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Costs of European travel

When I tell my British acquaintances the reasons for our relocation to the UK, – you know, travel and all, – they invariably offer in exchange that it is incredibly convenient and cheap to travel throughout Europe, having London as your base.

Convenience is certainly in the eye of the beholder: I have already posited at the end of Loire Valley post that crossing the channel for every trip to the continent is a chore.

The consistently cheapest option is the Channel Tunnel train, with round-trip cost of about £120 per car (no matter how many people are in it). Dealing with the train is hands down more convenient than any air travel experience, but the practicality of this option has limits of no more than a few hundred miles between Calais and the final destination.

Eurostar tickets can occasionally be had for £25 per person, but more often than not they are several times as much. Again, boarding and detraining is remarkably smoother than with any garden-variety air flight, but direct destinations are few, and the time spent getting to your final goal is likely to be several times that of the putative duration of a non-stop flight between the same two points – that, at often greater cost.

Now we come to airlines. Both major carriers and upstarts regularly advertise incredibly cheap one-way fares to practically every place in Europe. We regularly see billboards touting tickets to Ljubljana from £22 or to Naples from £19, but we have heard people boast that they made use of a 1p fares to, say, Seville.

As you may imagine, the actual price you pay is markedly higher. The primary reason for this is that, unlike one of the things that I professed to like about England, airfare prices are always quoted excluding taxes at first. And taxes, plus some nebulous fees and charges, frequently end up running dozens or even hundreds of pounds on top of the quoted price. So, a 1p ticket is likely to actually cost £30, whereas something like £22 will probably turn into £60 on the spot.

The second component of the likely higher-than-advertised cost is the time-differentiated pricing, which is where all those tiny froms come in. Want to go to Krakow for £23? No problem, as long as you travel on the 9:47pm flight on Wednesday that lands well after midnight local time. Want a more convenient time? Sorry, the price for that is a tad bit higher, £123. Need to travel on a Saturday morning? The best price for that is £223.

You can certainly work the system, search for sales, compare different carriers, fly to a second-choice airport and procure ground transportation from there, adjust your plans around cheapest alternatives, and so on, and among the myriad of possibilities you are likely to be able to emerge with a comparatively remarkably cheap flight arrangements. But the myth about intrinsic inexpensiveness of European air travel is just that – a myth.

A family of four, traveling from London to Andalucía during a school break (i.e., flying weekend-to-weekend), desiring to avoid ungodly departure and landing hours, and seeking to minimize additional airport-to-destination travel, even when buying tickets full six months – let me emphasize this: six months! – before departure, are nonetheless stuck with the best fares hovering around £130 per person round-trip (of which about a third is the aforementioned taxes and surcharges). Quite comparable to flying, say, between Newark and Chicago.

But a single traveller flying on Tuesdays and Wednesdays early afternoons can get it much cheaper!

Natasha has booked me tickets to fly back and forth for the family summer voyage first mentioned here. That includes round trips from/to Barcelona, Marseilles and Pisa. I plan to alternate working a week in London with spending a week with the girls at whatever place they are at the time. All flying will be done mid-week. Now, we are booking these tickets seven and eight months in advance. To further reduce expenses, Natasha is doing the booking as if originating on the continent, which is always cheaper than originating in UK.

And the price of this itinerary of six flights comes to €410. Of which – outrageously! – only €160 are the actual fares, and the rest is those same abominable taxes and fees. At the current exchange rate, the before-taxes cost of each leg comes to £20.

Not bad, huh?

Posted in Expat Archive, State of travel