I’m not a coupon clipper. I have no particular strategy for saving money, other than the strategy of walking into a store as seldom as possible. Which is actually not a bad strategy. When Tony and I got married a million years ago, we registered at Target. So we ended up with lots of exchanges and gift cards and stuff having to do with Target, and we went to Target at least two or three times a week. Every time we walked into that store, we spent a hundred dollars! At first it was gift cards, which are kind of like fun cash–it doesn’t really feel like you’re spending real money. After we started spending our own, we decided we just needed to stop going to Target. There’s nothing like not going to the store to make you not realize the bewildering amount of stuff you (don’t) need.
But I digress. I’m not a coupon clipper; however, I do excel at one money-saving skill: budget traveling. I can do international travel on a shoestring. It’s not always comfortable, and it’s not always convenient (although since when is anything involving 14-hour plane flights either one of those things?), but it is cheap. And really, you haven’t lived until you’ve debated whether it’s worth it to stay in a mosquito-infested nipa hut with no A/C or add two random legs and a weird layover to your flight itinerary to save fifty bucks. Or maybe that’s just my personal brand of masochism.
At any rate, I love getting good deals on airfare. My challenge this time was one-way tickets to Athens, Greece from Orlando, Florida the week of March 16, 2015. My baseline is usually Kayak.com, since I’ve found it to be the cheapest aggregator, especially for international flights, so I checked there first. Sure enough, they had a flight operated by the Russian carrier Aeroflot. I monitored it for several weeks, and the price fluctuated from $617 per person to $657 per person. There were two stops (New York and Moscow), and counting all the layovers, the total trip time was 39 hours and 35 minutes. So, really long. But cheap, right? In fact, a whole $200 per person cheaper than Expedia’s cheapest pick, a United flight for $817 per person.
Yes. But I was sure I could find cheaper. Because while it might be more convenient to let the airlines combine flight itineraries, it’s not always less expensive. Since this flight is Trans-Atlantic, I think of it in two parts: getting to Europe (anywhere in Europe), and getting to Greece. Theoretically, all I had to do was find a cheap flight across the ocean, and then another cheap flight from somewhere in Europe to Athens. The only constraint was that my flight across the ocean had to end in the same city from which the flight to Greece originated.
I figured I should start with the harder task, which was finding a cheap flight to Europe. So I googled that exact term (“cheap flight to Europe”), and one of the first results to come up was Norwegian. And indeed, when I visited their website, I saw that Norwegian does have very cheap flights from a few North American airports (mostly in Florida, lucky for us) to quite a few different European destinations.
On the getting-to-Greece-from-Europe side, there were even more options. Budget airlines are a big thing in Europe, and when they say budget, they mean budget. Southwest is a luxury airline when you compare it to the likes of Ryanair, our personal nemesis (although also the reason that we have visited beautiful Trieste). Travel on European budget airlines is not for the faint of heart. But it’s been a good six years since our Ryanair debacle, and we are ready to try our luck again. So I popped over to the invaluable Low Cost Airline Guide’s page on Athens. It lists every budget airline that flies into Athens, and from which country. Turns out pretty much everyone in Europe vacations in Greece. Key word “vacation.” A lot of my leads turned into dead ends, because a good percentage of budget airlines that fly to Greece do so only during the high season, between April or May and September or October.
In general, there are a few things to watch for when booking with budget airlines:
- First, everything is an extra. Including checking your bags, meals, seat assignments, and anything else you can think of (I think there was even an infamous incident when a particularly enterprising airline started charging for using the restroom during a flight). If your airline prepares an itinerary with multiple legs, there’s only one baggage charge. But if you use multiple budget carriers to plan your own itinerary, you need to factor in the cost of multiple baggage charges. These typically amount to around $30-$50 each.Traveling with only carry-ons is a great solution, except if you’re moving to Greece with only what’s in your suitcases.
- Second, many budget carriers only fly certain routes on certain days of the week, so if you’re planning your own itinerary, you might fly in on a Monday, but not be able to fly out until Wednesday. That’s what happened with my hypothetical Paris itinerary. Once I added in the costs of baggage and a couple of nights in a Paris hotel, the total was going to be at least as much as the Aeroflot flight.
- Third, budget flights, especially to “vacation” destinations in southern Europe, tend to be very seasonal. Even if you initially find a flight on an aggregator, be sure to go straight to the airline’s website. All the budget airlines provide flight calendars so you can determine which days the airline flies to which destinations, during which parts of the year, and exactly what the prices are, and how they change through the week and through the year. The fares are far less volatile than other airlines'; in fact, they tend to be more or less fixed by time of the year and day of the week. It’s the difference between clipping coupons to shop at a regular grocery store, and shopping at Trader Joe’s, which never issues coupons, but does have consistently reasonable prices.
- Fourth, which airport are you using? Many cities have more than one airport (London, for instance, has six international airports). The budget carriers often use smaller airports located outside the city, or in an adjacent smaller city. Here in Florida, for instance, one can get cheaper flights to Amsterdam flying from the tiny Stanford airport on Icelandair than from the larger Orlando airport. On the other hand, maybe you can drive a couple of hours to a major airport and get a direct flight. The flight we ended up finding is on Norwegian, and departs from Miami, which is a four hour drive from our house, three hours longer than the hour to the Orlando airport. It’s totally worth it, though, because Norwegian’s flight out of Orlando has two stops (and costs over $100 more per person). Our flight doesn’t leave until almost midnight, so we’ll leave for the airport around four in the afternoon, have dinner on the way, and be ready to check in by 9 p.m. or so.
- Fifth, hub cities are where it’s at. Every budget airline (well, every airline in general) has at least one hub, and flights to and from that city tend to be quite inexpensive. So it’s a case of beginning your trip planning in the middle, rather than the beginning or end. London turned out to be the perfect hub for us. It was one of Norwegian’s cheapest trips (second only to actually flying in to Norway, I think), and there were quite a few budget carriers flying from London to Athens, even in the early spring. Our Norwegian flight is non-stop from Miami to London’s Gatwick Airport. So when I was looking for budget flights from London to Athens, I had to make sure they originated in Gatwick, and not Luton or Stansted, the other budget-friendly London airports. While airport transfer bus routes do exist, they typically have to go all the way through London, and take at least three or four hours, depending on the airports involved. Kayak.com does now include the budget carriers, and several London-Athens flights popped up for under $100 each, mostly on Ryanair and Easyjet. Easyjet was the only one flying from Gatwick, and to my great delight, they had a flight that left 2 1/2 hours after ours arrived. Which leads me to:
- Sixth, you’ll have to go through passport control and customs between flights if you book your own itinerary, have crossed an international border, and have checked bags. This is kind of a pain. At least we have both EU and American passports, so we can use whichever line is shorter. Which I think is not actually kosher, but might be useful if we’re running late. We’re planning to split up, and have Tony go with one kid to retrieve and re-check the luggage, while I stay with the the other kid and carry-ons “airside” (inside of security and customs–as opposed to “landside,” on the outside of security and customs). The official minimum connection time (MCT) for Gatwick (yes, every airport and airline has these) is two hours, so we should be OK with 2 1/2. Fortunately, Gatwick airport also has a special desk to facilitate these types of non-official connections, so hopefully all will be well.
Anyway. Now that you know the long of it, the short of it is, the four of us will be flying from Florida to Greece for a grand total of $1558. Yes, that comes out to $389 per person. I am pretty impressed with myself.
Here’s the breakdown:
Expedia: Orlando – Washington, D.C. – Zurich – Athens
Total Trip Time: 17.35 hours
Total Cost: $3268 ($817 per person)
Kayak: Miami – Moscow – Athens (or Orlando – New York – Moscow – Athens)
Total Trip Time: 36. 15 hours (or 39.35 hours)
Total Cost: $2444 ($612 per person)
Me: Miami – London – Athens
Total Trip Time: 15.25 hours
Total Cost: $1558 ($398 per person)
Looks like I win!