The Brancatelli File
HOW TO FLY TO ITALY
CHEAP(ER) THIS YEAR
BY JOE BRANCATELLI
April 28, 2005 -- It's a measure of the enduring appeal of La Dolce Vita that almost nothing will keep American business travelers from going to Italy for some much-needed R&R.
Not this year's alternately cold, wet or hot weather. Not the miserable exchange rate, which at 1=$1.29 now passes as a "rebounding" dollar. Not the overpriced and uneven hotels. Not the crowds of bussed-in holidaymakers who clog the most famous tourist attractions. Not the hordes of über-rich investors who snap up ruined Tuscan farmhouses and deteriorating Venetian palazzi as if they were dime-store trinkets.
No, nothing will stop business travelers from their appointed portion of La Dolce Vita--except high airfares. Or, more specifically, outrageously high airfares.
Italy, after all, isn't Britain, where flights from the United States leave every hour on the hour and ticket prices are startlingly low. Italy isn't Ireland, where Aer Lingus has slashed and simplified transatlantic fares. It isn't even France or Germany, where Lufthansa and Air France compete ferociously with the U.S. carriers and keep fares down.
Italy, unfortunately, has the terminally befuddled and unreliable Alitalia and Alitalia is a member of the SkyTeam Alliance that includes three of the five (Northwest, Continental and Delta) U.S. airlines that serve the peninsula. Alitalia's incompetence and the SkyTeam oligarchy are bad news for bargain-hunting business travelers who'd do almost anything to be in Italy except pay the high fares that the nonstop flights command.
Despite all the vowels in my name, my family's Mezzogiorno heritage and my own passion for La Dolce Vita, I'd say give Italy the boot this year. Wait until next year. Go to France or Germany or Ireland or Hong Kong or Buenos Aires.
But I know you people. You want Italy no matter what. So as a public service, here are my very best tips for flying to Italy cheap(er) this year.
FORGET COACH. FLY BUSINESS CLASS.
Counter-intuitive as it sounds, it may be more cost-effective this year to fly to Italy in business class instead of coach. A roundtrip coach ticket to Rome, Milan or Venice--the three nonstop destinations offered by the U.S. carriers, Air Canada and Alitalia--will run $1,200 or more on some days during the summer. But both Continental Airlines and Alitalia are offering deep, deep discounts on their business-class cabins. If you buy 50 days in advance and stay over on a Saturday night, you can find a roundtrip business-class ticket for $1,700 to $2,200. Delta and Northwest Airlines are making similar offers.
FORGET NONSTOPS. MAKE A CONNECTION.
The limited selection of nonstop flights into Italy isn't the only way to fly. If you're willing to accept a connection, you'll stand a good chance of getting your Italy fares down.
Four carriers--British Airways, Air France, Aer Lingus and Lufthansa--offer an extensive number of flights from the United States and a range of onward flights from their respective hubs to Italy. This comparative bounty of seats means that you may often score a lower price to Italy if you make a connection. How much can you save? Two or three hundred dollars in the off-peak periods and $300 or more during peak Italy travel times.
There are extremely cost-effective business-class options with a connection, too. Aer Lingus sells walk-up roundtrips in business class to Dublin for as little as $1,900 roundtrip. Onward coach flights from Dublin to Naples and other Italian destinations will cost as little as $100 roundtrip. With a 50-day advance purchase, Air France and Swiss International are selling business-class roundtrips to Italy for as little as $2,050 roundtrip.
Making a connection en route to Italy has another advantage: You'll get a wider choice of destinations. BA flies to at least ten Italian destinations from London. Air France serves about the same number via Paris. And besides its own network of Italian flights from Frankfurt and Munich, Lufthansa is a part owner of Air One, one of Italy's major discount airlines. If you purchase a ticket on Lufthansa, you can also buy a Visit Italy pass from Air One. That program offers as many as four one-way flights within Italy for as little as $41 each.
FORGET ROME. START IN LONDON.
London is now the transatlantic gateway to low European fares thanks to the vast roster of scheduled flights from the United States and the fast growth of Ryanair, Europe's largest discounter. Any major U.S. airline and Air Canada can fly you to London, of course. Virgin Atlantic has an extensive schedule, too. And British Airways flies to London from 19 U.S. airports. That many flights means lots of bargains, with flights to London as low as $99 each way in winter and around $250 even during some peak summer travel periods.
Once you get to London, you can spend a day in the British capital--that's probably all you can afford--and then hop a flight to Italy on Ryanair. From its hub at Stansted Airport, Ryanair flies to 13 destinations in Italy. Ryanair's fares are eye-popping. From Stansted to Pisa, for example, the maximum roundtrip fare is about $120, but it's often as low as $30 roundtrip. Or try this: Ryanair charges just $40 one-way to fly from London to Trieste. Alitalia's one-way fare from Rome to Trieste is more than $250.
But a note of caution on this approach: Ryanair's low fares do not come without concessions. Most notably: Ryanair's free checked luggage allowance is just 15 kilograms, about 33 pounds, per passenger. BA and the other transatlantic carriers permit you to check up to 140 pounds for free. So travel light if you're planning on flying Ryanair. Or check some of your baggage at Stansted's "left luggage" office. Or be prepared to pay Ryanair's excess luggage charge of about $5 a pound.
FORGET WHAT YOU KNOW. FIND A NEW DISCOUNTER.
Europe's skies are filled with jets run by discount airlines that American frequent flyers have never heard of. In fact, WhichBudget.com, a Web site that tracks these things, says 31 Italian airports now have service from at least one low-fare airline. If you're trying to get to Florence, for example, an excellent carrier called Meridiana, which is owned by the Aga Khan, can fly you from Amsterdam, Barcelona or Madrid. If you can get to Brussels cheap, an Italian low-fare carrier called Club Air can fly you to Parma or Verona.
I've posted a list of Italy-based discounters at the Italy Steals & Deals page. Or try WhichBudget.com and see if you can match a low transatlantic fare with a low-priced onward ticket to Italy. You'll be surprised at how many options you have and how far intra-Europe airfares have fallen.
FORGET SCHEDULES. GO CHARTER.
Business travelers hate charters, more for historical than practical reasons. But don't dismiss an Italian charter airline called Eurofly. This summer, it will fly nonstop from New York to Palermo, which means Americans finally have a nonstop option to Sicily. Eurofly is also flying nonstop from New York to Naples, which is a godsend for business travelers who love the Amalfi Coast, but hate the long drive from Rome. Eurofly will also fly to Bologna nonstop from New York. You'll need to contact a travel agent to book Eurofly, but the prices are attractive: as little as $649 roundtrip. Service starts on June 13 and runs until the fall.
FORGET "RESTRICTED" MILES. PAY DOUBLE.
Finally, we come to miles. You want to cash miles to fly free to Italy this year? I'll tell you what I've been telling you for years: What part of restricted did you think the airlines were kidding about? The chances of scoring a restricted-level award to Italy is near zero late this spring, this summer and early fall. You'll probably do better late in the fall, but it'll still be tricky.
So why not do the easy thing? Just pay the unrestricted level, which is generally twice the number of miles of the "restricted" awards. If you've got the mileage required for an unrestricted award, spend it. Unrestricted awards are blissfully simple: If there's an empty seat on the day you want to fly on the flight you wish to book, it's yours.
One last point: Forget the upgrade gambit. Once upon a time, airlines used to allow you to buy a cheap coach seat to Italy and then use a relatively modest amount of miles to upgrade to business class. Not anymore. They either restrict the upgrade award to the highest-priced coach tickets or they charge you so much to use your upgrade that you're better off buying one of those discounted business-class seats that are available.
This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.
Copyright © 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.