Yes, You Can Afford to Go to Europe This Year

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This is a great year to go to Europe -- so many big events, and obscure ones, too.

For instance, if you go to London, there's that Royal Wedding set for April 29 (I'd provide more details except my invitation seems to be lost in the mail). If the royals aren't your thing, it's also the 49th anniversary of a group called the Rolling Stones, and I understand they've done rather well.

In other areas, this is the 250th anniversary of the first veterinarian school, in Lyon, France; expect even more yappy little dogs frolicking at sidewalk cafes. Or celebrate the 150th anniversary of a united Italy, and look for hoopla throughout the country, especially in Turin.

But you don't need a reason to go to Europe; all you need is an airline ticket, preferably a relatively cheap one. And that's where I come in.

The best time to fly to Europe? Easy. Just learn the secret of the airfare seasons.

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The price of most airfare is ruled by one consideration: the airlines want to pry as much cash out of you as possible. C'mon, you practice it too; I've yet to meet the home-seller who said, "Gee, I don't know if this couple can really afford my curb-appealing McMansion, so I better lower the price."

Capacity comes into play too, especially on domestic flights. U.S. airlines have been ditching seats left and right in the past few years, and by controlling the seat supply, prices ebb and flow with demand.

It's a somewhat different story on international routes, especially when it comes to Europe because these airfare prices are mainly governed by seasons.

To an extent, it's a no-brainer: Summer is the most expensive season to fly because that's the time when everyone wants to travel, and winter is cheapest, because few wish to stroll the Champs-Elysees in a blizzard (OK, blizzards are rare in Paris, but snow did shut down the Eiffel Tower this past December).

What to do? For starters, know your European airfare seasons, especially when they begin and end.

European Airfare Seasons Dictate Prices

The summer airfare season for Europe historically starts either in very late May or the first week of June and ends in late August, most typically in the last week of that month.

A website with a flexible airfare search calendar like mine can show you exactly when the price breaks occur, so you can plan your itinerary accordingly.

If you're traveling with the family -- that is, bringing the kids -- and you don't want to take them out of school, travel in late August or early September to save. Or if their term ends early, go in mid-May.

Don't dismiss winter travel, either. Do you have any idea how uncomfortable a Roman August can be? Try "unbearably hot" -- it actually says that on a website promoting Italian tourism (though to be fair, I've never found it so).

Winter travel has other advantages that outweigh the chill: fewer crowds mean fewer long lines to get into popular attractions, and a more leisurely pace that allows for better interaction with the locals. At least that's what Atlanta-based traveler Cheryl Potts discovered when she toured Italy last November.

"One of our friends got soaked to the skin in a downpour," said Potts, "so the nice staff at this restaurant in Rome took his shirt and had it dried and pressed while we ate. They even gave him a checkered tablecloth to wear!"

Try getting that kind of solicitous service in a packed trattoria in July.

Winter season historically begins mid to late-October and ends in mid to late-March. Note that the Christmas holidays may be a little pricier -- but not like summer airfare.

And now we come to spring and fall travel, which many contend are the best European seasons of all. Autumn is actually a little cheaper, but some families prefer the former when the kids are off on Spring Break (and if you're really lucky, their school's Spring Break may actually fall in the cheap winter season).

Still have your heart set on summer travel? Well, deals do crop up from time to time, which is why you should always sign up for airfare alerts.

Something else you can do: fly to the cheapest European city from your home airport and use it as a gateway, then move around the continent on one of Europe's really cheap discount carriers.

A word of caution, though: some of those cheapie airlines have extremely restrictive bag polices that could cost you a scary amount in baggage fees if you're not careful.

Or do what I did on my last European jaunt: I spent 10 days in Italy, and all I took was a single carryon. Okay, so no one mistook me for a Milan runway model, but I was comfortably and properly attired at all times. My bag fees? $0.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website,, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.