Spring brings deep discounts on flights to Europe

It's almost April in Paris, and trans-Atlantic airlines are beckoning restless vacationers to Europe with some of the most aggressive discounts in years.

Peter Zangardi of Collegeville, Penn. has always wanted to go to Italy, and he vowed to book a trip in September despite the rough economy. But when a friend alerted him about a deal from Continental Airlines, Zangardi knew he wouldn't wait that long. For its spring promotion, the airline offered him a round-trip ticket to Rome from Newark, including taxes and fees, for $365. He's leaving for the Eternal City next month.

"It was a spur-of-the-moment (buy) after finding out about the airfare. Once she told me about it, I had to check into it," the insurance claims adjuster says.

Airlines offer specials for spring travel every year. But with the dollar relatively strong against the euro, airlines are betting that deeper fare discounts and cheaper hotel rooms in Europe this year would entice consumers who are carefully monitoring their discretionary spending amid the struggling global economy.

It'll be a daunting challenge. Demand for international flights has plummeted in recent months. Air traffic between Europe and North America held steady for much of 2008 until November, when it fell 8.6% from the previous year.

Fares are reflecting the shift. According to Travelocity, international round-trip bookings for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend cost, on average, $610, down from $713 in 2008.

Airlines have been particularly aggressive with fares to Europe because there's more capacity to the region from North America, says Jim Sherman of ShermansTravel Media.

Though airlines have been eliminating seats to better correspond their inventories with demand, they can't toss them out quickly enough to sustain the fare levels of the recent years.

"For spring travel, it's absolutely, incredibly good," says Rick Seaney of Farecompare.com. "For summer travel, it hasn't dipped yet, but that will occur in the next week or two. Airlines (are trying) to prevent flights from running a lot of empty seats, and I expect a lot of discounts."

Non-stop fares to Europe are 20% to 50% down from a year ago for flights scheduled until the end of May, Seaney estimates. Summer fares are 5% to 10% cheaper than a year ago, and they probably will fall further as Memorial Day approaches. Some examples:

•Lufthansa says its fares are on average $100 to $300 cheaper for trans-Atlantic flights compared with a year ago. For the peak summer season, its Philadelphia-Madrid route is priced at $649, and New York-Zurich is $680. Fares don't include taxes and fees.

•Delta says its summer discounts to Europe range about 15% to 60%, depending on destination. Its Houston-Madrid round-trip ticket costs $840; Pittsburgh-Paris is $660.

•US Airways is running spring deals to Dublin and Brussels from several cities in the USA. San Francisco-Brussels is $528; Chicago-Dublin is $287.

•American Airlines' promotion, which expires at the end of the month, offers Los Angeles-London Heathrow for $406 round-trip. Dallas-Paris is priced at $500.

Travelers, have you seen great fares to Europe this spring and summer? Share your deals and steals below.