After a dozen or so trips back and forth between Europe and heaps of travel within Europe, I am a true hunter when it comes to finding the most economical or most convenient way to travel.
I say hunt because it is no game: it’s more of an obsession.
So here are my suggestions for booking both air and train travel abroad.
So you need to buy the ticket that will get you abroad. This is generally the biggest expense and should always be booked in advance. Here’s how I go about that search
1. Kayak - I always start my search here because Kayak is a search aggregator. So it searches all the major airlines’ sites, as well as myriad other search engines to try and help find the best price. This gives me a gauge of what I can expect to pay.
2. Student Universe - Next, I check Student Universe. This is a site that offers specific fares for students (and educators) with a verifiable university email address. Generally, not as many airlines offer student fares, and they may or may not be any cheaper than what you find on Kayak. Also, Student Universe is run by Orbitz, so you may also want to check there if you feel the prices aren’t that good.
3. STA Travel - This is another student-fare site. Instead of needing a university email for verification, you need an ISIC (International Student Identity Card), which costs $22. Any person under 26 can get one of these cards and qualify for the discounted airfares.
The benefit to using STA Travel is their “Exclusive Tickets,” which allow greater flexibility than most tickets. This is great if you are studying abroad and/or are unsure of your return date. Personally, I have purchased one of these tickets and only had to pay $100 to change the return date.
4. Bing Travel - This is a great site to check if you think you might be jumping the gun on getting the best price. They estimate based on previous fare histories whether the fare will go up or down. Generally though, international travel is best booked at least a month in advance.
Generally, you will have a good idea of what the best price is after conducting searches at these four sites. However, remember traveling on Tuesday-Thursday does usually save a bit. Also, if you have flexibility with airports, check those other options.
I have also had luck on Shermans Travel, Orbitz, and Travelocity—and I may search a dozen other, but I can’t say I’ve purchased much outside of those I’ve just listed.
I can’t speak to Asia or South America because I don’t know the system there, but if you are traveling in Europe, you will almost certainly be taking a train or plane to see another city in Europe.
Planes - Low-cost airlines are popping up all over Europe and offer insanely low fares to and from many of the great “must-see” cities. Ryanair is probably the most well known of these airlines. I have booked a round-trip ticket for €20 from Brussels to Milan. Now, I wanted to buy some Belgian beer at duty-free to bring to my friend. This was a dilemma because the beer did not fit in my duffle bag that they made me stuff into one of those tiny frames. I had to either go return the beer or pay an additional €25 to check my bag.
I am a pretty savvy traveler and easy-going when it comes to the rigmarole of the whole process, but Ryanair seems to keep adding ways to trick its customers into having to shell out extra euros here and there. Not to mention, Ryanair operates out of airports that are generally not extremely close to the cities to which you’re traveling. For example, in Belgium you fly out of Brussels-Charleroi (Charleroi is one hour from Brussels), and in Milan, you arrive in Bergamo (one hour from Milan). So you pay another €10-15 to go to and from these remote airports.
EasyJet is Ryanair’s main competitor and often operates out of the main airports. This seems to be more convenient and economical. To see a more comprehensive list of low-cost travel in Europe, check out Wikitravel's list of airlines and destinations.
Trains - Trains are a great way to get around Europe. In many cases they are also more comfortable than planes. The huge bonus with trains is that they put you right in the heart of the city. No need to bus or taxi long distances to be right in the middle of the action.
I recently did some big train travel in Europe. Milan to Venice (2.5 hours), Venice to Munich (7 hours), and Berlin to Brussels (7 hours). With these trips, I contemplated whether to book online or just purchase them at a ticket kiosk or counter once I’m there.
I ended up booking the tickets online, but with my last leg—Berlin to Brussels—I booked the day before and ended up paying much more than had I done it several days or weeks earlier. Also, if you book at the counter, you will pay something like €5 more than if you do it yourself at a Kiosk or online.
Also, if you are a super planner and need to have the tickets in your hand before you leave for Europe, Rail Europe allows you to book your tickets and sends them to your door. They do not, however, do e-tickets, so be aware of this when you book. Also, all the major rail companies allow you to book online and issue e-tickets, like SNCF in France, Deutsche Bahn in Germany, Trenitalia in Italy, etc. It’s worth comparing the prices on the different countries’ websites if you are traveling from Italy to France for example by train.
These are just a few suggestions for booking travel in Europe. There are of course, many many options for traveling. If you have any questions, let us know!