, which offered the cheapest fair. Why didn't any of the search engines find it? I don't think that there was a race condition involved, as the results were repeatable.

Booking directly through the airline usually offers other advantages as well. With a search engine, I am set to book the flight I selected from it, but it is difficult to see and possibly book variations on it: upgrade, more baggage, seat selection, etc. At least with some airline websites, this is much easier to do.

I ended up going business on the outgoing flight, because it was cheaper than the economy fairs, and economy on the return flight. I'll get better food and more room, but can't take advantage of much more baggage allowance (not only could I not bring it back, but I don't need it).

Maybe the best strategy is to check 3 or so meta search engines. If they at least roughly agree, book via the website of the corresponding airline.

That's a lot of work. They are so slow. Even Matrix, which is what is under google flight search, is super slow compared to it. But yes, always book from the airline. In fact, even book on the airline if they are a little bit more expensive. Only go to a web site booking agent to save a lot.

So you agree that using 1, 2, 3 meta-engines to find the best price is a good idea, then do the actual booking at the airline website?

Using many meta engines I think is worth it only if you are really keen. GFS does not do bookings so it is pretty natural to go from it to the airline web site, though with the minor airlines it does not fill in your info. Sometimes it finds fares only bookable by agent or phoning the airline. I avoid those. It also sometimes finds fares that don't really exist.

What meta engines do you like? Yes, nobody has it all. Even the airlines don't show everything and sometimes I have to phone them. And yes, the presence of super discount economy is screwing up searching now if you are looking for economy, since I almost never want it.

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