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airport suitcase travel traveler blurWhen searching for airfare to Europe, most of us don't even consider shelling out for first or business class -- especially as the economy continues to limp through a recession. But before you book that same old economy-class ticket, have you considered all your options?

You may not know that many airlines now offer a "premium economy" class, where some of the perks of business class -- such as expedited check-in and extra legroom -- are available at a much more affordable price. For passengers considering making the leap to the real thing, an all-business/premium airline has emerged to compete price-wise with the luxury cabins on traditional airlines. Of course, if budget is your bottom line, you should be aware of the handful of long-haul discount airlines offering low fares that could save you money on transatlantic flights.

Below, we outline three alternatives to regular economy-class flights to Europe, including the costs, pros and cons of each -- so whether you're looking for cheap fares or an escape from the coach-class cattle car, you can find the right transatlantic option for you.

Long-Haul Discount Airlines
Much like Southwest and JetBlue in the U.S. and Ryanair and easyJet in Europe, a number of airlines have emerged to provide "discount" service on transatlantic routes. As with other discounters, low fares may translate to fewer amenities.

Who: There are a number of transatlantic discounters, including Meridiana Fly (formerly Eurofly), Air Berlin, Condor, Martinair and Thomas Cook Airlines.

Cities Served: Because several of the transatlantic discounters (particularly Martinair and Thomas Cook Airlines) have a mainly European clientele, they tend to fly into and out of only a few popular American vacation cities, such as Miami, Orlando and Las Vegas. Condor also flies to cities in Alaska and California.

Meanwhile, Meridiana Fly offers routes between New York's JFK Airport and Italy's Naples and Palermo. Air Berlin offers the greatest number of choices, flying from a wide range of U.S. gateways to a variety of European destinations (with an emphasis on German cities).

Cost: Despite the "discounter" moniker, we found fares on these airlines to be pretty similar to the economy-class offerings on traditional airlines -- close enough that it's worth checking both. For example, Air Berlin's $1,050 fare for a roundtrip Miami - Munich flight was quite a bit higher than the Delta flight we found for $783 on the same dates. (Both prices include taxes and fees.)

Pros:
  • The competitive pricing could save you money over economy-class fares on the major airlines.

  • If you're flying to a country where the discounter is based (such as Italy for Meridiana Fly or Air Berlin for Germany), you could find a nonstop flight that's more convenient than a similarly priced connecting itinerary on a major airline.

    Cons:
  • Many flights may be seasonal or may not depart every day of the week.

  • Many of the discounters do not offer frequent flier programs, and their baggage limitations may be a bit stingier than those of the traditional airlines.

  • The discounters do not serve as wide a variety of cities (in Europe or the U.S.) as the traditional airlines.

    All-Business/Premium Airlines
    This type of carrier offers extra space onboard, highly personalized service and other traditional business-class amenities -- but for less than the business-class service on most major airlines. There is currently only one all-business airline serving the transatlantic market, OpenSkies. (Several others have gone out of business in the last decade, and OpenSkies recently merged with another, L'Avion.)

    Who: OpenSkies, which began flying in June 2008.

    Cities Served: OpenSkies flies from New York's JFK Airport to Orly Airport in Paris. The airline is adding service from Washington D.C.'s Dulles Airport in May 2010.

    Cost: Fares on OpenSkies can be quite lofty, but in other cases they may not be that much higher than economy prices. For example, the airline recently offered a promotional fare of $740 each way between New York and Paris (not including taxes and fees).

    Pros:
  • openskies business bed business class flight man sleepOpenSkies provides business-class perks such as personalized service, extra space onboard and multi-course meals accompanied by fine wines.

  • OpenSkies offers a Business Bed cabin with fully lie-flat seats.

  • This type of airline is well worth checking if you're planning to travel over a major holiday, when high demand for leisure travel drives up economy-class prices. Since business travelers are less likely to fly during the holidays, you could find a great deal on a luxurious flight.

    Cons:
  • So far, OpenSkies serves only a very limited selection of cities (New York, Washington D.C., Paris). If you're traveling to or from somewhere else, you'll have to make your own arrangements to reach these airlines' gateway cities.

  • Schedules are limited as well, with two daily departures in each direction between New York and Paris, and only one daily departure from Washington D.C.

  • Luxury comes at a price. While there are occasionally deals to be found, in most cases fares on the premium airlines are significantly higher than the average economy-class ticket.

  • There is some concern about the financial health of these airlines. Three business-only airlines -- MAXjet, Eos and Silverjet -- went out of business in 2007 and 2008, and L'Avion was recently absorbed by OpenSkies. However, OpenSkies is backed by British Airways, which may offer more security than earlier business-only airlines had. If you're feeling unsure, you may wish to purchase travel insurance for your trip.

    Premium Economy Class
    If you can't afford business class but are tired of the cramped conditions in coach, here's your middle ground: a number of traditional airlines are letting passengers pay a little extra for a better experience in economy. Perks generally include expedited check-in and boarding, greater seat pitch and an extra in-cabin amenity or two (such as complimentary headphones). You won't get lie-flat seats or meals served on fine china, but a little extra legroom can make a big difference on a long flight.

    Who: Virgin Atlantic, United, Scandinavian Airlines, BMI, British Airways, Air France, Icelandair, KLM and Air New Zealand.

    Cities Served: Virgin Atlantic, BMI and Air New Zealand fly to the British Isles from a number of U.S. gateways, while the other airlines serve a wider range of European cities.

    Cost: Premium economy fares are significantly lower than first or business class fares on the same airline. However, a roundtrip premium economy fare will usually set you back double the cost of a basic roundtrip economy fare (or more).

    On an upcoming Virgin Atlantic flight from Newark to London (Heathrow), we found a premium economy fare of $1,473 roundtrip (with taxes and fees), as opposed to $645 for the same flight in regular economy class. Meanwhile, Scandinavian Airlines quoted us a fare of $1,653 for premium economy service between Newark and Stockholm, as compared to $828 in economy.

    United handles its premium economy class a bit differently than most other carriers. Its Economy Plus seats (which offer five more inches of seat pitch in the front of the coach cabin but seemingly no other real perks) are given out on a first-come, first-served basis to high-ranking frequent fliers and to travelers who pay the $425 fee for the Economy Plus annual option. If there are any seats left over before the plane departs, ordinary travelers may be able to upgrade to an Economy Plus seat for a one-time fees.

    Pros:
  • Premium economy is ideal for leisure travelers who want an option between economy and business class in terms of price, comfort and perks.

  • Because premium economy is offered by many major airlines, travelers have far more itinerary and schedule options than they do on an all-business airline or a transatlantic discounter.

    Cons:
  • While premium economy is cheaper than business class, it still runs about twice the price of a regular economy ticket and may be unaffordable for travelers on a budget.

  • The perks of premium economy class vary widely by airline, and may not amount to much beyond a slightly wider seat. Be sure to read up on what's included before ponying up the extra money.

  • Premium economy is mostly available on foreign carriers; the one U.S. airline that offers it (United) charges a lofty annual fee.

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    --written by Sarah Schlichter

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