The Big Ben Switcheroo
London is the cheap airfares turnstile of Europe, so consider getting a cheap Transatlantic ticket into London, then fly to some other far-flung European destination on a no-frills airline for far less than the cost of a standard flight *
The logic is simple: fly to London cheaply (London's always the cheapest). Then connect there to a no-frills airline like Ryanair or easyJet to get to wherever else in Europe you'd like to go. This is almost always cheaper than booking a direct flight on a single airline—but it does require some careful planning.London is by far the cheapest European city into which you can fly from the U.S. From the East Coast, roundtrip airfare can run as low as $250 round-trip in winter, never much higher than $700 (maybe $900 in summer). *
* Suddenly, London is not so cheap
Note that England has slapped a dizzying $95 tax (called APD) on all flights leaving the U.K.
They did this to raise the revenue necessary for their own bank bailout during the Great Recession, but the practical upshot has been to inflate airfares to London outrageously.
It was a stupid, almost asinine move given how important tourism is to their economy—not to mention arrogant and mean, forcing us tourists to pay for their internal problems—but there you have it.London is also the main hub for Europe's great no-frills airlines, connecting the capital of the British Empire with the cities and vacation spots of Europe for as little as $30 to maybe $200 max.
Add those two facts together, and you may be able to subtract hundreds of dollars from your airfare.
If you don't mind doing some fancy footwork, booking everything yourself, and hauling your luggage around a bit, you can take advantage of this confluence of budget travel truisms to do what I call the Big Ben Switcheroo —fly into London on the cheap, buy a no-frills flight to continue on to your Continental destination.
Here are some practical examples, using a sample trip taken from New York, pitting fares gleaned from Expedia against the Big Ben Switcheroo (using that keen $170 roundtrip to London, which was actually available the day I wrote this page a few years back—now the winter fare is more like $500, but that's still better than airfares to much of the Continent).
|Rome||$342||$210||($22 on Ryanair via Stansted)||$132|
|Marseilles||$329||$268||($74 on easyJet via Gatwick)||$61|
|Athens||$416||$248||($38 on easyJet via Gatwick)||$168|
The great thing is, though, you're not limited to round-trips this way. The Switcheroo is also a fantastic way to arrange a trip that starts in one place and ends in another, since no-frills tickets are always priced one-way.
That means you could, say, fly from London to Madrid, tour your way across Europe by a combination of means (trains, more no-frills carriers, rental car, whatever), then fly back to London from Rome, or Athens, or Oslo, or wherever it is you end up.
The Rules of the Game
1) First, find a cheap fare to London. Go through the steps for Getting the Cheapest Airfare and pay special attention to Virgin Atlantic (www.virginatlantic.com) and British Airways (www.ba.com), where the best deals usually abide (Virgin Atlantic is usually the overall price champ; British Airways usually charges $20 to $40 more, but it flies from more US gateways).
2) Check out all the no-frills and low-cost carriers to see which ones fly to the city you want to visit. Ryanair and easyJet are the obvious ones, as they're based in London, but don’t forget to "reverse-hub" your logic—germanwings may be based at Cologne-Bonn, but it flies to London from there, so if Germany is where you want to be, check their flights out, too. Remember: no-frills tickets are one-way, so there's no need to book both directions with the same outfit. You could fly easyJet out and Ryanair back, and neither would be offended.
You can investigate all of these, and other alternatives—a bus might be cheaper, though take longer, than a train—at the sites for LondonTown (www.londontown.com) or the airports themselves: Heathrow, Gatwick, and Stansted (all at www.baa.com) or Luton (www.london-luton.co.uk).
3) Figure out the "Switcheroo" portion in London. See, most transatlantic flights land in Heathrow, or sometimes Gatwick, airport. Most no-frills use Luton or Stansted airports—though easyJet uses Gatwick as well. You're either going to have to shuttle between airports (easiest by a long shot, but there may not be frequent service), or make your way downtown London from one airport and then back out to the other airport.
This is where it gets annoyingly time-consuming: (a) retrieve luggage, (b) haul luggage to means of transport to get downtown, (c) ride downtown, (d) haul luggage down into Underground to switch from the downtown station where you arrived to the one where you can get transport out to the other airport, (e) ride Underground, (f) haul luggage up to means of transport out to other airport, (g) ride to other airport, (h) haul luggage to check-in. (See "The Fine Art of Packing Light".)
4) Factor in the additional expenses and time to switch airports. The sidebar on the right lists the prices, travel times, and arrival/departure stations in downtown London for the fastest and easiest links with and between London's airports—though note that some "convenient" connections might run infrequently, such as Heathrow/Luton, which goes only every two hours.
5) Allow yourself at least a 4–5 hour window between flights. That should cover travel time between airports, the need to check-in an hour before your ongoing flight, plus a 90-minute cushion in case your first flight lands late. Know that no-frills schedules tend to fall behind schedule more often than major airlines, so allow a slightly longer time cushion between that no-frills flight back to London and the flight home.
6) Realize this might means you end up stuck in London overnight at some point because the schedules just don't match up properly—usually on the way home (your flight from, say, Malaga arriving too late in the day to hook up with your return transatlantic flight). This is not a problem if you planned to spend some time in London anyway, but if Big Ben is just a turnstile for you, this extraneous night can be a financial burden—London hotels are expensive!
I’ve done this rigmarole of switching over to no-frills once on British soil myself a few times. I don’t mind the effort to save a few hundred bucks, but some people find this DIY method too annoying and nerve-racking. Please don’t forget to factor in the time involved—and aggravation of schlepping luggage—to get between airports in London before deciding to try it out.
And remember: since you're your own travel agent, ain't no one gonna bail you out if you get off schedule. If one of your flights is delayed and you're not going to arrive in London in time to catch the next one, the other airline couldn't care less and will fly without you. As far as it's concerned, you missed the plane. That's a risk you're going to have to accept—and a good reason to pad the Big Ben Switcheroo plan with an extra day in London on either end, just to be safe.