European travel is — by some metrics — bigger this year than it was pre-pandemic. In the first six months of 2023, 43% more Americans flew to Europe compared to the same period in 2022 and 4% more than the same period in 2019. Those figures come from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration, or ITA, data.
While bigger crowds generally mean higher prices, there’s another reason why travelers should brace for European travel to be expensive this year: inflation. Soaring inflation has, by some metrics, hit harder in Europe than in the U.S.
The yearly rate of inflation in the U.S. rose 3% in June 2023, according to May consumer price index data. But in the European Union, the annual inflation rate rose 6.4% in June 2023, according to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union.
So while you should expect European travel to be expensive and crowded this year, a few strategies can make a European vacation more affordable.
1. SAVE MONEY BY LOOKING TO SECOND CITIES
Second cities are the lesser-known, less-populated areas around major cities. They can often offer lighter crowds and lower prices than the big tourist destinations.
As far as European second cities (or third or fourth cities) go, you might enjoy Austria’s second-largest city by population, Graz, which is about a 2½-hour train ride from Vienna. Between the Graz Truffle Festival and the abundance of places to enjoy Backhendl (Austrian fried chicken), it’s a foodie paradise. And with sites like the Eggenberg Palace and the world’s largest historical armory, it’s a must-visit for history buffs.
In France, you might skip Paris for the country’s third-largest city by population, Lyon, which has a lovely historic district called Vieux Lyon, as well as spectacular Roman ruins that are free to visit.
2. STRETCH YOUR BUDGET BY BEING FLEXIBLE WITH TRAVEL DATES
Shoulder season is the period between the peak season and the offseason. It often has lighter crowds (and typically lower prices) than peak season. Plus, there’s generally cooler weather and more local things to do.
The exact dates of off-peak versus peak seasons can vary by region, based on factors like weather and tourist attractions. But according to 2019 ITA data, across Europe, the four least busy months to fly were November through February. The four busiest months in the same year were May, June, July and September. That leaves March, April and October as those shoulder season months — and potentially the best months to travel to Europe.
But even if you can’t be flexible with which month you travel, sometimes adjusting your trip by a day or two could save hundreds of dollars in airfare. Travel booking tools like Google Flights and Hopper offer date grids that show you the cheapest airfare in the period surrounding your intended travel date.
3. GET COMPENSATED IF YOUR TRAVEL IS DELAYED
Even with the perfect flight itinerary, anticipate delays. 2023 has been brutal for European air travel, which has been met with everything from computer problems to ongoing airport staff strikes.
If your European flight is delayed, you may be entitled to compensation. An EU regulation called EU261 forces airlines to compensate travelers for most cancellations, denied boarding, or delays of two or more hours on flights into, out of or within the EU.
As long as the flight wasn’t disrupted due to circumstances that are beyond human control — such as weather — passengers are entitled to compensation between 250 euros (about $275) and 600 euros (about $660), depending on the length of the flight and delay.
The regulation is controversial, and some experts say the regulation hasn’t done anything to actually mitigate flight disruptions.
“Penalizing airlines raises airline costs but does not address delays caused by factors over which airlines have no control, such as inefficient air traffic management or staffing shortages at air navigation service providers,” read a June 2023 statement from airline lobbying group the International Air Transport Association.
But at least for passengers waiting out a delayed flight, the compensation serves as a small consolation prize in the event of a disrupted European vacation.