Many people believe that the earlier you book, the better the deal, but with summer air travel, that couldn't be farther from the truth. Summer airfares to Europe from the eastern seaboard are usually $1,000 or more, even if you do find a good deal, and can run up to $2,500 for hard-to-reach destinations and last-minute tickets. The best time to keep an eye out for deals is two to three months before summer.
Don't Buy Too Far in Advance
Unless you are using awards points, there is no reason to buy your summer tickets to Europe a year in advance. Each airline has a rock-bottom price that it is able to sell a certain route for, but that is not typically the first price they list when flights come online for booking. These prices only become available during calculated sales. Two to three months before summer begins, airlines look at their inventory to see how well flights in general are selling. At this time, and not before, airlines begin to advertise sales on their summer routes. Sometimes certain routes need an extra push to sell out. This is why you may only see sales available to Milan and Brussels, instead of the New York to London flight you are searching for. However, unless there is a huge increase in European travel during a particular year, you should see a brief drop in European airfares across the board at this time.
Sign-up for Sale Notifications
Summer sales to Europe are typically short-lived. Before the official end of the sale -- sometimes before you even find the sale -- all the inexpensive fares have been snapped up and prices return to the pre-sale rate. Sign-up for email newsletter from major European carriers like Air France and Lufthansa, as well as the major domestic carriers, such as Delta and American Airlines, to receive notification of their sales. However, not all airlines send out an alert right when they post a sale, so sign up for a service like TravelZoo that will ping you as soon as discounted fares are published for any European travel, regardless of airline, or follow airlines and discount listings on twitter for up-to-the-minute sale details.
Last Minute Fares
Airlines don't like to have unsold seats on their planes. In the off-season, you can frequently find last-minute sales discounting unsold inventory to the lowest possible price for that flight. In the summer, however, flights sell out fast, and over-booking is more of a problem for airlines than unsold inventory. It is extremely rare, if not impossible, to get a decent last minute fare for summer travel to Europe. At this time, even unpopular routes are bundled into multi-stop tickets between more desirable destinations. If you miss the sale window two to three months before summer travel season, do not bank on catching a last-minute sale before your travel dates. Get the cheapest flight you are able to find. Fares will only go up, and you could find yourself spending $2,000 or more on a flight you could have snagged for $1,000 a month earlier.
The main caveat to the aforementioned advice concerns award tickets. To maximize your awards miles, you should book summer travel one year in advance if possible. Aim to book your tickets whenever bookings on those dates are allowed by your airline. Call your airline directly and ask how early an agent can make an awards booking for you, as European flights may not open one year in advance like domestic flights. Airlines only allocate a certain number of awards seats on each flight, and these seats can be even more restricted on flights to Europe, which are typically operated as a code share flight between two or more airlines. Even though it is now possible to book on almost any flight using awards by paying two or three times the number of miles, you already need to use a large number of miles for flights to Europe and it can be difficult to amass the miles to pay for a couple or family at the higher rates.