Cheap Airfare Step 9: Alternative airlines
The big US airlines and Europe's old guard flag carriers no longer hold a monopoly on flights across the Pond
You'd be forgiven for believing that the only way to fly across the Atlantic was on either (a) one of the major US carriers like American Airlines, Delta, United, and such, or (b) one of Europe's "flag carrier" airlines, the formerly national carriers (now technically privatized, but still largely state-supported) such as British Airways, Air France, Alitalia, Lufthansa, etc.
You'd be wrong, but you'd be forgiven.
That's because chances are no one's ever taken you aside and whispered in your ear names like LTU, Martinair, and Air Plus Comet. Those are just a few of the alternative transatlantic carriers that often charge far less than the Big Boys to fly you from the USA or Canada to—in these particular cases—Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain, respectively.
The best news is that roundtrip fares from the US start at $348 to Germany, $399 to Spain, $576 to Ireland, and $649 to Italy—and that's during the summer high season!
So Where Did These Alternative Transatlantic Airlines Come From?
Some of these guys—like Germany's Condor —are former charter or regional feeder airlines that are now striking out on their own with regularly scheduled services sold directly to the public (rather than via a tour company or branded under a major carrier).
Then there are those that blur the line between traditional carrier and budget alternative. Virgin Atlantic (www.virginatlantic.com) was started expressly to compete against a major airline (British Airways) on its own turf by plying the transatlantic routes as a full-fledged rival.
Aer Lingus arrived in this category from the other direction by reinventing itself as an inexpensive hybrid airline somewhere between a traditional carrier and a no-frills airline.
But Are They Trustworthy?
Good question. If you've never heard of some of these carriers, would you fly with them?
Well, I don't have all the answers, but I can tell you this: in the fall of 2006, I flew Meridiana (www.meridiana.it) and it was, in a word, and it was fantastic. I got good service, a comfy seat (well, as comfy as coach class ever gets), and even the latest in seat-back screen technology, allowing me to pick my own movies and other entertainment from a menu of options—all that a a flight direct from New York to Palermo, Sicily without having to change planes in Rome and for a mere $350 roundtrip plus taxes.
I do trust that each of the alternative airlines mentioned here are legitimate business, every bit as capable as a major airline is of getting you from point A (America) to point B (Europe) safely, and often far more inexpensively.
A lot of folks worry that a smaller airlines has a higher chance of going belly-up between the time you buy tickets and the day of the flight. That is a bit illogical.
Frankly I'm more concerned about the future of all those major US carriers wallowing in, or flirting with, Chapter 11. Any airline, no matter how large or important, can go out of business overnight. Just ask anyone who once worked for such massive, standard-bearer, household-name airlines as Eastern, PanAm, or TWA.
I figure these scrappy little guys have just as much of a chance of staying in business as any airline these days. Keep in mind that only a few of these alternative airlines to Europe are actually recent start-ups. Most have been operating for years if not decades. It's just that they've been (heh) flying under the radar of public awareness.
In many cases, they've heretofore been serving as charter airlines whose names were known only to the travel agents and tour companies that booked them, or as regional carriers operating under a contract with (and under the name of) a more famous airline.