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What to Know Before Booking European Airfare

After months of scouring South Florida for a nicer condo to rent, my wife and I recently found one across the street from our old place.

“Great,” I thought. “This move will be easy.”

A reputable mover would have cost about $600. But of course, I wanted a bargain. With a cursory online search, I found a guy (let’s call him Yuri) who would do it for $475.

“Sweet deal,” I thought.

Fast forward to moving day. Yuri sends two guys, rather than the four he promised. They demand cash up front instead of the check that we had agreed upon. One of the guys reeks like a Dumpster, repeatedly emerges from our bathroom wiping his nose and -- upon being asked by my wife to stop throwing boxes labeled FRAGILE -- says cryptically, “I’m not a social person.”

They break our glasses, badly scratch our dining room table and move at a snail’s pace; only half of our stuff had been moved by the end of the day, when condo security said we had to stop. Clutching our money, the movers disappeared like Keyser Soze. And I spent about 14 hours the following weekend cramming the rest of our belongings into our SUV -- incurring $150 in fines at our new condo, which only allows weekday moves.

The lesson: Sometimes an apparent deal is actually a dud. Such is the case with airfare to Europe. Here are a few things to ponder when planning a jaunt across the pond:

Fare and balanced: A major U.S. newspaper recently posted a story to its website touting “$135 round-trip base rate” fares to 10 European cities. Awesome! Except those fares don’t include taxes, fees or fuel surcharges. That last part is especially egregious; the Department of Transportation has slapped hefty fines on airlines that omit fuel surcharges from advertised fares. Bottom line, the super-duper $135 fare to Berlin actually costs $716.90.

Apples-to-apples: We generally advertise each-way fares based on roundtrip purchase, including fuel surcharges but excluding taxes and fees. This is also how fares are presented in the booking engines on many airline websites, where you might not see the total price until the end of the booking process. On other airline websites, all fares include taxes and fees from the start of the booking process. Although these will appear higher at first glance, all that matters is the final cost. For example, when looking at base fares to London, bear in mind that the government-imposed taxes and fees are about $191 roundtrip.

Bang for your buck: Long-haul flights are not the place to penny-pinch. On a trip to Istanbul, I could have paid a little more to fly on Turkish Airlines -- not a super-luxurious carrier, but one that has good food and seats that I consider comfortable. Instead, I went for a moderately lower fare on a lesser airline, then rued my decision throughout a cramped, sleepless transatlantic trip. Similarly, it’s important to be flexible when searching for a low fare, but you have to consider whether the juice is worth the squeeze. Sure, you might save $100 by enduring a 17-hour stop in Reykjavík, but then you’re effectively losing a day on your trip.

Taking care of business: What constitutes “business class?” You’d certainly expect a higher level of comfort, but while this might mean a flat-bed seat on one airline, another might only offer increased legroom. When we see a deal on a top-notch business class service (for example, Club World on British Airways or Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic), we do our best to explain why that product stands out from its peers. But sometimes one airline’s “business class” roughly equates to another’s premium economy, so always find out what the product entails before booking.

Ready to book? Find the latest European fare sales here.

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Tips by

Deal Expert, Miami
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
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Matthew Rehm