How to Plan a Successful Itinerary to Europe

I’ve covered the basics of how to save money on flights to Europe, so now we get into more advanced territory. In this article, I talk how to pick flights that aren’t just cheaper but also more convenient, enjoyable, and less likely to face travel disruptions due to weather and other issues.

Previous Installments:

  • Coach Getting Too Pricey? Check out Business Class to Europe
  • Pick the Best Days to Fly to Europe This Summer
  • Cheaper Flights to Europe with Open Jaws and Stopovers
  • Avoid These High Fees When Traveling to Europe

Understand the Trade-offs between Convenience and Robustness

Some routes like Raleigh-Durham to London-Heathrow are what the airlines call “thin,” meaning that there is little direct demand from point A to point B. Thin routes can still be profitable and convenient, particularly if there is a dominant industry on both sides like fashion, finance, energy, or commercial reasons to connect those two airports, but it also means that there are fewer options when things go sideways.

This happens en masse in the summer, when many airports get connected on seasonal routes. For example, people in the Midwest want to fly directly to southern Europe (say, Barcelona) without the hassle of connecting in London or Paris. Similarly, many European carriers offer thin seasonal routes to Florida and the Caribbean during the height of summer. In such cases, those flights are often more expensive because of the convenience and the seasonal demand.

So as a customer, you have a choice: choose the more expensive flight to your destination, or take a cheaper one through a connecting hub.

Furthermore, those thin flights are also more likely to be cancelled or delayed, with fewer options to re-accommodate passengers. Business traffic through hubs and to major cities like New York or London takes precedence when an airline has to decide where to allocate its limited fleet. Those routes are far more robust, meaning you have more options to get to your destination or home in a reasonable time.

So here are two sample itineraries. CLT-RDU-LHR and CLT-JFK-LHR. If they are similarly priced, then you’re choosing between convenience and robustness. Which one do you think is more likely to leave you stranded?

Screen Shot 2023-05-27 at 12.54.29 AM

Map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – © Karl L. Swartz

Pro Tip: Search routes that are less seasonally dependent but still critical for airline operations. Flights to major airports such as LHR, AMS, FRA, and DUB are good bets, although the list of airports may change depending on your airline’s priorities and the priorities of its alliance partners. Hub-to-hub segments like JFK-LHR have more flexibility and robustness than that direct flight to BCN (nobody’s hub).

All else being equal, arranging for your first flight to be the one over the ocean (rather than connect within the US first) means that you’ll have more options if you miss your connection. You’ll already be in Europe, and intra-Europe flights are more frequent than even popular transatlantic routes.

Map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – © Karl L. Swartz

Pro Tip: Try to book your first flight as the long haul over the ocean so you have more options in the case of delays or cancellation.

Get Daytime Flights to Reduce Jet Lag and Avoid Waiting for Your Hotel

Finally, when you consider which flights to book, timing matters. A vast majority of flights from the US and Canada to Europe are red-eyes that leave in the evening and arrive in the morning. Evening flights tend to be more delayed because there have been more opportunities for weather or operational delays to affect inbound aircraft. This affects not just your own plane but also the airport as a whole. Sometimes the airport can be bottlenecked because of all the departures leaving at the same time.

Not only could your flight be delayed, but there may also be lots of crowds at your departure and arrival airports and a generally unpleasant, extremely competitive immigration experience when passengers from several wide-body aircraft arrive at airports en masse.

Getting to Europe in the morning can be good if you have onward connections, but it can be hell if that’s your final destination, especially since your trip into the city via train or car is likely to run into morning rush hour. Furthermore, most hotels won’t let you check in until the afternoon, leaving you stuck, jet lagged, and sleep deprived without any place to rest or shower for several hours.

This is why I value the few daytime flights to Europe, or try to fly longer routes east (say to Vienna or Istanbul) to avoid the peak crunch times facing most airports at the height of high season. The later your arrival, the easier it is to check-in and adapt to the time change (since you’ll have to stay up for fewer hours until night in your destination).

Pro Tip: Flights that arrive in the morning are better for onward connections, but terrible for immigration delays and waiting around. Consider flights that arrive in the afternoon or evening at your final destination, especially to counter jet lag and uncooperative hotels.

Now we’re getting into the good stuff! Feel free to comment below with your strategies to get to Europe.

4 Responses to “How to Plan a Successful Itinerary to Europe”

  1. Other considerations:
    1) Lounges in Europe are generally better, so layovers are preferred there.
    2) Looking at a map, Frankfurt appears to be “right in the middle of things” but it is located deceptively far from anything interesting.

    • Frankfurt itself is quite dull, and transiting can only successfully be done by “following the signs” (it’s completely non-intuitive) but the only comparably-sized hubs are LHR (which has buses and massive security lines) and CDG (where Schengen/non-Schengen transfers can be a lot of walking). There’s also a high speed rail line underneath, so it can be useful to get to Munich or NRW.

  2. As a tourist, I like redeyes to Europe as it gives me the extra day to kick around. Most hotels will watch your bags for the day if your room isn’t ready to check into. I feel like landing at night means that I need to scramble to find food, check in to the hotel, and then you’re just sleeping.

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