9 MINUTE READ
“Fast, Good, or Cheap. Pick Two.”
Looking for a cheap flight for your next trip? The best way to find a cheap flight for a vacation is when you do not care where you go. If you desire just to travel, this is the cheapest way to go.
I spent a year traveling like this. Using a combination of Airbnb and Google Flights, I went to places that I would never have considered. Places that you probably have never heard of… and a few areas that have become very popular in recent years.
At the time, I was poor and just wanted to go any place where I could extend my money.
I highly recommend this type of travel for adventure seekers and people who just want to do something different.
If you have a specific place you want to vacation, then you have a little more work ahead of you. The following will help you land the best deal for your trip.
How to Find Cheap Flights to Europe
Europe is filled with budget carriers that can take you from one side of the continent to the other for “a few bucks.” This is important to know because if you don’t mind a longer travel time, then this could save you hundreds of dollars.
A few years ago, my travel buddy, Jack, and I were in Belgrade, Serbia. We were headed to a small town in Wales. To get to this town, we needed to arrive in Carmarthen in 5 days. Our long-term Airbnb was set to end in 3 days.
Flying one-way out of Belgrade to Cardiff costs about $300 if you fly out on the right day, but can be as much as a few thousand. We preferred to maximize our budget and spend as little as possible on the flight itself. Jack and I set ourselves a total budget of $300.
So, how did we get from Belgrade to Carmarthen?
We compared the train lines to budget airlines like RyanAir and EasyJet. In our search, we discovered we could fly out of either Timisoara, Romania or Sofia, Bulgaria for $20. We leaned towards Timisoara because the bus ticket was about $15 and only 3-4 hours.
This is where your flight day matters. Going to Timisoara put us in the UK a day early. Any time you go to the UK, you will go over your budget because there is always something that costs more than you expect.
Here’s (IIRC**) the breakdown of that trip: Belgrade -> Sofia -> London -> Carmarthen, Wales
- Train from Belgrade to Sofia: $15
- Airbnb in Sofia for 3 nights: $60
- Flight from Sofia to London Stansted: $20
- London Airport Hotel for 1 night: $100
- Bus from the Airport to Carmarthen: $60
Total for 2 people: $255
Including food and taxis, we spent about $150 each. So, combined it was the same price as one person’s flight from Belgrade to Cardiff.
The downside to flying budget airlines is that they usually fly into airports well outside the city. These flights also tend to land at times that increase the probability of you needing to stay at a hotel near the airport.
Our RyanAir flight was supposed to land around 11pm. It was delayed, and we arrived around 2am. After making it through customs, we were out around 2:30am. This flight landed at London Stansted Airport, more than an hour from central London. We had been through this rigamarole before, and that’s why we knew we had to book the hotel at the airport.
Getting to Europe for Cheap
Now that you know it is possible to travel cheap, how do you get to Europe?
When I fly from the US, I look at all the airports near me or at the primary exit points. If you are near New York City, this is usually the cheapest option. If you can fly out of Canada, look there too.
I’ve taken a train from Charlotte, North Carolina to New York City to save $800. One time, it was a bus from Rochester, New York to Toronto to save $1200. Another time, I took an “executive” bus from Orlando to Miami and still saved $500.
There are a lot of ways to save money, you just have to expand how to look at the map. Granted I have had a lot more time than I had cash.
If you have less time and more money, there are still ways to bring the cost down.
You can easily save money by buying a roundtrip ticket to any city in Europe from the airport near you. Then, buy another roundtrip ticket from that place to your destination.
Most flights to Europe fly overnight. So, you will arrive anywhere from 4am to noon for most of these flights. If you book a late afternoon flight from your connecting city, you’ll be at your destination before dinner.
If you are taking a trip into the Schengen Area, then just pick the cheapest flight into - Paris, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Madrid, or Rome.
Once you are in the Schengen Area, all flights are treated like they are domestic flights. You only need to clear customs when you land from the US. I prefer to avoid London whenever possible, especially London Heathrow Airport. The UK is not a part of the Schengen Area so you will have to go through customs and stand in several queues.
Where to Search For Cheap Flights to Europe
I always start with Google Flights. This gives me a good gauge on pricing and timing.
You can search all of Europe or multiple cities at once. In the destination box (“Where to?) type:
This will search for flights to the whole continent.
Use can also use city names or airport codes to target specific areas.
Paris, CPH, FRA, MAD, FCO
I use Paris instead of CDG because there are a lot of nonstop flights that will fly into Paris Orly, which is a smaller airport on the south side of the city.
Lisbon, Milan, Berlin, and Stockholm are also good cheap entry points. However, there are fewer connecting flights. TAP (Portugal) flies through Lisbon. I’ve taken them several times and had great connections to Spain and France.
I also use GoEuro, Momondo, and Skyscanner. GoEuro includes the discount airlines. It also searches trains and buses. After my initial Google Flights searches, I will check flights on these websites as well.
Let’s say I want to go to Europe for the week of Thanksgiving. This is a reasonable time to head over to Europe. It’s an American holiday where I only need to take 3 days off work, and the European cities are not jam-packed with tourists.
This time of year is going to lean towards the colder side for most of Europe. So, let’s go to Barcelona, Spain. The weather will be warm enough and if I’m lucky maybe there will be a few beach days.
For my search, I put in New York City (“Where from?”) All Airports because I want to encompass all the nearby airports.
Using Google Flights, I add my dates - Sunday to Saturday.
Google Flights has several ways to assist you in your flight search. You can use the search calendar to see estimates for prices, but another option in the DATES box under the Flight insights.
The one on the left says if I change my dates I could save about $150. When you click SEE MORE, it presents you with a price calendar.
The cheapest flights are in green, and the most expensive are in red. The top column shows you possible departure dates, and the right column shows potential return dates.
The $593 price seen in the blue box is for a 1-stop flight on TAP from Newark through Lisbon. Not bad, but could be cheaper.
The first nonstop result is Norwegian for $619 from Newark. That’s not bad either, but I do not like Norwegian for transatlantic flights. For this price, I also need to account for the extra costs like luggage and food. Also, Newark is not an airport that I would readily choose.
I feel like I can do better.
So, let’s do another search.
New York All Airports to Europe.
Bust. TAP and Norwegian are still the best options.
Since we are in pretend world, let’s also assume I am in Rochester, NY. This means that Toronto Pearson International Airport is actually closer - even though it requires a border crossing.
There is a fight to Reykjavik on WOW airlines for $215. It arrives at 4:55am, which means there is plenty of time to catch another flight.
Flights from Reykjavik to Barcelona suck on Sunday, but I see on Saturday that there is a direct flight on Norwegian for $186 and it leaves just before 1pm.
So, let’s move the trip back one day and go Saturday to Friday. The Toronto to Reykjavik flight on WOW is now $200. I’m liking this so far.
The total for both flights it is $386. For those not keeping track, we’re looking at a $207 savings.
The cost for me to get to the Toronto airport is actually cheaper than Newark too.
Before moving forward, ALWAYS double check your return flights.
The Norwegian flight leaves Barcelona at 8am and arrives just before noon. Google Flights tells me that there is often a 30-minute delay. Because we are flying in the Schengen Area, we only need to worry about one border control point
FYI - it’s Iceland, I’ve never waited to go through border control.
The flight back to Toronto leaves at 3:30pm. Three hours is plenty of time to account for a longer delay. Not ideal, but worth the risk to continue looking at the cost.
BEWARE - Buying two roundtrip tickets like this means you are responsible for making for the flight. If the flight from Barcelona is late, WOW will not wait for you or rebook you.
Now, what are the extra fees? On discount carriers, you pay for everything. The cost you see on Google Flights and other search engines is the lowest possible fare. The lowest airfare rarely includes luggage, food, and seat assignments.
At the bottom of your selected flights, Google sometimes adds baggage information. It’s usually correct or close enough. I always go to the airline’s website and read about their limits and fees. Budget airlines can be very strict about their rules -- because it’s how they actually make money.
If you are flying a budget carrier, DO NOT CHECK A BAG! If you want to check a bag, it is cheaper to fly a different airline. WOW charges for a carry-on and checked bag.
Keep in mind the flight fares we are comparing are the most basic discount fares. You can usually save a few bucks by upgrading to their next fare level. To do this, you need to purchase your ticket on the airline’s website.
Checked Bag: $0
2 Meals w/ Alcohol: $40 (must pre-order) x 2
Total with food: $699
Total without food: $619
WOW + Norwegian
Flight: $200 + $186 = $386
Carry-on:$88 + $0 = $88 x 2
Checked Bag: $0 + $0
WOW Meal Deal: $16 + ~$25 = $41 x 2
Total with food: $644
Total without food: $546
Now that we’ve gone through this exercise let’s revisit that TAP flight.
It was $593 from Newark through Lisbon. There is an 8-hour layover on the way to Barcelona.
Once, I select the departure flight, I notice that the return ticket is on Norwegian.
Hmm… to return on a TAP flight is actually $656.
So the options are:
- Norwegian without food, luggage, and assigned seat: $619
- WOW + Norwegian without food, luggage, and assigned seat: $546
- TAP includes food, but not luggage or assigned seat: $656
So, the question is where do you place value?
As a frequent flyer, I must have a prepared meal and an assigned seat. The direct flight on Norwegian is very tempting, but I will not fly transatlantic with them. This is a personal preference, I hear other people like them. So, if I am not trying to squeeze everything out of the airfare, then for me the obvious choice is TAP.
A few years ago, however, I absolutely would have taken the WOW + Norwegian. Money is money, and the extra $110 in my pocket is several days of meals. Plus, I would have about another $40 in my pocket by going to Toronto instead of Newark.
The Short Answer to Finding Cheap Flights to Europe
TL;DR*** - Looking for the cheapest deal for specific dates to a particular place? Use Google Flights to track different options. Then, purchase when you think the price is at the low point.
The second best option is to set notifications for airline sales.
ALWAYS - ALWAYS - ALWAYS BOOK DISCOUNT FLIGHTS ON THE AIRLINE WEBSITE!
When you want to pay less for a flight, you need to put a little elbow grease into it.
* Sorry, this is the quick method
** IIRC - If I recall correctly
*** TL;DR - Too long; didn’t read
I am a writer. I travel the world. Observe. Find inspiration. Write.