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New Budget Airlines Offer Low-Cost Flights to Europe

But be careful: Fares from cheap airlines may not be such a deal after you add in extra fees.

For as little as $200 to $400 round-trip, a handful of budget airlines will carry you from the U.S. to Europe and beyond.

The new breed of low-cost airlines is undercutting legacy carriers by flying newer, fuel-efficient aircraft, reducing frills and, in some cases, using smaller, less-convenient airports. Norwegian Air Shuttle, Iceland-based Wow Air and Level (a new long-haul carrier based in Spain) connect cities across the U.S. to locations across Europe. Norwegian is also increasing service to the French Caribbean, and Wow begins flying to Israel in September. AirAsia X carries passengers from Honolulu to Osaka and Kuala Lumpur.

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But your excitement at nabbing a steal for your next vacation abroad may take a nosedive when you realize that these fares only buy you a seat—and not one you can choose, either.

For example, Wow recently offered a round-trip fare of $470 for a weeklong excursion from Los Angeles to Paris in September, with a stop in Reykjavik each way. That’s $230 less than the lowest fare we found from a full-service airline (which, incidentally, was for a nonstop flight). But when you add in checked and carry-on baggage (by upgrading to a higher fare bundle), the fare balloons to $682.

Still, for some travelers the à la carte approach is a plus. “I like the option to choose what I value and what I don’t,” says Scott Keyes, who rounds up international airfare deals for his e-mail newsletter, Scott’s Cheap Flights.

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Do the math. Compare your options on a metasearch site, such as Google Flights or Kayak. If a low-cost carrier seems to have the best deal, head to its website to check for additional charges. For example, reserving a seat in advance could cost up to $45 each way for direct flights, and more for a connecting flight. Checking luggage can add as much as $70 to $80 if you prepay when you book your flight, or more if you wait until you get to the gate. (Wow also charges for standard carry-ons.) Pre-ordering a hot meal—still free on most international flights—can take a $40 to $45 bite out of your wallet each way, and drinks and snacks will cost you, too.

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Upgrading to a fare that bundles seat selection, luggage, meals and more may make sense. For example, we found a nonstop round-trip flight on Norwegian Air from Providence, R.I., to Dublin in September for $255. Upgrading to a “LowFare+” ticket adds $70 each way but includes meals, seat reservations and one checked bag, saving you $35 each way over purchasing those extras à la carte.

When budget doesn’t fly. Think twice about flying a low-cost airline if you’re on a tight schedule. Because budget airlines offer fewer routes and typically lack a robust network of partnerships with other airlines, you could be stranded for days if a storm or mechanical breakdown grounds your flight. A full-service airline, on the other hand, could more easily reroute you.

If you’re flexible about where and when you travel, you can also wait for full-service airlines’ sale fares, which rival the prices of the low-cost carriers. “It’s common for places all over the U.S. to see fares to Europe in the $400s round-trip,” says Keyes, noting that airlines tend to offer these promotional fares in big cities at least four times a month; smaller cities might see a deal once a month. But you’ll need to book quickly. Sales on major airlines last an average of about 24 hours.

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