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big ben snow london blizzard gray englandWintry weather wreaked havoc across Europe this weekend, canceling flights, snarling traffic and leaving thousands of travelers stranded. And it’s not over yet.

CNN reports that although London’s Heathrow Airport has reopened (after being closed all weekend due to severe conditions), travelers should continue to expect major delays throughout the week — perhaps even beyond Christmas Day. Other airports across the Continent are also canceling flights today, including Charles de Gaulle and Orly in Paris, and Germany’s Frankfurt Airport.

The timing of the winter storms has exacerbated the misery for many travelers. “The only thing I want for Christmas is to hug my daughter,” one stranded passenger told CNN.

Unfortunately, this probably won’t be the last time we see major flight disruptions over the next few months, as blizzards are an all-too-common winter travel hazard. So how can you protect yourself if you’ve got a trip planned for this winter? A few tips:

1. Buy travel insurance. If you’ve prepaid for the bulk of your trip and your itinerary includes airports that could be hit by wintry weather, travel insurance is a vital purchase. (Just keep in mind that it’s too late to be covered for this particular winter storm if you’re headed to Europe in the next week or two.)

2. Build in a little extra time. If you’re trying to get to an important meeting or catch the beginning of a cruise, schedule your arrival for at least a day in advance to allow for unexpected delays.

3. Fly direct when you can. The more connections and layovers are involved, the more chances there are that something will go wrong.

4. If you must connect, route your trip through a warm-weather city.

5. Know your rights. It may be a boring read, but don’t ignore the fine print in your airline’s contract of carriage. Are you entitled to a full refund if your flight is canceled? What will the airline give you (if anything) if your flight is delayed?

6. Book through a travel agent. Having an experienced travel professional on your side can be a huge boon when things go awry on a trip. Your agent can help you find a hotel room or make alternate flight arrangements.

7. Be polite. At the height of a winter storm, airline and airport staff will be feeling just as harried as you are. Treat them kindly and they’ll be more likely to go the extra mile for you.

For more ideas, see Winter Travel Tips.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

prague winter This week just might be the best time to book your 2011 winter flight to Europe.

A cluster of airlines have rolled out some pretty impressive competing Europe fare sales; we’ve listed a selection of the best offers below. Most of these low-season deals cover travel through the end of March, so you’ll have to pack a coat. Some boots or gloves wouldn’t hurt either, depending on how far north you’re heading. But don’t overthink the bitter temperatures. Europe is a fantastic destination throughout the year, and winter’s chill does little to diminish the appeal of shimmering Venetian canals, just-baked Parisian baguettes or the soaring spires of ancient castles in Prague.

Before you book, a word of advice: We recommend searching for flights on multiple sites before purchasing anything. An advertised low fare may look like your best bet upon first glance, but day-of-week travel restrictions or extra fees could be lurking behind that shiny ticket price.

American Airlines Europe Fares from $265 OW

Travel from select U.S. gateways to cities like Paris, Milan, Barcelona, Frankfurt and Brussels for as little as $265 each way plus taxes and fees. Departures are valid through the end of March.

What’s the Catch? This deal has some pretty significant day-of-week travel restrictions. You may only fly from Sunday through Thursday for most destinations, with the exception of travel to the U.K., which must take place from Monday through Wednesday.

Aer Lingus Europe Fares from $169 OW

These are some of the lowest prices we’ve seen for travel to Europe this season. Flights start at $169 each way plus taxes and fees for travel through the end of March. In addition, these fares don’t require a roundtrip purchase, which makes this offer ideal for travelers planning multi-city trips to Europe.

What’s the Catch? Direct flights are few and far between. For flights from the U.S. to most cities in Europe, you’ll have to stop over in Dublin.

Lufthansa Europe Fares from $198 OW

Depart from 16 U.S. gateways and travel to a variety of popular European destinations starting at $198 each way plus taxes and fees. Travel is valid through the end of March.

What’s the Catch? We’ve seen a few fares from other airlines that beat some of Lufthansa’s prices. For example, Aer Lingus is offering $199 one-way flights from New York to Amsterdam, while Lufthansa charges $284 each way for the same route on similar travel dates.

Air France Europe Fares from $202 OW

This sale includes a wide range of travel dates (fly through March 31), plus a pretty good number of destination and departure cities — and with fares starting at $202 each way plus taxes, prices are competitive. Plus, you can add a free Paris stopover to any Air France flight.

What’s the Catch? Weekend surcharges of $20 to $30 apply. And you’ve got to hurry if you want to snag these fares, as this sale ends December 16.

Alitalia Europe Fares from $590 RT, Including Taxes and Fees

Alitalia’s Europe fares start at $590 roundtrip … and taxes are included. Enough said. The price listed on the airline Web site is the final amount you’ll pay for these tickets, which cover travel to cities like Milan, Venice and Rome through the end of March.

What’s the Catch? These cheap fares will only get you to Italy; other European countries aren’t covered in this sale.

To find more air bargains, visit our Discount Airfare Deals.

– written by Caroline Costello