Where did all the bargain fares to Europe go?

Will this be the summer of our discontent when we search for cheap airfares to Europe? Is the party over?

In January 2009, US Air kicked off the summer selling season with tax-included fares for peak summer travel to Europe in the $500’s and $600’s but that was nothing compared to the $200 and $300 fares that appeared later in the spring and summer.

But that was last year. The winter just ending is the first time in memory that we didn’t see dead-of-winter deals to Europe. In winters past, the airlines went into panic mode, selling fares for February travel for as low as $250 or $300 round-trip including taxes, even on nonstops from New York to Paris. This winter, however, fares remained stubbornly stuck in the $600’s, $700’s and even $800’s to most destinations, although there were a few fleeting $500 bargains to such places as Dublin, Barcelona and Madrid.

Even Frankfurt, typically the cheapest gateway to the Continent, saw no amazing deals as in past winters.

So what’s going on here, and how does this bode for travel this spring and summer?

Of course, only fools dare to predict how an irrational airline industry will react, so we’ll steer clear of hard and fast prognostication. However, the bargain-less winter does not give us much hope.
But we will say this: many European governments have increased airport taxes, as outlined in this New York Times article on the subject, which reports that a $458 fare from New York to London recently came saddled with $162 in taxes and government fees.

And it may only get worse. The British government, for example, currently adds an Air Passenger Duty of £45 in economy class, but this will rise to £60 on Nov. 1, and £90 on business and first class fares, scheduled to increase to £120 on the same day.

In addition, many airlines have cut capacity and grounded jets for the duration, which will put pressure on fares. Last July, British Airways announced it would slash winter capacity by 4-5%, grounding over a dozen planes.

Adding to our misery, the weak dollar has enticed bargain-hunting Europeans to visit the U.S. Those shopping bag-toting hordes are driving up demand and fares along with it, taking seats that we were hoping to get for next to nothing.

Currently, spring and summer fares to most European destinations are running in the $900 to $1500 range, including tax. That’s still less than what we saw in summer 2008, when it wasn’t unusual to cough up $1900 and $2000 on economy class fares for peak July and August dates. Even so, we would be very surprised if at some point there isn’t a brief, hit-and-run sale on some routes. So our only advice is to sign up for fare alerts (http://www.airfarewatchdog.com/fare-alerts/) and jump if such a sale does come to pass.

George Hobica is the founder of Airfarewatchdog™, the most inclusive source of airfare deals that have been researched and verified by experts. Airfarewatchdog compares fares from all airlines and includes the increasing number of airline-site-only and promo code fares.